Sunday, 9 October 2016

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Et mords analyse
I am not a big fan of courtroom movies.

It is not for lack of drama or poor performances, but the dirty feeling I get when I see right and wrong, truth or falsehood being settled by a fencing match between smart-talking lawyers. To my mind the idea of a court is as a place where the truth is revealed and judgement is sentenced. Okay, maybe I am naïve, but when I see how relative truth and justice is I always get depressed.

“Anatomy of a Murder” is both a well-made and engaging drama and an exposé of that very relativism. On the one hand we have what a appears to be the good guys fighting an uphill battle against a fancy lawyer and a very serious charge of murder and on the other a nagging feeling that we are rooting for the wrong people and that Preminger, in his usual subverting style, want us to see the weakness of the system.

James Stewart as Paul Biegler is a small town lawyer in his usual calm, common sense style. He is the one we have to root for. Paul lost his position as district attorney to a smart-ass lawyer and is scraping along with an underpaid secretary and an alcoholic friend. Then comes the case that might bring Biegler back in business. He is approached by Laura Manion (Lee Remick) whose husband Lt. Frederick Manion is charged with murder and although this seems like an almost impossible case Paul Biegler manages to get it turned around.

Here is the problem: Lt. Manion is guilty as hell. He did kill the barkeeper Barney Quill. Several witnesses saw it and he even turned himself in. However the defense manages to emphasize the reason for the murder, that Laura was raped by Barney and that that made Manion so upset that he went to kill him. Somehow by proving that Laura was raped by Barney the murder is okay and Lt. Manion is cleared… uh, what???

I do not seem to recall any legal system where it is permissible to grab a gun and shoot somebody because you are royally pissed. That is what police is for and that kind of vigilance is usually looked upon as more serious than the crime itself.

Also as we learn more and more about Laura and Frederick Manion the more unlikable and suspect they become. Laura had something very unpleasant coming, calling her a slut is not far off and I actually like adventurous and daring women, but Laura is cheap and stupid and run for easy and fast gratification. Lt. Manion is an aggressive brute and extremely jealous. The way he looks at people is friggin’ scary. I feel almost sorry for Barney Quill. Had it not been him it would have been somebody else, he just happen to be the one getting clinched.

If anybody ever deserved their punishment it would be these two, yet because they got such a likable and shrewd lawyer as Paul Biegler they end up walking away from outright murder. And we as audience is on their side, especially since the prosecutor is an arrogant asshole by the name Claude Dancer (George C. Scott).

This may be the story of David vs. Goliath and hoorah for the underdog, but I see it as a story about manipulation of the legal system leading the court to make the wrong decision and we are supposed to condone it.

If I just take a minute to calm down from this frenzy I have worked myself into I will easily admit that it is a very nicely composed movie with excellent acting all round. The rather long running time actually fly by, a typical Preminger trait. Yet the winner here and the reason I cannot dislike this movie is an absolutely brilliant soundtrack by Duke Ellington. Man, this may be my favorite soundtrack from the birth of sound movies until 1959. The music fits and carry the movie, lending it a groove and the mood. It is exactly the kind of music I like and at times I would just dip into the music and not care so much about what was going on in the movie.

“Anatomy of a Murder” is a good movie, maybe even an excellent movie, but it is also a movie that makes me angry and reinforce my antagonism for courtrooms and smart lawyers, even likable ones played by James Stewart.


  1. Completely agree about the soundtrack, it is wonderful. I was rather amazed at how daring this film was for 1959, discussing things like rape and domestic violence as it did.

    I really liked the murkiness and cynicism of the story's world, how we were denied a clear 'good-guy' to guide us. But I can see how frustrating it could be, and would absolutely hate to have this happen in reality.

    1. Yes, we tend to forget how you could not talk about these things in movies back then. If the movie had not said 1959 I would not even have noticed, but in those time it would have had a considerable effect.
      I am seriously considering buying that soundtrack...

  2. The discussion of panties was absolutely scandalous in 1959! I love this movie. I think it is intended to make people angry. Lee Remick is just wonderful as Laura. I think she is the real culprit. She came on to Barney knowing that her husband was violently jealous.

    1. I have no doubt in my mind that Laura orchestrated this. The way she plays her charms makes it kind of obvious that she intentionally or unintentionally caused the murder.
      I also agree that it is a very good and well made movie and incredibly subversive. Only thing is that it makes me depressed to see the legal system work this way.