Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Courtroom Drama  |   Release Date - Jul 1, 1959 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 161 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Like the court proceedings at its core, Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder moves at a deliberate pace, unwinding its 161 minutes in long, fluid takes. The subject matter (rape and the insanity defense) was controversial in the 1950s, as was Preminger's approach, which was bluntly direct. The film maintains a cool objectivity as it explores both the psychosexual issues of the central characters and the complex legal issues confronted by lawyer Paul Biegler and his client Lieutenant Manion. It raises prickly and complex questions about legal ethics, while challenging the audience to decide for itself the tricky issues of justice and truth. Sam Leavitt's black-and-white cinematography contrasts with the various shades of gray in the moral dilemmas of the characters. Justice appears to be an afterthought in this case in which procedure and self-interest, rather than a pursuit of the truth, control the process. There are no clear-cut good guys and bad guys, and the film's resolution has a willfully ironic edge. An excellent soundtrack by Duke Ellington and superior casting invigorate what could have become a series of methodical courtroom scenes. James Stewart brings a natural integrity to his flawed character, while George C. Scott's gravelly voice and rumpled energy enliven his cinematic debut. Standouts also include Lee Remick, playing somewhat against type as the flirtatious "victim," and Ben Gazzara, who eases effortlessly into his cynical role. In an ingenious piece of casting, noted Boston lawyer Joseph N. Welch, famed for his evisceration of Joseph McCarthy ("Have you no shame, senator?"), is cast as the judge. Nominated for eight Academy Awards (though winning none), Anatomy of a Murder was an envelope-pusher in its day, forcing open some of the tightly locked censorial shutters in prudish 1950s Hollywood.