Anatomy of a Murder is a courtroom drama staring James Stewart as lawyer Paul Biegler. He’s defending Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) who killed a local bar tender who raped his wife. They decide to use a plea innocent with a reasoning of temporary insanity. When court opens, Biegler is up against two lawyers, including a celebrity prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C. Scott), and like a very boisterous chess game, they must outmaneuver each other in this courtroom battle.
With the striking visual credits, James Stewart and the ideas that come to mind with a word like Murder I was expecting something in a more Hitchcock fashion. Though, it’s not likely you’ll be bored by this legal battle. Stewart and Scott keep everything lively, fresh and loud. They shout “Objection!” until it’s just second nature. Watching the two lawyers saunter around each other is fun and a surprise comes up from time to time. It’s not very suspenseful, but there’s no cut and dry winner until the very end.
Now, I have to bring up a brief bit of film history. It’s only by Hitchcock’s passive-aggressive plan to keep Stewart out of his 1959 film, North by Northwest, that Stewart was even in Anatomy of a Murder. You see, Stewart had starred in four of Hitchcock’s films since 1948, Rope, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much and in 1958, Vertigo. Naturally, Stewart seemed to assume that Hitchcock wanted him to play the lead in North by Northwest, and was getting very excited about the role. But, Hitchcock thought that Vertigo had done so poorly because Stewart was starting to look too old, and wanted Cary Grant as his next star. Realizing the misunderstanding, Hitchcock delayed production until Stewart was committed to the role in Anatomy of a Murder and had to turn down Hitchcock.
James Stewart was one of the great actors in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Now, I have not seen his Oscar winning performance in The Philadelphia Story yet, but as far as I’ve seen, Stewart plays Stewart in different roles. By that, I mean he can act and well, he holds our attention and commands the screen like and expert, but he is the same character in every movie. Stewart as a small time lawyer acts and talks the same as Stewart as a banged up photographer and as a man searching for his son. That’s why he’s so popular, to this day. You always know it’s him.
I believe Anatomy of a Murder was nominated because of its compelling story and fast paced courtroom scenes. Some people will imagine courtroom scenes to be boring, with lawyers that drone and a jury that can’t keep their eyes open. This is the opposite. Both lawyers fire off like loose cannons every few minutes. Their interrogations are very telling and can range from emotional to laugh out loud comical.
Watch Anatomy of a Murder if you are a James Stewart fan or just enjoy courtroom battles.
Also, if you’re a fan of George C. Scott, go back to my previous post. I apologize, I just got too wrapped up on other parts of the film to mention that he plays a great part in The Hustler as well.