James Stewart is superb as a country lawyer who takes the defense on a tricky murder case in Anatomy of a Murder (1959), a mesmerizing legal thriller that revels in the ambiguities of justice.
Ben Gazzara is the defendant, a hot-headed army officer arrested for killing the man who raped his young wife (Lee Remick), or so Paul Biegler (Stewart) must prove in court. And he’s got quite a battle to prove it. His client is a bully, the wife is a flirt, and they have a history of drinking, fighting, and making up.
Arthur O’Connell and Eve Arden costar as part of Stewart’s legal team and (at the time) rising star George C. Scott takes a small but central role as a big-city attorney who steps in to take over the state’s case late in the trial. He practically steals the film with his brilliant performance.
Otto Preminger directs with a sharp clarity, remaining just slightly removed from the drama, the better to watch all sides and take stock of the characters, the conflicts, and the courtroom tactics. And the film, adapted from the best-selling novel by Robert Traver, crackles as Stewart and Scott spar with witnesses and one another: the cagey country lawyer hiding his endgame behind a folksy manner versus the smart, sarcastic, thoroughly urban legal eagle who makes a show of his intelligence and showmanship.
Duke Ellington provides the swinging score (and makes a cameo playing piano with Stewart) and the judge is played by real-life attorney Joseph N. Welch, who defended the Army in the Army-McCarthy hearings and uttered the infamous words to Joseph McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
The 1959 film features what was for the time frank discussion of sex and sexuality but is tame compared the standards of modern television.
It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture and acting nominations for Stewart, O’Connell, and Scott, and Stewart won awards from the Venice Film Festival and New York Film Critics Circle. It was added to the National Film Registry in 2012.
Not rated, black and white
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Anatomy of a Murder (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Anatomy of a Murder (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]
Anatomy of a Murder [DVD]
On DVD and Blu-ray. The Criterion Collection releases feature interviews with Otto Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch and music critic Gary Giddins, a featurette on graphic designer Saul Bass and his long collaborative relationship with Preminger, excerpts from a 1967 episode of “Firing Line” featuring Preminger, newsreel footage from the set, and excerpts from a work-in-progress documentary on the making of the film, plus stills, a trailer and booklet with an essay and an archival article.