Moral ambiguity in a courtroom drama has never been as complete as it is in Otto Preminger's 1959 film, Anatomy of a Murder, which is being released this week on Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection. There's no question about the murder at the center of the film's story; it's quite clear from the outset that a sullen young Army lieutenant played by Ben Gazzara has indeed killed a local barman suspected of raping his wife (Lee Remick). The ambiguity primarily revolves around attorney Paul Biegler (James Stewart), the reasons he accepts the case, and his vigorous defense of the unlikeable Lt. Manion.
When Anatomy of a Murder was released in 1959, it caused an uproar and was one center of Preminger's many battles with censors. Rape is described in unmistakable terms. Words like "panties," "sperm," and "completion" (meaning orgasm) are used repeatedly. The fact that we hardly notice the use of such language now allows us to move past it and get to the real -- and dense -- substance of the movie, which is still very much worth talking about.
Why would respected lawyer and former District Attorney Paul Biegler accept a case like this? We know that he needs the money -- his private practice has floundered since he lost the last election, and he spends most of his time fishing, unable even to pay his long-suffering secretary Maida (Eve Arden). But Lt. Manion is no fount of wealth; he can pay Biegler only with a little cash and a promissory note.
Preminger (and screenwriter Wendell Mayes, working from the novel by Robert Traver) does not make Biegler's motivation explicit, although we can infer from what follows that Biegler intends to use the case as an exercise in testing the limits of a legal defense under the most difficult evidentiary circumstances. After all, there is no dispute as to the facts of the murder: motive, circumstances, and physical evidence all point directly at Manion.
Then there is the problem of Manion's wife, Laura, for whom the descriptor "promiscuous" would be a laughable understatement. While her husband is in jail, Laura throws herself at Biegler (more than once). On the witness stand, she all but admits that her sexual interaction with the murder victim was consensual.
Against this massive headwind, Biegler mounts a skillful defense. The bulk of the film takes place in the courtroom, and while the action lacks the overblown outbursts of other trial dramas, it makes up for those with the driving discomfort of moral ambiguity.
Biegler squares off against the district attorney (Brooks West) and Assistant State Attorney General Claude Dancer (George C. Scott). Scott steals every moment of the movie that he's in. He plays a committed government operator and a skilled trial lawyer who poses a genuine threat to Biegler's defense. His questioning of Laura Manion in particular threatens to guarantee a conviction by portraying her as a wanton slut -- which she is.
But Biegler methodically pokes holes in the prosecution's case, raises prudent objections, and collects seeds of doubt that he then plants carefully among the jury. Biegler's strategy is brilliant, but we are left asking ourselves, "How in the world this is morally defensible?" That is the genius of the film in a nutshell -- that we are swept along as the trial proceeds, generally rooting for the perfectly cast "good guy" Stewart, all while questioning our own sense of right and wrong and the efficacy of the law.
Anatomy of a Murder has a landmark score by Duke Ellington, a jazz masterpiece that's highly listenable on its own. The score and Saul Bass's iconic opening credits sequence each receive their own special video feature on Criterion's new Blu-ray, which presents outstanding image and sound quality. (There is a newly mixed 5.1 DTS soundtrack, too, which serves the score particularly well.)
But the film's real legacy is in portraying the American legal system as a living, breathing, fault-ridden beast that is at the mercy of skillful lawyers, complacent judges, and emotional juries. It's a subtly crafted indictment of our unquestioning trust in bureaucracy and institutions, and it's made all the more effective by its truly subversive restraint.