The stylish 1959 film “Anatomy of a Murder” ambles along for 2 hours and 40 minutes, with most of its content taken up with interviews of witnesses and long courtroom scenes. Considered a classic among courtroom dramas, the film stars James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, George C. Scott, Arthur O’Connell and Eve Arden.
Stewart plays a lawyer named Paul who is hired to defend Gazzara (as Army Lieutenant Frederick Manion) after he kills a man for raping his wife. Remick, in an outstanding performance, plays the wife (Laura Manion). Her determination to be herself puts her at odds with Stewart, who wants her to tone down her appeal with conservative clothes and horn-rimmed glasses.
The story for Anatomy of a Murder takes place in the upper peninsula of Michigan, in a fishing village called Iron City. Paul agrees to take the case despite his misgivings about the defendant. The unapologetic Lt. Manion refuses to cooperate other than admitting to the crime. Paul decides to base Manion’s defense on temporary insanity, a motive that amuses the district attorney and his smug colleague, State Attorney General Claude Dancer (Scott), on loan from the state capital to try the case.
The director of the film, Otto Preminger, treats us to the presence of the great Duke Ellington, who provides the background music and performs a tune with Stewart at a local club called Pie Eye. Remick would have made an unbelievably sexy film noir dame, but this film, despite the sordid subject matter and hip music, does not fall into the film noir genre. Preminger focusses on the local scene and taut character examinations of Paul, Laura, Lt. Manion and Paul’s friend Parnell (O’Connell), an old-time lawyer colleague who drinks too much.
The film doesn’t make too much of the fact that Paul, a former prosecutor who resigned, may lack the recent experience to properly defend Lt. Manion. Even though we first see him in “retirement” mode as he returns from a fishing trip and washes his catch in the sink, we instantly get his credibility. We’ve been conditioned by years of TV shows such as “Columbo” and “Matlock” to take these older guys seriously.
Even though I enjoyed Remick and Scott’s performances, I am less taken with the Eve Arden and Arthur O’Connell characters. Arden, who plays Paul’s secretary, adds her usual wisecracks, but I think Paul would be very attracted to her in real life. In Anatomy of a Murder, he treats her like another man. A lawyer like Paul needs a guy like Parnell (O’Connell) on his side, so I was pretty sure halfway through that Parnell would give up the bottle and do another case with Paul.