Anatomy of a Murder

1959

Anatomy of a Murder

Critics Consensus

One of cinema's greatest courtroom dramas, Anatomy of a Murder is tense, thought-provoking, and brilliantly acted, with great performances from James Stewart and George C. Scott.

100%

TOMATOMETER

Total Count: 45

91%

Audience Score

User Ratings: 12,321
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Movie Info

Based on the best-selling novel by Robert Traver (the pseudonym for Michigan Supreme Court justice John D. Voelker), Anatomy of a Murder stars James Stewart as seat-of-the-pants Michigan lawyer Paul Biegler. Through the intervention of his alcoholic mentor, Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell), Biegler accepts the case of one Lt. Manion (Ben Gazzara), an unlovable lout who has murdered a local bar owner. Manion admits that he committed the crime, citing as his motive the victim's rape of the alluring Mrs. Manion (Lee Remick). Faced with the formidable opposition of big-city prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C. Scott), Biegler hopes to win freedom for his client by using as his defense the argument of "irresistible impulse." Also featured in the cast is Eve Arden as Biegler's sardonic secretary, Katherine Grant as the woman who inherits the dead man's business, and Joseph N. Welch -- who in real life was the defense attorney in the Army-McCarthy hearings -- as the ever-patient judge. The progressive-jazz musical score is provided by Duke Ellington, who also appears in a brief scene. Producer/director Otto Preminger once more pushed the envelope in Anatomy of a Murder by utilizing technical terminology referring to sexual penetration, which up until 1959 was a cinematic no-no. Contrary to popular belief, Preminger was not merely being faithful to the novel; most of the banter about "panties" and "semen," not to mention the 11-hour courtroom revelation, was invented for the film. Anatomy of a Murder was filmed on location in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Cast

James Stewart
as Paul Biegler
Lee Remick
as Laura Manion
Ben Gazzara
as Lt. Frederick Manion
Arthur O'Connell
as Parnell McCarthy
Eve Arden
as Maida
Kathryn Grant
as Mary Pilant
Joseph Welch
as Judge Weaver
Joseph N. Welch
as Judge Weaver
Douglas Brooks West
as Mitch Lodwick
George C. Scott
as Claude Dancer
Murray Hamilton
as Alphonse Paquette
Orson Bean
as Dr. Smith
Alexander Campbell
as Dr. Harcourt
Joseph Kearns
as Mr. Burke
Russ Brown
as Mr. Lemon
Howard McNear
as Dr. Dompierre
Ned Wever
as Dr. Raschid
Jimmy Conlin
as Madigan
Ken Lynch
as Sgt. Durgo
Don Ross
as Duane Miller
Lloyd Le Vasseur
as Court Clerk
Royal Beal
as Sheriff Battisfore
James Waters
as Army Sergeant
Irving Kupcinet
as Distinguished Gentleman
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News & Interviews for Anatomy of a Murder

Critic Reviews for Anatomy of a Murder

All Critics (45) | Top Critics (7) | Fresh (45)

  • At 160 minutes, Anatomy is longer than the subject warrants, but the pace seldom slackens -- thanks to the competence of Director Otto Preminger.

    Apr 24, 2009 | Full Review…
    TIME Magazine
    Top Critic
  • To me Remick's damaged, dysfunctional presence is the really subversive thing about the picture. And Stewart's grandstanding attorney propels this long film to its final verdict.

    Oct 23, 2007 | Rating: 4/5 | Full Review…
  • Preminger purposely creates situations that flicker with uncertainty, that may be evaluated in different ways. Motives are mixed and dubious, and, therefore, sustain interest.

    Oct 23, 2007 | Full Review…

    Variety Staff

    Variety
    Top Critic
  • As an entertaining look at legal process, this is spellbinding all the way, infused by an ambiguity about human personality and motivation that is Preminger's trademark, and the location shooting is superb.

    Oct 23, 2007 | Full Review…
  • Coolly absorbing, nonchalantly cynical.

    Jun 24, 2006 | Full Review…
  • Time has blunted much of the film's daringly ironic take on notions of guilt and innocence. Yet it still stands as a telling commentary on 50s America.

    Apr 19, 2005 | Rating: 4/5 | Full Review…

    Jamie Russell

    BBC.com
    Top Critic

Audience Reviews for Anatomy of a Murder

  • Jul 28, 2018
    Warning, this review contains spoilers... Fantastic acting, excellent shots on location in Michigan, entertaining courtroom scenes, but a flawed script, and a little overrated. The premise is simple. A former prosecutor (Jimmy Stewart) is convinced to come out of retirement to defend a man (Ben Gazzara) accused of murder. There really isn't any doubt he's done it, since he's confessed. After some encouragement from Stewart, his plea is not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, that he simply 'lost it' after finding out that his wife (Lee Remick) was raped, and went out and killed the guy. Stewart turns in an outstanding performance, effortlessly combining intelligence and wit, and sparring with the prosecutor brought in from Lansing (George C. Scott). The scene where he questions his own client after a surprise piece of evidence is introduced by another inmate, real doubt in his eyes, is wonderful. Scott is also brilliant, sharp and reptilian, quickly surpassing the local prosecutor. The scene where he deliberately moves back and forth to obscure Stewart's view of a witness is great, and well shot by director Otto Preminger. Joseph N. Welch as the judge is also strong and such a natural, in one scene appearing in the background with this arm wrapped around his head so that his hand rests on his opposite cheek as he listens intently. It was also nice to hear jazz from Duke Ellington, and in one scene to see him playing briefly with Jimmy Stewart, though I'm not sure the music always fits. The trouble is, even if this is based on a real case, legally and morally, it's a mess. I certainly didn't want Stewart as protagonist in the role of the defense attorney, where it feels he's in the wrong, starting with him nudging the guy to claim he was temporarily insane. It's apparent that the only real question is whether that was true, and yet, most of the trial revolves around whether his wife was actually raped, and worse yet, what her possible culpability was in that. Was she wearing clothing that was too suggestive, was she promiscuous, etc. Even if you can get past the misogyny of attacking a rape victim, which is a disturbing reality, it's absurd to me that it became so central to the trial, Stewart's 'apple core' argument notwithstanding. Also, her missing panties get far too much attention throughout the movie, including the dramatic find at the end, when they're irrelevant. In tone, there are several aspects that didn't ring true. Remick's playfulness and flirtation with Stewart a short while after being brutally beaten and raped, and with her husband charged with murder. The victim's daughter (played unconvincingly by a constantly wide-eyed Kathryn Grant) remotely considering helping the defense. The level of levity in the courtroom for a trial involving rape and murder. In one absurd sidebar, the judge and attorneys sidebar to discuss what panties should be referred to as. With a very serious look on his face, Scott says "When I was overseas during the war, Your Honor, I learned a French word. I'm afraid that might be slightly suggestive", to which the Welch replies "Most French words are". The courtroom then cracks up when he announces that the garment in question will be referred to as panties. More than once, one attorney or another is surprised by a witness being produced, without having had a chance to independently interview them. More than once, an attorney will ask a question that he clearly doesn't know the answer to, one that he has no business asking. Most likely, Preminger amplified all of these theatrics - the jokes, the obsession with Remick and her panties, the banter between attorneys, the little doggie inexplicably being brought into the trial so he can jump up into Stewart's arms - all for entertainment value. The central theme of what justice should be doesn't get explored enough. Perhaps that's Preminger's point, that in the circus of a trial with sharp minds on both sides, circling each other like sharks, the system of justice is fallible. If it was though, the ending doesn't bear that out. During the 160 minute run time, I kept hoping for a plot twist that never came. That the guy doesn't just skip out on his bill at the end, he kills his wife in a rage, and calmly deadpans that he did that one too because of an "irresistible impulse". That the wife reveals she was never raped that night, and manipulated her husband into killing. That either the fellow bartender or the victim's daughter were somehow involved in a setup, for the money. Nope. As it is, Stewart's a hero, and if anyone has any qualms about it, they try to pin a happy face on the whole thing by saying his next case is going to be helping the victim's daughter with her estate. Oh, wow, well that makes it all right then, and let's all leave the theater happy. The film is still worth seeing for the performances - Stewart at 51 is still quite an actor, and endearing as well - but prepare to be conflicted, and a little irritated.
    Antonius B Super Reviewer
  • Aug 21, 2014
    With a fantastic cinematography and superb direction, this superlative courtroom procedural unfolds in an unhurried fashion, daring to make outspoken use of sexual terminology (something unthinkable at the time it was made) and presenting a brilliantly complex script centered on a fiery, breathtaking rhetorical combat of the highest quality.
    Carlos M Super Reviewer
  • Mar 31, 2014
    Though this adaptation of a best-selling novel may not seem like it now, it was quite a groundbreaking big deal when it came out. The story, a stirring courtroom drama, follows an alcoholic, fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants small town lawyer (Jimmy Stewart going against type), defending a man who openly admits to murdering someone, but only because said individual raped his wife, who, admittedly, is kinda a floozy. Stewart's character understandably has a lot going against him, and that's not including the fact that the prosecution is made up of some slick, hard-cased big city guys led by George C. Scott. Like I said, this was a big deal at the time, mostly due to the subject matter, and how director Otto Preminger dealt with it. He did a great job of dealing with stuff that, until then, hadn't really been covered in cinema. Yeah, like I said, some of the impact has diminished, but that doesn't take away from the fact that it's still a powerful and engaging piece of work. The opening titles by Saul Bass are the stuff of legend, the score by Duke Ellington is a jazz classic, and the performances, as one may expect, are quite good. I mean, there's Stewart, Scott, and Lee Remick as the floozy wife, all of whom are quite great. Oh yeah, and Ben Gazzara as the man on trial. This one kinda set the standard for a lot of courtroom dramas to come, and it is quite realistic, accurate, and does a fine job of trying to show things in a pretty down to Earth way. So yeah, I dig the film a lot, but I'll admit that the running time could be cut down a bit, and some of the pacing trimmed as well. It's quite engaging, but once in a while it gets slightly boring, but not enough to really derail things. While I don't feel like a lot of people do, I still think this is a fine film worth seeing, even if I don't regard it as a masterpiece like a lot of others do.
    Chris W Super Reviewer
  • Apr 14, 2013
    160 minutes, this film better actually give me a detailed study on the process of murder on a cellular level that dissects the mentality of a killer. ... Oh yes, because that would be infinitely less boring than a little bit of filler around the edges of a juicy drama. If this film doesn't tell us that you can pull off really long legal dramas, then it's Oliver Stone's "JFK"... as well as "A Few Good Men", F.F. Coppola's "The Rainmaker", "The Firm", "Amistad", "A Time to Kill", "Judgment at Nuremberg", Nikita Mikhalkov's "12" and "...And Justice for All", which feels like it runs somewhere between 130 minutes and two-and-a-half hours. Jeez, people, I know you're able to find plenty of material outside of the courtroom to sustain a hefty length, but for goodness' sake, at least make an attempt at tightening things up. Hey, maybe this film has earned the right to be overlong, not just because Otto Preminger was nothing if not a man who knew a thing or two about making really long films (Dude, why did it take Paul Newman three-and-a-half hours to get around to occupying a boat, then going on a small-scale military mission in "Exodus"?), but because it's audacious enough as an extensive discussion on rape and murder in 1959, which is why it's a masterpiece... I guess. Yes, critics, I know that this film was edgy when it first came out, but forget nostalgia, I just want this film to be good on a general standard. Well, in that case, it's a good thing that this film is, in fact, quite good, though this effort would be even better if it wasn't guilty of making some mistakes. This talkative thriller has plenty of time to flesh out the depths of its substance, and certainly does do a generally decent job of breathing life into development in certain spots, though not as many as there probably should be, thus making for an exposition-driven drama that doesn't wholly fulfill its expository potential, and leaves enough holes in substance to feel kind of undercooked to the point of slowing down momentum, though not as much as the atmosphere's, well, actual slow spots, of which there are more than I expected. The film is adequately entertaining, but when things slow donw, as they very often do, while dullness never ensues, momentum limps out pretty considerably, and atmosphere dries up just as considerably, blanding things up to a disengaging point that very rarely, if ever leaves the film to dip its toes in underwhelming waters, but decidedly throw things off. Films this talkative need to be careful if they're going to slow down and dry up, and luckily, this film doesn't limp out so often that it falls flat as consistently bland, but there are bland spells, and they retard kick, or at least assist padding in retarding kick. With all of my talk about how this film, at a whopping 160 minutes, is too long, this somewhat minimalist story's execution's relatively sprawling runtime is not simply highly unexpected, but highly unnecessary, being partially achieved through material that outstays its welcome, often going so far as not simply bloat, but tread circles. This film's formula is too tight for the final product to be as lengthy at it is, rarely doing anything outside of building information outside of the courtoom, then dissecting the information found earlier within the coutrtoom, and such a formula, while backed by enough juice to compel through and through, can be drawn out for only so long before it begins to slip into repetition, and sure enough, it doesn't take long for the dynamicity of this over two-and-a-half-hour dialogue drama to grow thin. Whether it be because repetition isn't as severe as it could have been, or simply because compensation for shortcomings is reasonably strong, this film keeps you going as genuinely gripping, but there are nonetheless moments in which grip loosens, occasionally thanks to lulls in exposition, and mostly thanks to bland bloating that could have driven this promising effort into underwhelmingness. Needless to say, underwhelmingness does not claim this film, which is flawed, most certainly, but boasts even more strengths, even within the underexplored musical aspects, which, in all honesty, aren't entirely cleansed of their own issues. Arguably lengedary musician Duke Ellington composes a score for this film that is not used too often, and often has its share of issues when it does, in fact, finally show up, having a lively jazziness that is hardly all that dynamic, and doesn't always gel with this film's conceptually heavy subject matter, but more often than not, Ellington's efforts, when heard, throw in a worthy color to this film that reinforces entertainment value and, to a certain degree, artistic integrity. Even more explored and fitting artistic touches include, of course, Sam Leavitt's cinematography, which, in all honesty, isn't too terribly striking, even for the time, but was still impressive for its time, and has sustained impressiveness throughout the ages, playing with black-and-white limitations of the '50s through clever lighting that graces visuals with a kind of bleak depth that compliments the intrigue of this subject matter, and sometimes proves to be fairly handsome by its own right. Both the musical touches and photographic efforts behind this film play an adequate role in livening up the telling of this tale, though not too large of a role, as the film's more stylish aspects feel a bit underexplored, both in terms of quantity and in terms in richness, thus substance must sustain itself primarily by its own hand, which, of course, makes it a good thing that this film's substance is so valuable. It's not like this film's subject matter is all that unique in concept, and it's not like the ultimate telling of this story is all that smooth, having undercooked spots and relatively limp spells, though not so many that you don't still get a pretty firm grip on the intrigue of this story, because we are dealing with fairly promising material that some filmmakers of the '50s probably could have brought to life more, but wouldn't be done as much justice by most '50s filmmakers as it is in this film, largely thanks to Wendell Mayes' script. Sure, the censors had to draw lines somewhere, so we're not really looking at a legal thriller that is as unapologetically mature in its dialogue as something along the lines of "JFK", but when they say that this film, for 1959, got to be pretty edgy with its references during the courtroom sequences, they weren't kidding, as there is some down and dirty talk in the discussions pertaining crimes as brutal as rape and subsequent vengeful murder that are not too shocking in this day and age, but were daringly made at the time so that this film could break down barriers and further flesh out its story's depths, and such flesh-out, unlike shock value, can never be taken away from the final product, whose audacious and extensive exploration of its depths as a legal thriller is still not too terribly profound, but just insightful enough to create some well-rounded thrills in the dialogue department, thus putting some degree of reinforcement behind unevenly distributed exposition, which is further complimented by believable characterization that is itself complimented by pretty strong portrayals behind most every major note to this film's character roster. Whether it be the subtly soulful George C. Scott, or the lovely Lee Remick, or the charismatic James Stewart, most everyone has his or her opportunity to command your attention and breathe some life into this film's depths, though not as much as a certain offscreen performance, because without the inspiration of Otto Preminger, the final product would have collapsed as underwhelming. Preminger's efforts aren't too outstanding, but when his storytelling hits, it grips, sometimes with dramatic intrigue, sometimes with a bit of tension, and consistently with a soul that may not be able to obscure this film's flaws or predictable spots, but manages to grip you, for although there is no getting around this film's behind flawed, Preminger, backed by worthy writing, acting and other touches, drives this courtroom drama as genuinely rewarding. When the case is closed, the film is left wounded by some underdeveloped spots, and takes some serious damage from slow spots that intensify the sting excessive padding, which eventually inspires the repetition that could have driven the final product into underwhelmingness, but doesn't, as there is enough fair liveliness to score work and cinematography, audacity to writing, compellingness to writing and inspiration to direction to subtly, but surely sustain intrigue through and through, and make "Anatomy of a Murder" an intriguing legal drama that could have slipped from bonafide goodness, but makes up for its mistakes enough to reward as compelling, maybe even reasonably worthwhile. 3/5 - Good
    Cameron J Super Reviewer

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