People Are Many Things: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
It’s always fascinating how one person’s version of a story can be less effective than another’s, all depending on how capable they are at hitting the right storytelling beats at the right moments. It’s a nuanced, complex craft that requires perfect timing and an intimate knowledge of how audiences will react.
While good storytelling is important to traditionally creative careers, like writing and filmmaking, Otto Preminger’s groundbreaking crime drama, Anatomy of a Murder, showcases its criticality in the courtroom. It’s a crucial element of criminal cases that most films and TV shows fail to capture with the proper amount of gravitas. As it is shown in this film, practicing law becomes an art of two sides telling their own versions of a similar story in ways that balance facts with extreme emotional appeals.
As in any form of crafting a tale, however, there’s a lot of research to be done, and part of the brilliance of Preminger’s film is that it takes its time in letting the defense attorney we follow throughout the film, Paul Biegler (James Stewart), prepare for his case. The entire first half of the film’s 160-minute runtime is devoted to Biegler getting to know his clients, Laura and Lieutenant Frederick Manion, and the lifestyles they lead. It’s not exactly an easy task to undertake, as the Manions are cagey at their best and blatantly deceptive at their worst, but Biegler’s perception is sharp enough to sort out the nonsense from the truth, or, rather, the truth he’s trying to tell in court.
That version is a temporary insanity plea, back when there were few cases with which to establish precedent (and definitely not a surplus of crime-related media that turned this sort of plea into a trope). The tricky part of an insanity plea, of course, is that it admits a level of guilt. By acknowledging that all the evidence points to the guilt of the defendant, Biegler’s job in the courtroom becomes to clearly and vividly illustrate his plea of insanity with a fully explained background of everything that led up to the event and the backgrounds of everyone and everything involved. It’s a much harder needle to thread than a case where the defendant truly didn’t commit the crime, because there’s no hard evidence to bring up in court.
As Biegler begins to weave his tale of Lieutenant Manion going insane and killing the man who raped his wife, the prosecution fights him every step of the way, from trying to make sure he doesn’t get to even mention Laura’s rape to ensuring as many of his questions are dismissed. Biegler even plays a caricature of himself to really sell the idea of him being an underdog in the form of a solo country lawyer all on his own against lawyers from the big city. He blends as many narratives together as he possibly can, only pulling some back when the judge’s patience runs out. He shows all the competence and skill of a master storyteller and an even better manipulator when he finally pulls the rug out from under the prosecution during the final witness, ruining their credibility completely with a simply laid trap.
The courtroom section of the film is a carefully executed game of chess between two wildly talented players, with Biegler facing off against a high-powered prosecutor (George C. Scott). The staging within these courtroom shots is painstakingly planned, adding an extremely physical dynamic to the verbal sparring between these two competitors. The craft behind what the audience sees is just as detailed and well-made as what’s transpiring in the film, something somehow both meticulously planned and completely reactionary to each moment. The feeling of this is electric, because even though you know the points Biegler will make in court from his earlier research, the back-and-forth in the courtroom still feels completely fresh and exhilarating without any sense of repetition from hearing the same ideas twice.
Add all these elements up, plus an ending that makes the whole situation even more morally ambiguous than it already seemed, and Anatomy of a Murder stands out among many other films of its kind. Making courtroom drama as captivating and morally complex as this is a feat of very careful filmmaking. And, as in winning a court case, the answer lies in cautious, controlled storytelling that knows when to pull back and when to pull out all the stops.