Lee Remick, Arthur O’Connell, (the always wonderful) Eve Arden, Jimmy Stewart, Ben Gazzara
The standard contract length between a filmmaker and an audience is 90 minutes. The audience gives the filmmaker an hour and a half to tell his story. They can—and should—take their protagonist on a journey, reach the climax, and come out changed in less time than it takes to watch two one-hour television shows.
Television is for stories that go on and on. Films should be crisp.
When a filmmaker asks for more than 90 minutes of the audiences’ time, he must deliver an extraordinary product. Every one of those extra minutes should be necessary to the story he’s trying to tell.
Director Otto Preminger is asking a lot from his audience in Anatomy of a Murder, a 2 hour and 40 minute courtroom drama.
Preminger spins gold out of every one of those minutes.
Nearly three hours long and there’s nary a minute of fat to cut.
Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker wrote the source novel under the pen name Robert Traver and based it on an actual case in Big Bay, Michigan in 1952.
Anatomy of a Murder tells the story of one very tricky case taken on by small town lawyer Paul Biegler (Jimmy Stewart).
After losing his re-election campaign for attorney general, Biegler licks his wounds by fishing and drinking with his disgraced alcoholic fellow lawyer Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell).
He’s pulled out of his malaise when Laura Manion (Lee Remick) asks him to represent her husband in a murder case.
Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) doesn’t deny that he murdered Barney Quill in cold blood, but asserts that he did it because Quill raped his wife.
The exact nature of the relationship between the married Manions is one of the film’s most intriguing mysteries. Laura Manion dresses provocatively and doesn’t act like a traumatized rape victim. One finds it very easy to believe that she might not need much coercing to sleep with a man who wasn’t her husband.
Yet much of her story rings true to Biegler.
Fred Manion has a sinister and calculated edge that makes it hard to believe he was overtaken by “irresistible impulses” as Biegler ultimately argues to the jury.
It’s clear as the story goes on that Fred Manion has been physically violent with his wife, is prone to jealous rages, and also might not be convinced that his wife was raped.
And yet there is the matter of Laura Manion’s missing panties, a detail that shocks the jury in the film, the audience in 1959, and the audience in 2023.
And even if Quill did rape Laura Manion, does that give Fred Manion the right to shoot him point blank an hour after the incident (an incident he did not witness)?
Jimmy Stewart’s Biegler is a masterful piece of acting, with long courtroom scenes. Biegler alternately amuses the jury and gets them to think.
His first hurdle is to get the rape included in the trial, as the prosecution has moved that it is not relevant to the murder.
The second is to convince the jury that Manion was temporarily insane and not responsible for his actions in that moment.
The film was wildly controversial in its time—and temporarily banned in Chicago.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood movies were governed by a strict production code that regulated what could and could not be shown on screen. A courtroom trial about a rape would never have been able to proceed—no matter how veiled the references—during this period.
But in 1952 the Supreme Court declared the code unconstitutional and ruled that movies had the protection of the first amendment.
This opened the door to many controversial topics, and gave Otto Preminger the permission he needed to make Anatomy of a Murder.
Films that are shocking in their day often seem quaint by modern standards, but time has not dulled the edge of Anatomy of a Murder.
If made today, of course, the film would’ve probably shown some violence—if not the rape (because whether or not it happened is a central mystery of the film) at least the murder. But the film holds its fascination because it’s about the court case that follows.
It’s about legal maneuvering and the right to a defense.
It’s also about the inability of the law to solve our trickiest dilemmas.
Anatomy of a Murder was hugely successful at the box office, and was one of the top 10 highest grossing films of the year. (Nothing like a good banning to goose sales.)
Jimmy Stewart garnered his fifth and final Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his role. Though he lost the award to Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur, he did win the New York Film Critics Award and Venice Film Festival Award for Best Actor.
More than any other film, I wish he would’ve won a second Oscar for this one.
Lee Remick’s performance as the cagey and sexy wife was also critical to the film’s success. The role was originally played by Lana Turner, whom Otto Preminger fired after filming began because he decided that at 39 she was too old to play the sexy young wife (she was.)
Though he continued to make films throughout the 1960s and 1970s, we’ll end our series on Jimmy Stewart here.
Jimmy Stewart had an incredible Hollywood career—he entertained for over 50 years, playing roles that are impossible to imagine anyone else in. From his gangly manners to his step-stutter voice, he was truly an original in Hollywood.
But even more than a Hollywood star, he was a war hero, a husband and father, and an all-around nice guy who treated everyone above and below him with dignity and respect.
Now that’s a legacy.
- Eliot, Marc. Jimmy Stewart: A Biography. 2006.