Based on a novel written by John D. Voelker, himself a former attorney who based the book on an actual case that he defended, Anatomy of a Murder is one of the best trial films ever made.
Stewart stars as Paul Biegler, a lawyer who lost his reelection bid for district attorney. Broke and spending most of his time drinking and fishing he gets a call from Laura Manion (Lee Remick). Her husband Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) has been arrested for murder. He killed a bartender named Quill and he and Laura claim that Quill raped her.
Laura passed a lie detector test but the doctors say they didn’t find any signs of rape. Biegler agrees to take their case and defend Manion, who doesn’t deny the killing but claims he doesn’t really remember it. Biegler not too subtly suggests that he may have had “irresistible impulse” a sort of temporary insanity.
The court case begins and Biegler is excellent at putting on a show for the jury. Unfortunately the prosecution have brought in top lawyer Asst. State Atty. Gen. Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) who constantly tears apart the defense. Fortunately for Biegler he’s done his research on the case and discovers that the bartender Quill had a relationship with Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant) who is going to inherit his estate and it’s not the kind of relationship that the prosecution think it is.
The movie has a moral ambiguity to it that you don’t normally find in other courtroom dramas. Maybe Manion was temporarily insane when he killed Quill or more likely he knew exactly what he was doing but then maybe it was justice for the Manion’s or just out and out rage. Stewart’s lawyer knows exactly how to bend the law to work for his client. The movie is impressive for showing how the judicial process works, particularly the finer points and has actually been used as a teaching tool in law school.
Anatomy of a Murder was also one of the first American movies that dealt with rape and it caused some controversy when it was released, even getting briefly banned in Chicago because of the language used in the film (which seems pretty tame compared to today’s evening news). The movie also featured some awesome work from Saul Bass (the poster and the opening credits) and Duke Ellington provided an awesome soundtrack. The movie has won a ton of acclaim and though nominated it never won any Oscars or other major awards but over the years it has been featured on many a best of list which it deserves and was added to the National Film Registry in 2012.