Starring: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara
Director: Otto Preminger
Running Time: 161 mins
Anatomy Of A Murder is an American film about a small-town lawyer who takes on the case of a man charged with the murder of a man who was raping his wife. However, upon pleading not guilty because of insanity, they set about taking victory in a trial full of complexities and twists.
A remarkable piece of filmmaking that takes the courtroom drama to new heights, Anatomy Of A Murder isn’t just an enthralling mystery, but a riveting, insightful and brutally honest look into the workings of the American legal system, played out with three-dimensional characters and excellent performances that bring staggering depth to what is often a fairly simple formula.
I’ll preface all this by saying that it’s hard to specifically explain what I mean by how this film changes up the courtroom drama formula without spoiling things. You’ll just have to watch the movie to find out – but I can tell you that Anatomy Of A Murder is really worth the watch.
On the surface, there is certainly the normal murder mystery intrigue that comes with the genre. After an hour or so of strong exposition that firmly establishes the characters, potential motives for any crimes and their intentions for the upcoming trial, the film lands you into an enthralling, cagey and perfectly-plotted courtroom story.
I love a good courtroom drama as much as the next person, and the genre was at its height in the late 1950s and early ’60s with the likes of Witness For The Prosecution and Inherit The Wind bringing detailed yet thrillingly entertaining courtroom stories to the big screen.
However, Anatomy Of A Murder is a very different animal. The murder mystery certainly provides intrigue, and is very much the centre of attention here, but a lot of the story that this film wants to tell goes more unsaid, as it takes a harder look at the real workings of the American legal system, along with attempting to find the truth from an exceedingly complex case.
From the first act right to the last, this film demonstrates how playing the court, playing the system and working to fit the law is such an essential part of winning a trial in the USA. That might seem obvious, but there’s a more cynical element to the way Anatomy Of A Murder portrays the American justice system, forgoing the often jingoistic nature of other films which show the purity of courts where the truth always wins out.
Director Otto Preminger and screenwriter Wendell Mayes brilliantly introduce this theme as a riveting subtext to the case at hand. While the ups and downs of the murder mystery are certainly enthralling, the way that the trial plays out is arguably more interesting, and serves as an eye-opening demonstration of how lawyers, judges, juries and everyone in between are shaped by both the strengths and pitfalls of the legal system.
That’s what I mean when I say that Anatomy Of A Murder really changes the usual expectations of a courtroom drama, bringing gripping real-world insight into the mix that changes your perceptions not just on how the case at hand will play out, but the true workings of every trial you might see on screen or even in the real world.
It’s often so easy to paint courtroom dramas as a battle of good vs. bad, or right vs. wrong. After all, you’re more often than not actively sided with either the defence or the prosecution in a movie, but Anatomy Of A Murder is a lot more nuanced than that.
While the defence, headed by a humble small-town lawyer played by the ever-lovable Jimmy Stewart, are certainly the protagonists here, the film’s cynical eye again creeps in and makes the usual story of good vs. bad a whole lot more complex.
Much of that complexity and nuance is helped immensely by the film’s fantastic performances. Jimmy Stewart for one is as likable as ever, but he’s also a lot more dubious here than is often the case. In fact, with a tendency for wise-cracking outbursts and some morally questionable intentions at times, it’s remarkable how this film and Stewart himself are able to turn one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars into a far less lovable lead, and someone whose real motivations play in beautifully to the film’s main themes.
In supporting roles, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara and especially George C. Scott bring yet more riveting depth and complexity to the table, with even the film’s secondary characters astonishingly well-developed and integral to the key points that the story is trying to make.
Over the course of almost three hours, Anatomy Of A Murder certainly has a good amount of time to flesh out those characters and make its points as convincing as possible, and I’m inclined to say that it uses its runtime to very good effect throughout.
There are times, however, when the story can drag a little, particularly in the few periods where it’s not tackling the same nuanced and complex themes that really make the film so riveting. While they are overarching ideas that play into every part of the story, there are times when the more superficial intrigue of the murder mystery takes centre stage, and that doesn’t quite fit the film’s patient and cagey pacing as well.
However, there’s no denying that Anatomy Of A Murder is still a masterful piece of filmmaking. Ingeniously crafted from start to finish by legendary director Otto Preminger, brilliantly written by Wendell Mayes, starring fantastic performances across the board, and even featuring a cool jazz soundtrack, there’s something spectacularly unique about this film in one of Hollywood’s favourite genres.
Changing the core formula of the courtroom drama to fantastic effect, Anatomy Of A Murder is as rich in depth as it is a gripping and exciting mystery. Though far from the fastest film you’ll ever see, the movie uses its long runtime and slower pace to great effect, making for a challenging but eye-opening watch that really gets to the crux of the reality of the legal system in the USA. So, that’s why I’m giving Anatomy Of A Murder an 8.2 overall.