Classic Film Guide

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Produced and directed by Otto Preminger (Laura (1944)), with a screenplay by Wendell Mayes that was based on a novel by Robert Traver (aka John Voelker), this essential crime (courtroom) drama broaches what was a controversial topic and utilized what were taboo words to shock its audience of the day; it still manages to make quite an impact on today's viewers (including this reviewer) with its compelling story and taut trial with solid acting performances all around.

James Stewart plays a former prosecutor that would rather spend his time fishing since he'd lost the last election after 10 years in office. Now, as 'country' lawyer Paul Biegler, he chooses to represent a reluctant defendant, Army Lieutenant Frederick Manion, in a murder case. Manion, who admits his crime, had shot and killed a man that had raped his trailer trash wife Laura (Lee Remick); the man felt that Laura had 'asked for it' by dressing & dancing provocatively in his bar where she'd consumed alcohol (she'd said "no", but he felt her actions said "yes" etc.). George C. Scott plays a sharp city lawyer, and Assistant State Attorney General Claude Dancer, brought in by the man who beat Biegler in the last election (Brooks West), to prosecute the case. Eve Arden plays Biegler's wise-cracking (naturally) secretary Maida Rutledge and Arthur O'Connell plays an old lawyer that's both Biegler's mentor and his assistant for the defense, Parnell Emmett McCarthy, who's been known to knock back a few drinks himself, from time to time. Orson Bean plays an Army psychiatrist for the 'insanity' plea, Murray Hamilton plays an employee of the murdered man's club who'd prefer not to testify, John Qualen plays a Deputy Sheriff (first on the scene?), and Jimmy Conlin is among those who also appear. Joseph Welch plays the Judge and Duke Ellington, who wrote the film's music, appears uncredited as Pie Eye.

Stewart received a Best Actor Academy Award nomination, Scott and O'Connell were nominated in the Supporting Actor category. Mayes's screenplay helped him to earn his only Oscar nomination. The film was nominated for Best Picture by the Academy, as was its B&W Cinematography and Editing. Added to the National Film Registry in 2012.

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