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Film / Anatomy of a Murder

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Trust a humble country lawyer to behave unprofessionally at trial... he knows what he is doing better than you do.

A 1959 Courtroom Drama film directed by Otto Preminger and written by Wendell Mayes, who adapted the novel of the same name by "Robert Traver", the Pen Name of Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker; the novel was based in turn on a 1952 murder case in which Voelker was the defense attorney.

Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is a small-town lawyer in Michigan's Upper Peninsula who can't be bothered with doing legal work, and spends most of his time fishing and playing jazz piano. That is, until he's called in to defend loutish, wife-beating U.S. 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 his 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). Assisting Biegler in his efforts are his alcoholic friend and colleague Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell) and sharp-tongued secretary Maida Rutledge (Eve Arden).

The soundtrack was composed and performed by Duke Ellington, who also makes a cameo appearance. Ellington's contributions made the film the first to use non-diegetic music written and performed by a Black artist.

Anatomy of a Murder was one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to address sex and rape in graphic terms and use such taboo words 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.
  • Ambiguous Ending: And yet it's almost the least ambiguous part of the film. In fact, the whole film is about as Mind Screwy as a 100% realistic movie can get.
  • Amoral Attorney: Neither counsel is above resorting to dirty tricks to win the case. The worst offender is probably Biegler, despite being the protagonist of the film. It's not wrong for a defense attorney to do his best to get his client acquitted even if he's obviously guilty (that's his job, after all), but his behavior is still questionable. While it's illegal for an attorney to openly advise their client to lie to the court, Biegler not-so-subtly nudges his client into falsely claiming insanity as his defense. Despite this, Biegler comes off as down-to-earth and approachable, while prosecuting attorney Dancer comes off as more unlikeable just as planned.
    • Biegler also repeatedly makes remarks during the trial, implying things which, as an attorney, it is improper for him to imply. Even though the jury is officially told to disregard such remarks, Biegler knows the jury can't un-hear something once it has heard it... and Dancer uses the same strategy.
  • Artistic Title: Designed by Saul Bass, one of Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock's frequent collaborators.
  • Asshole Victim: The Manions' story paints Quill as one, but we never get a definitive answer as to whether he did rape Laura (though it's implied he did).note 
  • 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.
  • Author Avatar: Paul Biegler for John D. Voelker, all the way down to both men being cigar-smoking fishing enthusiasts.
  • 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 Lodwick.
    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.
  • Creator In-Joke: In one scene, the desk clerk at the Thunder Bay Inn is very conspicuously reading the Leon Uris novel Exodus, which Otto Preminger had already chosen as his follow-up project to this film.
  • 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 is a major example, since he doesn't know that she's Quill's daughter, not his mistress.
  • 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.
  • The Film of the Book: Interestingly, the initial plan was to turn it into a play, then adapt it into a film, but the playwright drafted for the job, John Van Druten, suffered death during production, then, once he bought the film rights, Otto Preminger hurried it into production. A stage adaptation was finally completed in 1963.
  • 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."
  • Heh Heh, You Said "X": Invoked by the judge, mentioning the word 'panties', causing laughter, and then warning the spectators to get it out of their system and take things seriously from that point forward.
  • 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: The "irresistible impulse" variant. Even in the story the characters acknowledge that it's a shaky defense for Manion to use under the circumstances.note 
  • 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.
  • Karma Houdini: Manion. The 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. Then, to top it all off, he skips town after the trial without paying Biegler the money he'd promised.
  • 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. It's funny though. He likes to show me off. He likes me to dress the way I do. Then he gets furious if a man pays any attention to me. I've tried to leave him, but I can't he begs and I give in.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Laura Manion.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: The film and the novel it's adapted from are drawn from a real-life murder trial that occurred in Big Bay, Michigan in 1952, where an Army lieutenant named Coleman A. Peterson shot and killed Maurice Chenoweth. John D. Voelker, who wrote the original novel under a pseudonym, was Peterson's defense attorney and successfully acquitted him of the charges via an insanity defense.
  • 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, who calls it the best summary he has ever heard in a courtroom. Biegler's also gets praise from his secretary. Neither is shown (perhaps for the better, since the film is already well past the two-hour mark at that point).
  • 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).
  • Older Than They Look: Smith, the Army psychiatrist, says he's 40 but looks a lot younger. Helps that he's played by Orson Bean, who was only 30 at the time.
  • Overshadowed by Awesome: Mitch Lodwick, once Dancer is in action.
  • Pop-Star Composer: The film's soundtrack was done by famed jazz pianist Duke Ellington, making it the first film to be scored by a Black artist.
  • 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. However, it's not clearly established whether she actually sleeps with anybody except her husband (as opposed to shameless flirting).
  • Roman Clef: The film is based on a novel that was John Voelker's thinly-disguised memoir of his successful defense of Army First Lieutenant Coleman Peterson, who stood trial for murdering bar owner Mike Chenoweth in 1952. Most of the main characters are based on the main figures in the Peterson case, including the dog. The legal precedent Biegler uses in the story is the same one Voelker used in Real Life. After the film was released, the Real Life counterpart of Mary Pilant sued for libel (but the case was thrown out).
  • Sassy Secretary: Maida Rutledge.
  • 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 trying to do his best against a brilliant prosecutor from the big city of Lansing.
  • Slut-Shaming: The prosecution does this in order to cast doubt on Laura's rape story.
  • Smug Snake: Dancer is quietly arrogant and seems supremely confident he's going to win, not seeming the least bit bothered that he's been forced to resort to Slut-Shaming a rape victim.
  • Surprise Witness: Mary Pilant, who brings in the panties.
    • A jailhouse snitch, who says that Manion concocted the insanity defense. Which, as a viewer, you know is true but at the same time, the snitch is very obviously lying.
  • 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 actually 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. There's also much play between both Manions and Biegler over who lights up with which cigarette lighter, but in the end no lighter has any plot significance.
  • 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.