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.