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Lt. Fred Manion (Ben Gazzara) is charged with murder after shooting to death Michigan barman Barney Quill, who was alleged to have beaten and raped his flirtatious wife, Laura (Lee Remick). Defense attorney Paul Biegler (James Stewart) hasn't much sympathy for the arrogant Manion or his skanky wife, but he needs this high-profile case to boost his flagging career and he needs colleague Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell) to assist to get the old man off the booze. In court, Biegler runs rings around the man who has usurped him as the local D.A. but slick city lawyer Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) is as cold as he is cunning and tries every trick in the book to force a conviction.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
Steven Jay Schneider's book, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2003), is quite unambiguous about it. Anatomy Of A Murder is "simply the best trial movie ever made," the author asserts, rating it superior to 12 Angry Men, the only other courtroom drama he deemed worthy of mention, ahead of The Caine Mutiny, Judgment At Nuremberg and Witness For The Prosecution, which are not. Anatomy has always been blessed with the stamp of authority that would never be granted, for example, to the fascinating but overly schematic Witness.

The best-selling novel was written by Supreme Court Judge John D. Voelker under the pen name of Robert Traver and the trial judge (after Spencer Tracy and Burl Ives declined) is played by Joseph N. Welch, a former lawyer who distinguished himself in televised hearings involving disgraced Senator Joe McCarthy in 1954. This long but extremely compelling film succeeded partly because it refrained from sanitising the language in the original work.

It might seem ludicrous now, but use of such words as rape, slut, sperm and intercourse were Hollywood taboos. Anatomy was labelled a "dirty picture" for the mere reference to the rape victim's ripped "panties." America's Catholic Legion Of Decency declared that the film was beyond "bounds of moral acceptability and propriety." It was banned in Chicago; the British censors stripped 20 minutes from it and in apartheid-torn South Africa it was withdrawn because white Jimmy Stewart shares a piano stool with black Duke Ellington, whose jazzy score won't please every ear.

Throughout his 75 film career, Stewart never gave a bad performance but as the small-town lawyer who'd rather fish and tinkle on the piano than fuss too much about his faltering career, this belongs in the top five. In the courtroom and in Judge Weaver's private chambers, he has an electrifying duel with Claude Dancer, the slick city lawyer so brilliantly played by a cold-eyed George C. Scott in only his second film and already dripping with sarcasm and supercilious venom. No one much cares for the fate of Manion, whose obsessive jealousy and violence is manifest (the steely-eyed Gazzara overplays it a bit) but our sympathies are aligned with Stewart, working feverishly to find a precedent that will allow the killer to walk free and to convince a key witness to come forward with crucial evidence.

Elements of mystery and suspense are introduced when it's hinted that Manion might not have fired the murder weapon at all. Remick, replacing Lana Turner who walked off the picture when Preminger would not concede that an Army wife might wear Paris gowns, gives a fair account of herself but the trailer-trash hussy is finally vulnerable and looks justifiably terrified when Dancer goes for her jugular during a brutal cross-examination. Stewart, Scott and Arthur O'Connell, as the washed out alcoholic lawyer who goes "on the wagon" when assisting in his "first big murder trial" were all Oscar nominated, but lost in a clean sweep for Ben-Hur. Anatomy Of A Murder was in many ways a ground-breaker, audacious and authentic film, and for that reason it has not only weathered the ravages of time, but eclipses every episode of Perry Mason or L.A. Law ever made. Judge for yourself.

Published October 13, 2005

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(US, 1959)

CAST: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, George C. Scott

DIRECTOR: Otto Preminger

SCRIPT: Wendell Mayes

RUNNING TIME: 160 minutes

PRESENTATION: Widescreen 1:85. 1/16.9 Enhanced. Languages English, French, German, Italian, Spanish. Subtitles: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Arabic, Czech, Danish

SPECIAL FEATURES: Original trailer, bonus trailers. Picture gallery; biographies

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Sony Pictures Entertainment

DVD RELEASE: September 21, 2005

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