Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

“Why wouldn’t I be legally justified in killing the man who raped my wife?”

With the help of his tippling friend (Arthur O’Connell) and loyal secretary (Eve Arden), a small-town lawyer (Jimmy Stewart) agrees to defend an army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) accused of murdering the barkeeper who raped his wife (Lee Remick). Will Gazzara’s plea of temporary insanity set him free, or will the prosecuting attornies (Brooks West and George C. Scott) successfully convict him in front of the no-nonsense judge (Joseph Welch) presiding over the courtroom?


Lee Remick’s sexy, sultry performance is the central, most memorable draw of this surprisingly non-violent tale of murderous vengeance, directed by Otto Preminger and based on Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker’s novel. DVD Savant refers to it as “still the best courtroom drama ever, and perhaps director Otto Preminger’s finest movie overall”, while in the book 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, reviewer Kim Newman similarly asserts that this once-controversial film — daring to use terms like “panties” and “spermatogenesis” — remains “a trenchant, bitter, tough, witty dissection of the American legal system”, and is “the best trial movie ever made”. While I’m not in agreement with this sentiment, the film certainly does present the trial process in an exacting and seemingly realistic fashion, thanks in no small part to the presence of non-actor Welch, famous for putting Senator Joseph McCarthy appropriately to shame. From the striking opening titles by Saul Bass to Sam Leavitt’s atmospheric cinematography and strong performances across the board, Anatomy of a Murder is both a visual and an acting delight — though I’ll profess to finding it overly long, overly talky, and ultimately not as engaging or satisfying as one would hope given its credentials. With that said, it’s certainly worth viewing at least once by all film fanatics, and possibly many more — as DVD Savant writes, it “never fails to reveal more complexities, no matter how many times one sees it”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Saul Bass’s opening and closing credits
  • Jimmy Stewart as Paul Biegler
  • George C. Scott as Claude Dancer
  • Lee Remick as Laura Manion (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Ben Gazzara as Lt. Manion
  • Joseph N. Welch as Judge Weaver
  • Sam Leavitt’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.


(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


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