I’m just a humble country lawyer trying to do the best I can against this brilliant prosecutor from the big city of Lansing.

James Stewart as Paul Biegler

After ten years of practice, Paul Biegler (James Stewart) finds himself forced out of his position as a District Attorney. He tries to make a living from his home as a general Attorney at Law but lately he has been spending more time fly-fishing than he has practicing law. His fortunes begin to change when he is asked to represent an army lieutenant charged with the first-degree murder of a bartender who may have sexually assaulted the lieutenant’s wife. In taking the case he must advocate against Claude Dancer (George C. Scott), a special prosecutor with a formidable reputation.

Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder is a classic legal drama that unfolds from the perspective of defence counsel. While the bulk of the film focuses upon the trial, the viewer is exposed to other aspects of defence counsel’s work, including the business of law, client management, investigation and even legal research.

The use of real locations and explicit language (for the time period) give the film a hardened, realistic tone, no doubt influenced by Preminger’s own legal training and that of the author of the source material for the screenplay (the late Judge John Voelker).

The realism is enhanced by the world-weariness of the characters with respect to their understanding and acknowledgement of the complexities and ambiguities of human behaviour. As Biegler says to a potential witness before the trial: “As a lawyer I’ve had to learn that people aren’t just good or just bad but people are many things. And I kind of have a feeling that (the deceased) was many things.”

With an opening title sequence by legendary graphic designer Saul Bass, a jazz score by Duke Ellington and quick-witted dialogue throughout, the film is worthy of repeated viewings.

Useful resources:

The definitive release of this film is the 2012 edition published by the Criterion Collection (spine number 600).

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