“As a lawyer, I’ve had to learn that people aren’t just good or just bad. People are many things.” —Paul Biegler (Jimmy Stewart)
For thirty years, the Hays Code had governed movie morality. The prohibition on cursing and nudity was obvious. But there was also an expectation that bad guys would get what is coming to them.
“Anatomy of a Murder” has the look of a 50s movie. But it has the heart of a rebellious 60s satire. Audiences expecting truth or justice were going to be disappointed. And disturbed.
The story is simple enough. Army Lieutenant Fred Manion just shot a tavern owner to death. Apparently, the tavern owner sexually assaulted and beat up his wife, Laura, earlier that evening.
Fred and Laura are an interesting couple. Fred is willing to kill for Laura, but that doesn’t mean that he likes her at all. Theoretically, we are supposed to root for Fred to be acquitted. But he’s a cold, arrogant jerk.
Full-time fisherman and part-time lawyer Paul Biegler (Stewart) has never defended a murderer before. But the case gets his intellectual and competitive juices flowing. He wants to win and he has a clever plan.
Director Otto Preminger knows what your expectations of a courtroom drama are and he messes with them.
Every character is lying; everyone has something to hide. And we will never know the truth. There is no gotcha moment. By the end, we learn that Laura probably did get assaulted. And Lt. Fred probably is a wife-beating jerk with an awful temper. So … what the heck are we supposed to root for?
Of course we root for Jimmy Stewart, right? But Biegler’s courtroom strategy is totally dishonest. The plea is: Not Guilty by reason of Temporary Insanity.
Biegler’s sneaky plan is to make the jury believe that the cold-blooded killing was justified. That way, they are willing to pretend Lt. Fred was insane and vote Not Guilty.
First off, the whole concept of getting away with murder because you were “temporarily insane” is dubious. Second, we get the impression that Biegler and Lt. Fred just made it up and Fred was absolutely in his right mind. Third, Biegler focuses his case on the details of Laura’s brutal assault rather than trying to prove Fred’s insanity.
The key to Biegler’s case is to make everyone feel terrible for Laura. But that’s harder than it looks.
Otto Preminger knows what your expectations of a rape victim are and he messes with them.
One night, early in the trial, Biegler is horrified to see Laura out at a jazz club, dancing and flirting with strangers. Biegler drags her home and chides her for endangering the case. He demands that Laura stay home, look solemn, and play the victim. She sincerely thanks the lawyer … and then invites him for the night!
Laura has only ever gotten attention because of her looks and her friendliness. And now – during this awful time in her life – that’s still the only part of herself she feels comfortable showing.
Then, in the film’s darkest moment, Laura drunkenly confesses that she fantasizes about her husband being convicted so she can move on with her life.
“Anatomy of a Murder” is meant to shock the audience. And, more than 60 years later, it still does. You are expecting truth: it refuses to supply it. You want justice: it mocks the very concept. You want good guys to root for: it gives you people who lie under oath, and lie to themselves.