The protagonist of Anatomy of a Murder (1959) is a Michigan attorney who reveres his trade yet seems far more concerned with fishing; he’s a self-described “country lawyer” who loves, and plays, jazz; he’s an aging bachelor who retains certain seductive qualities yet spends all his time with an amiable yet fashion-impaired drunk. When he goes to trial, defending a killer and Korean War vet whom he’s nudged ever so lightly into pleading insanity, he flies into tantrums that can be awfully hard to distinguish from calculated performance. Paul Biegler is charismatic, riddled with seeming contradictions, and even after two-and-a-half hours the central figure of this film remains chillingly opaque. The most brilliant move in the construction of Biegler is the casting of James Stewart, once a paragon of earnest virtue, who by this point in his career was suddenly turning his persona inside out (see Vertigo, released the year previously, for another prime example), so that, as historian Foster Hirsch puts it in one of the supplements on Criterion’s new release, he made you rethink all those previous beloved Jimmy Stewart roles—were they too not simply performances?
Anatomy of a Murder is a Hollywood masterpiece, the product of Otto Preminger, a great director/producer who build his cred under studio contract before going independent, seizing every aspect of a large-scale production to maximize impact by knowing precisely when to force and issue—he would tolerate no euphemisms in the trial scenes, which led to a lot of panties—and when to hold back and revel in ambiguity. No one in this story is innocent, least of all Biegler’s client, Lieutenant Frederick Manion, played by the late Ben Gazzara with a cold inner fire, and his wife, Laura Manion, played by Lee Remick with a still-astonishing fearlessness. The Manions’ claims that Laura was raped by the man Manion subsequently murdered is the lynchpin in Biegler’s case, yet, as coolly directed by Preminger, whose detached mise en scène consistently avoids emphasis and thus places the onus of judgement on his audience, the film saddles Laura’s already fraught narrative with only more complications as it goes along. She may very well have been raped, though, outside the courtroom, she does just about everything to fulfill the troubling criteria for the proverbial woman who’s “asking for it.” Her unapologetically bold sexuality has certainly prompted a deep freeze in her marriage—the handful of brief, wordless interaction between the Manions are enigmatic to say the least—and Remick does nothing to render Laura more obviously sympathetic or trustworthy.
All this is to say that Anatomy of a Murder is indeed an homage to American law, but perhaps what it celebrates above all is law for law’s sake—not any sort of moral justice. Shot entirely on location, brimming with loving local detail, buoyed by Duke Ellington’s genius, careening, shrewdly used score, framed by Saul Bass’ graphically austere yet subtly violent and unnerving title designs, the film is a chain of persuasions, suggestions, negotiations and “irresistible impulse,” haunted by a fundamental unknowability with regards to fatal actions and motivations—I say “haunted,” but it’s only we viewers who are haunted; no one in the film seems too distraught by the inconsistencies in the Manions’ story. So it’s mystery on a higher level. Utterly entertaining yet perversely withholding of the very facts that would allow us a sense of closure, even as we gaze upon that abandoned shoe dangling tauntingly from a vacant campsite garbage container before the final scattering of squeaks from Cat Anderson’s trumpet hang in the darkness, deliciously unresolved.