The intricacies of a murder trial are not only muddied up by, often times, seemingly, contradicting testimonies and weighty evidence on both sides, but they are also, drastically, effected by the rules that govern the courtroom, these rules govern the conduct of the lawyers. Two men battle each other in a game of wits, logic, and sympathetic please to a panel of 12 individuals that are left to decide the fate of one person. 12 people are asked to either find the innocence of an individual that has been wrongfully accused, or to enforce justice and punish the guilty party. Rarely, in film anyway, is a murder trial an “open and close” case. The two aspects of human nature that drive the force behind court room drama are these 1) Self preservation and 2) Hunger for Justice. The genre has, in recent years, wielded so few noticeable offerings to the public and of those few, none have given as passionate and honest look into the genre as 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder.
The film has a fairly strait forward plot. Paul Biegler (James Stuart) plays a small time lawyer who was recently voted out of his seat as the local district attorney. His hobby is fishing, but his passion is law. He spends his evening reading books on law with his, almost constantly, inebriated, friend, Parnell McCarthy (played by Arthur O’connell). In part out of boredom and part as a way to pay the bills, Biegler decides to take on the defense of Lt. Manion, accused of murdering a man that allegedly raped his wife. The defense goes forward with the plea of temporary insanity, with the bulk of their defense reliant on proving that the rape actually took place.
James Stuart channels a younger version of himself in this movie, at times almost mirroring the passion he displayed in Mister Smith Goes To Washington. While we are, in most cases, more familiar with the court process today than the general public in the 1950s, this film showcases the rules of the court, causing frustration and outbursts on both sides of the case. We see how expert witnesses are used by both sides, we hear exactly why objections are made and why the judge chooses to sustain or overrule a particular one. The lawyers in this case are pulling at the chains of courtroom decorum in an effort to make the jury see what they see. Biegler is the small town lawyer with big values, and his adversary is the ever chilling and calm Assistant State Attorney General Claud Dancer (performed masterfully by George C Scott, in, if I’m to be honest, the only role I’ve ever seen him in where he doesn’t yell).The two are polar opposites, Paul Biegler causal one minute and hopping mad the next, Dancer professional, collected and intimidating.
The court room process plays as big a role as any other element in this movie. A point is made in hushed tones that, despite what the judge tells the jury to ignore, once something is said it cannot be disregarded. Biegler uses this to his advantage, often times giving passionate please that are stricken from the official record, but not from the minds of the jurors (or those of us watching the film). In the same way the prosecution manipulates witnesses to throw an unfavorable light onto their character in the minds of everyone observing the trial. The way the characters must tip toe around the rules ads to the drama. One slip up will cause their opponent to hurl an objection, and often times an insult for good measure. The defense even goes so far as to instruct the accused man’s wife on how to dress and act during the trial. Both sides realize that it’s not just facts that they have to offer up, but an argument capable of winning over not just the logic of 12 people, but the emotions as well.
For me the most intriguing part of this film was that there was no clear answer. We know for certain that Lt. Manion killed a man, but after that all bets are off. We see things as the defense sees things, essentially making us more juror than audience. Lt Manion and his wife (played by Ben Gazzara and Lee Remick, respectively) are not likeable characters, but how often is anyone involved in a murder trial a “likeable person”? Perhaps the defining quote of the movie, one that could have been the tag line comes from James Stuart’s character when he says “As a lawyer, I’ve had to learn that people aren’t just good or just bad. People are many things.”. This is entirely the case. There are segments of the film where, although I loved the character of Biegler, I was completely unconvinced of his clients “not guilty” plea. However, there were other segments when the anger and pain displayed by Manion caused me to side with him completely. The characters aren’t ones that you either love or you hate, as is the case in most films it seems, they are people with complexity, emotions, history and impulses. Each element of the courtroom drama builds on the other. The human nature, the laws regulating criminals, the rules of the court, the demeanor and attitudes of the audience, jurors, and attorneys all come together as a cohesive and fascinating whole that is The Anatomy of a Murder.