Anatomy of a Murder (1959) – A Movie Review

Jimmy Stewart is small town attorney Paul Biegler in Upper Peninsula Michigan who is defending Army Lt. Frederick Manion (played by Ben Gazzara) who has shot and killed a man, Barney Quill, after he raped Manion’s wife Laura.  The prosecution in this case, Asst. State Atty. General Claude Dancer is played by George C. Scott.  Biegler is trying to prove that Lt. Manion killed his wife’s attacker while in a dissociative state because of his shock at his wife’s attack.  The prosecution has a two-fold job.  They try to convince the jury that Lt. Manion was in his right mind when he shot Quill and also that Mrs. Manion was an unfaithful wife and was voluntarily involved with her attacker.

The majority of the film is the courtroom trial and the sparring between Jimmy Stewart and George C. Scott is the main attraction.  Scott delivers his dialog with his usual aggressive and nuanced portrayal.  He attacks the Manions on the witness stand with all the brutal skill of a gladiator in the arena.  Stewart is forced to use the sympathy for a brutalized woman and her outraged husband to win the jury’s sympathy.  But the prosecution is able to showcase the flawed relationship between an overly flirtatious woman and her almost insanely jealous husband to give credibility to the idea that Lt. Manion was just a jealous man killing his rival in love and therefore guilty of murder.

A very young Lee Remick as Mrs. Manion is remarkably beautiful and her flirtatiousness throughout the movie does make it more likely for us, the audience, to also believe that her husband murdered Quill in a fit of jealousy associated with her habitually provocative behavior.

The supporting cast that includes Arthur O’Connell and Eve Arden as Jimmy Stewart’s small town legal team and a cameo by Orson Bean as an army psychiatrist add touches of humor to the film and there are even a couple of cameos by Duke Ellington as a jazz musician that reinforces the jazz musical theme for the film.  Not being a jazz-fan, this theme music actually isn’t a big positive for me.

I think the film intentionally leaves open the question of whether Lt. Manion was temporarily insane or not.  But the courtroom action clearly deprives the jury and the audience of the film of any sympathy for the prosecution.  Even believing Manion was not insane when he killed Quill doesn’t force these spectators to sympathize with either the prosecutor or the murder victim.  As flawed as the Manions are we still sympathize with them.  They are human to us.

This is not a great movie.  But it is interesting.  I can recommend it.