It amazes me this movie isn’t more well known to modern audiences. Hard to believe, too, considering it was so controversial upon release in 1959 that it was banned in at least one major city, the Windy City of Chicago, due to what was felt at the time to be indecent language and a gratuitously violent subject matter. The fact that it still managed to earn the MPAA Production Code’s approval showed the end was near for the Code itself.
It also goes to show you that long before we were binge-watching Making a Murderer on Netflix, entertainment based on real-life murder trials was pretty good at stirring the pot.
Long forgotten controversies aside, for my money, classic movies don’t get much cooler, or better, than this one. The VCH math for that goes something like this: James Stewart + original Duke Ellington soundtrack = vintage cool nirvana.
Anatomy of a Murder is a tense courtroom drama starring one of the all-time great movie stars from Hollywood’s golden age—Academy Award winner James Stewart. He plays a homespun, wise, laid-back but brilliant defense attorney who defends a not very likable army officer accused of murdering another man who may have raped the officer’s wife.
Stewart spends much of the movie trying to get the alleged rape "into" the murder case as it's a crucial part of his client's defense and justification for killing the deceased, Barney Quill. The prosecution spends much of the movie trying to keep the jurors from hearing about it.
We won't spoil the fun for you here with how this battle of wits is resolved, and there is little more about the plot you need to know anyway.
James Stewart with his colleague, "Parnell McCarthy" (Arthur O'Connell)
The film also boasts a wonderful co-star and worthy courtroom foe for Stewart in George C. Scott (best known today for his Academy Award-winning turn as Patton) as a Special Prosecutor from the State’s Attorney General Office.
George C. Scott as Special Prosecutor Dancer
Actors Studio alum Ben Gazzara plays the accused Lieutenant Mannion with a sullen, brooding detachment that is occasionally broken by intense flashes of the violence his character tries hard to conceal.
Gazarra as Lt. Mannion
The judge in Anatomy is played by a lawyer made famous in his real-before-reel life, Joseph Welch. Welch is best known as the lawyer who famously asked Senator Joseph McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
Joseph Welch as Judge Weaver
This was during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, when Welch was Chief Counsel for the United States Army. Welch joked that he accepted the role of the judge in the movie because it was the only way he would ever become one.
We love it when he pulls out his pocket watch in one scene while considering an objection, and contemplates his decision, figuratively winding up the tension of the audience while literally winding his watch.
The movie was adapted from a novel by Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker, writing under the pen name Robert Traver. He wrote it about a real-world case of his own from 1952 when he was still a defense attorney. Its been called perhaps the best pure trial movie ever made by at least one law professor and author, and the American Bar Association puts it in their top four legal movies.
Not too bad for a flick made half a century ago, considering we live in the Age of Grisham and My Cousin Vinny. Add up all this acting talent, legal gravitas, historical curiosity, and throw in a very good Duke Ellington jazz score, and we may have the ultimate VCH movie here.
If you’re into jazz, check out the Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn soundtrack. It won three Grammys in 1959, including Best Sound Track Album. I bought my copy on iTunes and there is a neat interview with Ellington included in that edition.
He says that he knew he was on the right track with the pivotal “Flirtibird”— the first piece he wrote for the picture after reading the script— after seeing early rushes of Lee Remick playing the flirtatious Laura Mannion.
Laura’s rape at the hands of Barney Quill is the tinder for the movie’s plot. Ellington, always an eloquent gentleman, described her delicately as “the girl who has the incident that brings about all the trouble.”
Lee Remick as Laura Mannion
He goes on to say that after playing “Flirtibird” for Remick and telling her that it was her, she immediately got it, and enthusiastically replied, “Ooh, yeah, that’s me!”
With “Flirtibird” and its swirling, lush saxophone solos, he manages to capture Remick-as-Laura’s flirtatious and smoldering sexpot vibe to a T.
It was the first significant motion picture soundtrack produced in Hollywood by African Americans. It is fitting that it was so well received, though not surprising. When you have been called a genius by Ella Fitzegrald, as the Duke was, it's probably just par for the course.
One of the reasons we love this movie so much is the “threefer” aspect: it's a fine novel, film, and soundtrack. (If you like the film, you really should check out the book.)
Otto Preminger could be a heavy-handed director, but we feel that in this movie, as in his classic film noir Laura, he nailed everything perfectly. He hits all the right notes, and from Stewart’s fine performance to Remick’s sultry swish to Ellington’s elegant score, there’s a lot of vintage cool to be hunted here.
Director Otto Preminger with Justice Voelker