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Film: Anatomy of a Murder
Trust a simple country lawyer to behave unprofessionally at trial...he knows what he is doing better than you do.

Anatomy of a Murder, produced in 1959, is an American Courtroom Drama directed by Otto Preminger and written by Wendell Mayes. The story was based on the novel of the same name written by Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker, which was in turn based on a 1952 murder case in which he was the defense attorney.

Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is a lawyer who can't be bothered with doing legal work, and spends most of his time fishing and playing jazz piano. He's called in to defend loutish, wife-beating US Army Lieutenant Frederick "Manny" Manion (Ben Gazzara), who has been arrested for killing innkeeper Barney Quill. Manion does not deny the murder, and smugly insists he was perfectly justified because Quill raped his wife, Laura (Lee Remick). Biegler knows better, however, and the story follows Biegler's attempts to get Manion acquitted, opposed by a prosecution team headed by assistant Attorney General Claude Dancer (George C Scott, in only his second film role.)

The soundtrack was composed and performed by Duke Ellington, who also makes a cameo appearance.

Anatomy of a Murder was one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to address sex and rape in graphic terms and use taboo words such as "sperm", "rape", "bitch", "slut", "penetration" and "panties".

Tropes associated with this work:

  • The Ace: Claude Dancer, the Assistant Attorney-General from Lansing, is sent in by the state to help the local DA with the case.
    Judge Weaver: Your reputation precedes you, Mr. Dancer. It's a privilege to have you in my court.
  • Actually Pretty Funny: As Judge Weaver reminds the courtroom, a murder trial is Serious Business. But even then...
    (Biegler has yet again objected to Dancer's cross-examination)
    Dancer: Anything else, Mr. Biegler?
    Biegler: You do it again, I'll punt you all the way out into the middle of Lake Superior.
    (Dancer loses his poise and starts laughing)
  • The Alcoholic: Parnell McCarthy, Biegler's old buddy. Defied eventually, as he manages to quit drinking while helping Biegler with the case. In the end, he resolves to stay sober and go into partnership with Biegler.
  • Amoral Attorney: Neither counsel is above resorting to dirty tricks to win the case. The worst offender is probably Biegler, who helps his client cook up a legal excuse for the murder and repeatedly brings in inadmissible evidence on the basis that the jury can't un-hear something once it has heard it.
  • Animated Credits Opening: Designed by Saul Bass, one of Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock's frequent collaborators.
  • As You Know: Biegler explains to McCarthy that it isn't enough for them to have discovered that the defence of temporary insanity exists in law; they must also convince the jury that Manion was temporarily insane. Any veteran lawyer would know that.
  • Batman Gambit: Dancer decides to call Manion's cellmate to the stand to give evidence on Manion's history of manic rage, despite the cellmate's embarrassingly poor credibility. Dancer does this knowing that Biegler will call Manion to the stand a second time to refute the cellmate's evidence, which would give Dancer a second opportunity to cross-examine Manion. Biegler falls for the trap, and Dancer shreds Manion this time.
  • Beneath the Mask: Paul is secretly hurt that the public voted him out of the office of prosecuting attorney, a post that he has held for years, and elected in his place the younger but shallower Mitch Ludovic.
    Biegler: [half-humorously] None but the lonely heart shall know my anguish.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Mr. Biegler is called that by Laura.
  • The Cameo: Duke Ellington is a piano player at a club.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: Manion.
  • Courtroom Antic: Invoked so many times that we don't know where to begin.
    • Lampshaded in the following exchange, which takes place after Dancer has been "inadvertently" blocking Biegler's view of his witness during cross-examination and then responds to Biegler's objection by implying that Biegler has been signaling the witness:
    Dancer: I'm sorry, Mr. Biegler. I wouldn't want to interfere with your signals to the witness.
    Biegler: [angrily] I object to the implication that I'm signaling the witness. This is the shabbiest courtroom trick I've ever seen.
    Dancer: You haven't lived, Mr. Biegler.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Judge Weaver, Biegler's secretary, and Biegler himself from time to time.
  • Dramatic Irony: Dancer going for the kill in the cross-examination of Mary Pilant.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: McCarthy complains that Biegler has turned to drink since he lost the office of prosecuting attorney a year ago.
  • Emotions vs. Stoicism: Inverted. Biegler deliberately invokes this trope to turn the small-town jury against the highly self-possessed Dancer.
  • Everything Sounds Sexier in French: Discussed in the scene where Judge Weaver and the lawyers are trying to come up with something to say in the courtroom besides panties:
    Dancer: When I was overseas during the war, Your Honor, I learned a French word. I'm afraid that might be slightly suggestive.
    Judge Weaver: Most French words are.
  • Grey and Gray Morality: Neither counsel is beyond criticism. Also, the victim and the defendant both compete for the title of "villain". Biegler, in one of his most sympathetic moments, explains his view of the world to a witness whose testimony he desperately needs:
    "As a lawyer, I've had to learn that people aren't just good or just bad. People are many things."
  • Have a Gay Old Time
    • The Judge remarks, "I've always heard that the upper peninsula of our fair state was a queer place."
    • When discussing the possible connotations of the word "high", Biegler says, "If they're high they're gay and enjoying themselves."
  • Hello, Nurse!: Laura's sexiness is a popular topic of conversation.
  • Heroes Gone Fishing: Biegler's secretary remarks that if the fridge gets any more fish in it, "it'll swim upriver and spawn."
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Biegler and McCarthy.
    Biegler: Me, I love fishing and an old guy named Parnell.
  • Idiot Ball: Dancer, the ace lawyer, completely botches the cross-examination of Mary Pilant. First he violates the rule to never ask a question you don't know the answer to, thus blundering into the ambush where Pilant says she was Quill's daughter, not his lover. Then he fails to make the obvious point that even if Quill did bring Laura's underwear home, that doesn't prove that he raped her.
  • Inherently Funny Words: "There's a certain light connotation attached to the word 'panties.'"
  • Insanity Defense: Temporary insanity or irresistible impulse.
  • Ironic Echo: Paul's own words come back to bite him.
    Dancer: The shoe is squeezing Mr Biegler's foot. In his own words, this is not a high school debate. This is a cross-examination in a murder trial.
  • The Judge: Played by Joseph N. Welch, a real-life lawyer most famous for his Take That against Senator Joseph McCarthy ("Have you no sense of decency, sir?") during the 1954 Senate subcommittee hearings investigating McCarthy's accusations of Communists in the U.S. Army. Welch joked that he took the movie role because it was the closest he'd ever come to being a judge.
  • Karma Houdini: Manion. The temporary insanity defense as cooked up by Biegler is clearly BS. Manion recalls the murder quite well when first questioned by Biegler but, after Biegler not-so-subtly encourages him, later comes up with the "dissociative state" story that is Biegler's defense at trial.
  • Kick the Dog/Kick Them While They Are Down: A blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment during Dancer's cross-examination of Laura Manion. When the Judge is distracted by one of Biegler's objections, Dancer mockingly gestures to Laura to offer her a sip from his glass of water. Laura is visibly unnerved.
  • Licked by the Dog: Biegler wins Laura's approval when Muff takes a liking to him.
    • Invoked by Biegler when Muff also appears to take a liking to Dancer, who clearly does not reciprocate:
    Biegler: It's easy to see that Muff doesn't know who his enemies are.
  • The Masochism Tango: Laura and Frederick Manion's married life. At one point, she even wishes that Manion is convicted, because that would be one way of ending it. But she immediately regrets what she said. On another occasion:
    Laura: [speaking about her marriage] I should've known how it would be. But it's funny - he likes to show me off, likes me to dress the way I dress, but then he's furious if a man pays attention to me. I've tried to leave him, but I can't - he begs and I give in.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Laura Manion.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: Besides being one of the most uninteresting trailers ever, the trailer implies that James Stewart will be a witness as opposed to a lawyer: he is shown taking an oath on the Bible just as witnesses do.
  • No Sense of Personal Space: Subtly invoked by Dancer during his cross-examination of Laura Manion, calculated to make her even more uncomfortable.
  • Off Screen Moment Of Awesome: Dancer's closing address, according to Biegler.
  • Oh Crap: The expression on Dancer's face when he gets an answer he wasn't expecting during his cross-examination of Mary Pilant (which is why trial lawyers are careful not to ask questions they don't know the answers to).
  • Overshadowed by Awesome: Mitch Ludovic, once Dancer is in action.
  • Really Gets Around: Paul's secretary says this about Laura after first meeting her, and it's true. Laura is back to hitting the bars while her husband is in prison, and she invites Biegler into her trailer.
  • Sexophone: It's fairly subtle, but this is used when Paul first meets Laura.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: Dancer.
  • Simple Country Lawyer: Paul Biegler describes himself as a humble country lawyer.
  • Slut Shaming: The prosecution does this in order to cast doubt on Laura's rape story.
  • Surprise Witness: Mary Pilant, who brings in the panties.
    • A jailhouse stoolie, who says that Manion concocted the insanity defense.
  • Take That: Judge Weaver's speech introducing the word "panties" in the courtroom is arguably a Take That against both The Hays Code and the audience:
    Judge Weaver: For the benefit of the jury - but more especially for the spectators - the undergarment referred to in the testimony was, to be exact, [the victim's] panties. (courtroom spectators laugh for several seconds; the judge then restores order) I wanted you to get your snickering over and done with. This pair of panties will be mentioned again in the course of this trial, and when it happens, there will not be one laugh, one snicker, one giggle, or even one smirk in my courtroom. There isn't anything comic about a pair of panties which figure in the violent death of one man and the possible incarceration of another.
  • That Was Objectionable: At times, Biegler objects just to give his witness some time to think of an appropriate answer.
  • The Unreveal: Did Quill rape Laura at all, and who really hit her? The film seems to be setting up The Killer Was Left-Handed—Laura's black eye was her right eye, Quill is shown in a picture with a gun in his right hand, and Manion smokes a cigarette with his left hand—but this is not followed up on in the movie.
  • What You Are in the Dark: When Laura invites Biegler inside her trailer, he refuses out of a sense of duty to his client, her husband, despite the fact that no one would have known.
  • Why Isn't It Attacking?: Biegler becomes uneasy when Dancer lets Manion off far too easily during cross-examination, and rightly so. Dancer goes on to pulverize Laura Manion.
  • Worthy Opponent: Biegler, to Dancer.
  • You Just Told Me: Biegler uses this to get the DA to admit that Laura passed a lie-detector test.
12 Angry MenLaw Procedural...And Justice for All
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The Alligator PeopleFilms of the 1950sThe Angry Red Planet
Ben HurAcademy AwardThe Diary of Anne Frank
3:10 to YumaNational Film RegistryBreakfast at Tiffany's

alternative title(s): Anatomy Of A Murder
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