This is why I would be a great lawyer, I can lie like a freaking banshee!
Screenplay By: Wendell Mayes
Directed By: Otto Preminger
I am a sucker for a good court room drama, and Odin knows there are a lot of them in the world. With so many of them found in film, TV and literature it becomes very hard for one court drama to stand out from the rest. Anatomy Of A Murder manages to rise above the rest of the pack because it takes a different path than most court dramas, it doesn’t concern itself with showing the crime in question or whether the perpetrator is actually guilty or innocent. Anatomy Of A Murder is about the judicial process and how it isn’t whether you are guilty or innocent, but how good your lawyer is and how much manipulation you can accomplish within the rules. To attack the judicial system in such a way requires a willingness to turn the process into a theatrical event. Otto Preminger isn’t afraid to do that, instead of shying away from the theatrics of the court he allows Anatomy Of A Murder to bask in the court rooms theatrical nature.
Another must in a deconstruction of the judicial system are actors who understand the difference between the theatrics of the court and the theatrics of Hollywood. The court is a place for grand standing, lying and emotional appeals, but it is not a place for over the top acting. That is where Anatomy Of A Murder succeeds when so many other court dramas have failed. Jimmy Stewart and George C. Scott understand that the attention needs to be on them and that their star power needs to drive the case and sway the jury. But, they know that their star power has to be believable, they can’t appear to be acting, because then the jury would see right through them. The rest of the cast are stellar as well, but Scott and Stewart hit a home run as the two attorneys. Stewart especially is a tour de force of acting, understanding when to be subtle, when to be loud, when to appeal to emotion and when to strike with the facts. It’s no shock that Stewart delivers a great performance, he spent his entire career doing just that.
Anatomy Of A Murder never sees fit to concern itself with guilt or innocence, and at the end you realize that the Lieutenant, and his wife in a smaller fashion, have duped everyone. For me that was an obvious outcome, but it wasn’t a hindrance to the story because their actions weren’t in question. What was in question was whether or not Stewart could manipulate and work the system. He did, and we bought into it just as much as the jurors did. The only point when Anatomy Of A Murder falters is right before the trial is set to start, there is a lull in the action when a couple of scenes take place that don’t move the plot along one bit and are unnecessary to the film as a whole.
There are a lot of court room dramas out there, but Anatomy Of A Murder stands at the top of the mountain with the best of the best. It’s Jimmy Stewart being Jimmy Stewart, George C. Scott in a role so smug you want to punch him in the face and a whole host of shifty characters. In a film where guilt or innocence is never in question, the system is displayed in all its glory and faults and one can’t help but get swept up in the drama. Anatomy Of A Murder is the type of film that compels you while at the same time shocking you with its brazenness, at least when you take into account when the film was released. I don’t know if I did a well enough job of breaking down this film, but Anatomy Of A Murder sure did a bang up job of breaking down the American judicial system.