There’s not enough money in the bank to even pay his secretary, but humble country lawyer Paul Biegler still has concerns about the defence of Lieutenant Frederick Manion, in the county jail for murdering Barney Quill, proprieter of the local drinking hole and a man known for his skill with a gun, proudly showing off for his patrons with the revolver he kept behind the bar until the night he was shot down.
There are witnesses, and although Manion does not deny the act he says he cannot remember the killing, only the anger as he went to confront the man who raped his wife Laura, the women who called Biegler in tears to beg him to take the case. Intrigued, Biegler meets both Manion and his wife, but neither are what he expected.
Confident in his acquittal to the point of indifference, Frederick Manion does not seem concerned to have been arrested for what is legally a premeditated murder, while Laura Manion, other than some bruising, is equally untouched by the events, openly flirting with Biegler and dressed to command attention even as her husband languishes behind bars.
Coaching Manion for his court appearance, Biegler knows the only option is to plead temporary insanity, that operating under an irresistible impulse his conditioning as a soldier who had killed before in the theatre of war Manion went to the bar and shot Quill, but the jury’s opinion of Laura Manion will be as important in the verdict.
Credited to Robert Traver, in fact the pen name of Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D Voelker, the 1957 novel Anatomy of a Murder remained on the bestseller list of the New York Times for 62 weeks, establishing a new genre of fiction, the courtroom drama as told from the point of view of those familiar with the intricacies and convolutions of the legal system.
Directed by Laura‘s Otto Preminger from an adaptation by Wendell Mayes, later screenwriter on The Poseidon Adventure and Death Wish, despite the strong subject matter and the atypically direct handling of it for a motion picture released in 1959, Anatomy of a Murder is a delight from the Saul Bass credits to final bang of the gavel, most particularly in the verbal jousting of the many courtroom scenes which form the last hour.
Alfred Hitchcock’s leading man on Rope, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo, James Stewart is Paul Biegler, happier fishing than fighting for justice but having laid the groundwork to pull the prosecution into his net, while across the bench sit District Attorney Mitch Lodwick and prosecutor Claude Dancer (Brooks West and Exorcist III‘s George C Scott).
Filmed in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the actual location of the 1952 trial of Lieutenant Coleman A Peterson for the murder of Maurice Chenoweth on which Voelker was the defence attorney and which inspired the novel, Anatomy of a Murder is one-sided, Biegler using his knowledge of the law and his arguments to free Manion (Voyage of the Damned‘s Ben Gazzara) even though the viewer can clearly read between the lines and see an entirely different interpretation of events.
Hitting the bars even while her husband is incarcerated, Laura (A Face in the Crowd‘s Lee Remick) is desperate for affection, for the company of any man, afraid of a husband who has admitted hitting her, who shows no warmth to her, who smokes with the feminine affectation of a cigarette holder, who suppresses all emotions except jealousy and rage against those whom his wife knowingly provokes; tellingly, Lieutenant Coleman and his wife divorced shortly after the real-life case.
A fact beyond the remit of this fictionalised retelling, released on Blu-ray by Criterion in a flawless restoration as part of the Criterion Collection, the new edition of Anatomy of a Murder also features an interview with Preminger’s biographer Foster Hirsch, an exploration of Duke Ellington’s score, contemporary newsreel footage, an archive conversation with Preminger and more.
Anatomy of a Murder is available on Blu-ray from Monday 6th March as part of the Criterion Collection