Few years back when I was working on my Masters, I had a student job where we use to help at the library front desk in our free time. One day a girl came to return the DVD of On the Waterfront(1954) there. Those were the years that I grew the most as a cinefile however I had never heard of that film before then. DVD case of the film introduced it as ‘a winner of 8 Oscars’. The more I found out about the film, stupider I felt for not knowing about it earlier. Even more than three years and about thousand films later, some films still make me feel just as stupid as On the Waterfront did on that day for not having seen them yet. Director Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder(1959) is one such film or was one such film until very recently.
Paul Biegler, small town lawyer from Michigan, served 10 years as a District Attorney. However after failing to get re-elected in the latest election, he kind of loses his drive, his passion to practice law again. He feels like people have told him that he is not good enough or trustworthy enough to get back into the game. Now he spends most of his time either fishing or drinking with his alcoholic friend Parnell McCarthy. One fine day Laura Manion, who introduces herself as wife of US Army Lieutenant Frederick Manion, contacts Biegler to fight a case for her husband. Frederick Manion has been arrested on the charge of first-degree murder of an innkeeper, Barney Quill. Laura admits that her husband has indeed killed Quill but he only did so because Quill put a hand on her and raped her. Initially he doesn't show much interest, partly due to lack of his courtroom appetite and partly because a skilled lawyer in Biegler realizes that despite strong reason for Lieutenant’s action, it won’t be easy to win an argument in court on this alone. However at the behest of his friend McCarthy, he agree to meet Lieutenant and then make his decision whether to take the case or not. After talking to Lieutenant a couple of times, he gets his hands on something that just might convince the jury to set his client free – to claim Lieutenant Manion was temporarily insane and Biegler once again sets his foot inside of a courtroom.
I am always impressed by righteousness of James Stewart characters. Try and think of some of his most known performances. Let it be It’s a Wonderful Life(1946), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington(1939), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance(1960) or even The Philadelphia Story(1940), his moral compass always points to the right direction. He plays a similar character once again with admirable actions and pure motives like offering his beaten down, on-the-booze friend Mr McCarthy to help him in the case. Though he does prove himself valuable in the end by getting his hands on an evidence that kind of turns the tide in their favour, I don’t think Biegler really needed him to start with but he still offers; hoping this might help his friend to get back to some kind of normalcy. However that is not the only thing about Biegler that deserves a mention.
Paul Biegler is a skilled lawyer. He knows that sometimes it takes more than just strong legal arguments in the courtroom to win the case. The way he butters up Judge Weaver with a frog trap, smartly hidden in the book with the precedence proves that (I was curious about the sub-plot of temporary judge being from the outside area. Though both Judge and film makes occasional japes about this fact, I never got if it had any relevance to the case). Biegler also reminded me of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in a way that he is immune to the charm of femme fatales like Laure Manion, though he is never coarse with them as his jovial and affectionate relation with his assistant would imply. Combination of all this makes for a very simple and earnest but at the same time, an interesting character.
Lee Remick’s Laura Manion is another curious specimen. Considering she has gone through something like this recently, you would think she’d be still in her cocoon. It might be difficult to reach through to her. In this case, however, you could not be more wrong. She is frank; she is calm, speaks rather matter-of-factly and goes about her usual business, flirting with other army officers. That is until her lawyer snaps at her for endangering her husband’s chances and orders her to be a ‘meek little housewife’. Ben Gazzara as Lieutenant Frederick Manion and George C. Scott, in one of his very first roles as the opposing lawyer from the big city, are two more characters worth mentioning. Freddie Manion, of course Gazzara is brilliant but, what made him more interesting for me was I was never sure if the temporary insanity plea was a Biegler's legal tactic to get off easy or a genuine condition that he goes through up until the very end. The fact that they were able to sell it, to get me swinging either ways multiple times, should be a testimony to their acting, directing and also writing by Wendell Mayes based on a novel by Robert Traver. Almost everyone mentioned so far ended up being nominated for Oscars.
For a film that spends more than half of its time on proceedings of the case inside of a courtroom, getting viewers invested into the case is of paramount importance. In this case, this courtroom drama is very well orchestrated. The trial takes us through many twists that sometimes work in favour of Manion, sometimes against. While Prosecution tries to concentrate on Manion’s jealous nature, his history of domestic violence and his wife’s flirty behaviour with other men as a reason of confrontation between the two men that resulted in Quill’s murder, they try to bypass the occurrence of rape completely to save themselves from a potentially embarrassing situation. Biegler, on the other hand, aims straight at it. I was also really impressed by the maturity with which screenplay handles the whole rape situation and more importantly, Laura’s lost panties from that night that turn out to be quite an important piece of evidence in making or breaking this case for either of the sides.
Not only we get the constant punches thrown at each other by both prosecution and defendant lawyers, it handles the pauses and twists of the trial brilliantly. Take, for example, a moment when Stewart’s character asks to look at the murder as a consequence of rape that preceded it. Both the lawyers have made their point and before giving his decision, Judge Weaver takes a pause to check his watch. You can almost sense everyone holding their breath at that instant and a collective sigh of relief after he rules in favour of Biegler. It’s well executed moments like these that make Anatomy of a Murder an exciting prospect for, or maybe even despite, 160+ minutes of its length.
Rating(out of 5):