When it comes to depicting actual people’s jobs, the truism goes, Hollywood gets everything wrong with stunning regularity. The rare exception is Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), widely considered among the finest trial films ever made, and maybe more universally loved by law students than by cineastes.
The film’s success—seven Oscar nominations and excellent box office—made it the first in a run of films that would constitute the peak accomplishments of Preminger’s nearly fifty-year career, firmly establishing the trailblazing independent producer-director among the artistic and power-brokering elite of the post-studio-system New Hollywood Order (though Preminger, an iconoclast always, made his headquarters in New York). Its verisimilitude can be attributed to Preminger’s working from the story of a real-life trial; his perennial devotion to location shooting, which took him to the scene of the crime; and his wallflower mise-en-scène, which observes action at arm’s length, without imposing interpretation on the viewer.
Preminger also knew his subject. His father, patriarch of a fast-rising Jewish family, had been a public prosecutor in Austria-Hungary. Otto himself had earned a law doctorate in Vienna in the 1920s, after striking a deal with his father that allowed him to simultaneously pursue his desired vocation a few blocks away at the Theater in der Josefstadt, Max Reinhardt’s local base.
Preminger’s success directing for the stage led to a summons from Twentieth Century-Fox in 1935. No sooner had he arrived, though, than Preminger, already dangerously self-assured at thirty, unleashed one of his soon-to-be-legendary tantrums on his new boss, Darryl F. Zanuck. Promptly blackballed, Preminger went into exile in New York, the Third Reich’s Anschluss of Austria shortly forestalling his return home. That rising German menace turned out to be Preminger’s return ticket west; his intimidating Teutonic presence got him work playing screen Nazis until, having done his penance for Fox, he finally got back behind a camera.
From his first steady decade as an American director, Preminger is best remembered for his noirs, spiked with a chill cynicism that would never leave his films. This cycle began with the success of 1944’s Laura and ended with Jean Simmons backing her Jaguar, herself, and Robert Mitchum off a Beverly Hills–side in 1952’s Angel Face.
By then, the major studios were themselves going over the edge, divested of their theater chains by a 1948 Supreme Court decision—and Preminger, ever the canny careerist, was ready to step in as the system crumbled. While editing Angel Face, he was in preproduction on The Moon Is Blue (1953), a sex comedy he’d directed with great success on Broadway, now slated to be his first film as an independent producer-director, and set on a collision course with the Production Code Administration.
The PCA had enforced the morality of American movies since 1934, when it gained teeth with the ascent of reformer Joseph I. Breen to its head. Its duties consisted of making sure that sinners were punished, married couples slept in twin beds, and lines like The Moon Is Blue’s “Men are usually so bored with virgins!” were redacted. But Preminger did the unheard-of: he didn’t capitulate, shot his film with its virgin intact, released it to a profit without Code approval, and became something of a celebrity in the process.
Preminger didn’t court controversy, he went steady with it: He frankly depicted heroin addiction in a 1955 screen adaptation of Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm. He helped to bust the blacklist by crediting Dalton Trumbo as screenwriter on 1960’s Exodus. He visited a gay bar in 1962’s Advise & Consent, tangled with Cardinal Spellman over 1963’s The Cardinal, and in Anatomy of a Murder put the PCA’s stock-in-trade, the very idea of euphemistic or insinuating language, on trial.
Though his subject matter is shrewdly provocative, Preminger’s style is anything but tabloid. Trained in proscenium-arch staging, he never forces the viewer’s eye with his framing. His scrolling camera work is austere, reserved and reserving of obvious authorial judgment, partial to two-shot long takes that hold back to let actors and ideas vie with one another within the frame.
The result of applying this neutral perspective to the courtroom drama recalls the words of George V. Higgins, onetime assistant attorney general for Massachusetts and later a crime novelist: “I build [my stories] the way I used to build a trial, a criminal trial. The witnesses come along, and each recites what portion of reality he knows about . . . At the end of a book, or at the end of a trial, either one, you then call upon the jury to reach its own moral decision, its own ethical judgments about the way the characters have behaved . . . I don’t want to make any judgments for the reader. That’s the reader’s job.”
Trial scenes figure heavily in Preminger’s fifties output, in Angel Face, The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955), and Saint Joan (1957). None of these, however, approached Anatomy of a Murder’s popular and critical success when it was released smack in the middle of the golden age of courtroom dramas that ran roughly from 1957 (12 Angry Men and Perry Mason’s first case) to 1962 (To Kill a Mockingbird). This genre groundswell was contemporary with an effort by such figures as Henry Luce and President Dwight D. Eisenhower—whose May Day competitor Law Day premiered on May 1, 1958—to install “the rule of law” as a kind of democratic countercult to Communism.
Far more ambiguous than rah-rah, Anatomy of a Murder was a provincial trial run for Preminger’s upcoming cycle of big, comprehensive institutional studies, films whose individual stories offer a vantage from which to examine the operations of an entire system in cross section: the legislative branch while processing a secretary of state nomination in Advise & Consent, the Catholic church’s hierarchy as seen along a promising Irish-American priest’s rise in The Cardinal, the reaction of the United States Navy to the attack on Pearl Harbor in In Harm’s Way (1965). Each was adapted from a fat best seller; each but The Cardinal was written for the screen by Wendell Mayes—whose close collaboration with Preminger began on Anatomy of a Murder’s 204-page doorstop of a screenplay—and all together they constitute one of the most individualistic runs of large-scale American filmmaking.
Mayes’s Anatomy of a Murder script plucked the best lines from a prolix 1958 Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Narrated by lawyer Paul Biegler, the novel describes the defense of an army lieutenant, Frederick “Manny” Manion, arrested for shooting and killing tavern keeper Barney Quill after Quill allegedly assaulted and raped Manion’s wife. Robert Traver, the name on the dust jacket, was the nom de plume of Michigan Supreme Court judge John D. Voelker. A former prosecuting attorney of Marquette County, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Voelker, like Biegler in his novel, had returned to private practice after being voted out of office. He was then called upon to defend Lieutenant Coleman Peterson, a soldier accused of the murder of Mike Chenoweth, the proprietor of the Lumberjack Tavern in Big Bay, on July 31, 1952.
Voelker lent his expertise and his home to Preminger’s cast and crew, and the shoot took place in the Upper Peninsula locales of the original crime. Anatomy of a Murder catches something of the particular immigrant brew of the UP, the French-Canadians and Finns, while Sam Leavitt’s deep-focus photography grounds the action in an antiscenic but tactile, bustling world of waterfront lunch stands and train yards, trailer parks, and automobiles (Biegler’s Pontiac Chieftain plays a significant supporting role).
The cast was stocked with relative unknowns whose subsequent careers would prove Preminger prescient. George C. Scott makes an early screen appearance as Claude Dancer, a prosecutor out of Lansing assisting the local DA. Ben Gazzara plays Lieutenant Manion; a twenty-four-year-old Lee Remick is his incorrigible flirt of a wife, Laura. And there is one very prominent amateur actor: to play his judge, Preminger cast Joseph N. Welch, the Boston lawyer who gained lasting fame for his role as Army counsel in the nationally televised Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, introducing a phrase that has echoed through the decades: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”
Welch was a man of the law turned celebrity, and Anatomy of a Murder, a film very much aware of the performance aspect of the courtroom, merges Preminger’s parallel theatrical and legal educations. Author Stefan Zweig wrote, “The imperial theater, the Burgtheater, was for the Viennese and Austrian more than a stage upon which the actors enacted parts; it was the microcosm that mirrored the macrocosm.” And if all Old Vienna could be found onstage, all New America was on-screen. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would decline to play a Georgia senator for Preminger in Advise & Consent, but here lawyer-as-star Welch met a star-as-lawyer. For his Biegler, Preminger cast James Stewart, who gives a sly, discreetly detached performance, lips saying one thing while an ironic arch of the eyebrows says another. The actor’s warbly candor is here a mask to be taken off and put back on at will—in any scene, much of the pleasure comes from gauging the distance between the line Biegler is giving and what he’s actually thinking, the degree to which his courtroom outbursts are actual eruptions or kabuki distractions meant to provide some room to strategize.
Actor-director Biegler manages his clients’ personae as well as his own. He bends Lieutenant Manion toward a temporary-insanity defense with a featherlight touch in their second meeting. He counsels Laura Manion, usually partial to skintight western wear, to play “a meek little housewife with horn-rimmed spectacles.” Later, he has Mrs. Manion’s dog brought to the trial merely to amuse the jury with funny tricks. When the defense is assigned an army psychiatrist, Biegler’s team is disappointed first by his all-American name, then by the arrival of a fresh-faced Orson Bean (“I sort of hoped you’d have a beard and wear a monocle”).
The duel between Biegler and Dancer can be read as the tangling of two directors with rival visions of the material, quibbling to revise the words entered into the record to convey their preferred versions: opinion rather than fact; evening walks rather than prowls; Biegler’s fine differentiation between woman chaser, masher, and wolf. We want to see Biegler’s draft go over—but why? Of course, we feel a natural camaraderie after spending the film sequestered with him and his team. There is also Dancer’s off-putting cross-examination of Mrs. Manion, almost a bullying pickup, with Scott jutting his chin into the witness stand, losing his eyes in her hair—“Do you always wear panties, Mrs. Manion?”—all to depict the witness as a wanton woman, a “huntress.” But no more than Biegler or Dancer does the viewer have any certitude as to what the actual facts onto which they’re imposing their stories are. Per Leon Ames’s lawyer in Angel Face: “The truth is what the jury decides.” Any truth beyond that never outs, any more than the broken body in Saul Bass’s title design comes together again.
Whereas the elusiveness of objective reality is the point of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), Preminger’s film assumes that ambiguity, then shows how the system processes it. That process, rather than any outcome, is Anatomy of a Murder’s subject. The verdict illustrates the legal system at work, though the question of whether a “just result” has been achieved is only further occluded as information accumulates. The movie is full of dead ends, turnoffs that Biegler takes that fail to lead him out of the limbo of his own reasonable doubt. It’s finally uncertain what actually happened to Laura Manion, and if it was entirely without her consent—before answering in the negative Biegler’s question “Does [your husband] have any reason to be jealous?” she retreats behind inscrutable shades. Biegler puts the film’s theme of unknowability to the prosecution’s own psychiatrist rather well: “Psychiatry is an effort to probe into the dark, undiscovered world of the mind—and in there, the world could be round, it could be square.”
The dark, undiscovered center of the film is the Manions’ relationship, drawn in dots of sinister implication, a dangerous game with the rule book missing. She coos, “You’re tall,” upon meeting Biegler, just before introducing her husband . . . who isn’t. Manny is pompous, with his ivory cigarette holder; remote; darkly thoughtful; possessive; and quick to anger. There is something recklessly supermodern about this couple—the discarding of previous marriages, the disposable, mobile-home lifestyle (and Gazzara’s jittery energy is particularly cold-war hipster, while the dispatched Quill, a macho sportsman present only in the trophies decorating his bar, is the obsolete Hemingway male).
Preminger further complicates the audience’s satisfaction by smothering the film’s resolution. The attorneys’ closing statements, dependable climactic moments of any courtroom drama, are elided. The Manions, reunited, just disappear from the film, leaving behind only scraps of trash in an oil drum and a note jilting the lawyer whose efforts have allowed them to stay feckless and free, taking their hit-and-run marriage to the next army town.
Despite a purely transactional flirtation between Biegler and Mrs. Manion—he testing her loyalty to her husband, she testing her sexual thrall—there is no romantic involvement for the male lead in Anatomy of a Murder. If at any point sentiment creeps into Preminger’s film, it’s in the tender relationship between Biegler and Parnell Emmett McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell), a sixtysomething lawyer turned town drunk, with whom Biegler passes evening hours perusing case histories.
“What shall we read this evening, counselor? How ’bout a little Chief Justice Holmes?” suggests McCarthy on his first visit—and it is significant that the one legal mind spoken of is Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s. In part, this is because it was a name the layman would be familiar with, but there is something more of Holmes in Anatomy of a Murder: the cornerstone of his interpretation of law was to remove it from the high-flown language of universal truths, focusing instead on the practical process by which, upon necessarily imperfect knowledge, legal decisions were made. The same word often used to brand Holmes’s jurisprudence, pragmatism, comes up time and again in discussions of Preminger’s worldview. And though motivated by a skepticism that rejected ideology, Holmes was lionized by liberals for his furtherance of free speech, as in his famous dissent in Abrams v. United States: “The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas . . . The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”
Preminger had done much to open the market to the free trade of ideas by 1959. The Production Code Administration’s authority had receded to such a degree that Anatomy of a Murder, with its talk of panties, its dozens of rapes and even a bitch, arrived in theaters with the Code’s blessing. The door was open to a new, franker American film culture. What that has meant for our national life is, like Anatomy of a Murder itself, open to endless interpretation. That’s the viewer’s job.
Nick Pinkerton is a regular contributor to the Village Voice and Sight & Sound.