Director: Otto Preminger
Writer: Wendell Mayes
DP: Sam Leavitt
Editor: Louis R. Loeffler
Score: Duke Ellington
Producer: Otto Preminger
Starring: James Stewart, Joseph N. Welch, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, George C. Scott, Arthur O'Connell
Distribution: Columbia Pictures
Length: 2 hrs. 40 min.
The lurid details described in Anatomy of a Murder startled many at the time of its release, but maybe it shouldn't be so surprising that it was allowed to include them. After all, it earned the favor of legal authorities: Otto Preminger once had a ban on this film overturned in a court that judged its dialogue to be realistic, and it's still considered realistic to this day.
It's been said of the film that it casts the viewer as juror, allowing them to judge for themselves the morality of the characters and what outcome of the case they support. This is slightly inaccurate, as it gives us a more complete view than the jurors would have (even if it mostly has us regard the courtroom proceedings with the camera to the left of the judge's seat, where the jurors are sitting). We watch the lawyers do quite a bit of research, but throughout the entire film we can never be certain of the defendant Frederick Manion's honesty, which could have dire consequences for his wife Laura if he goes free - and if he doesn't, the prosecution's attempts to ruin her reputation might be equally harmful. However, the film gives us much more information than a jury would ever have access to, showing us the various steps taken by the defense to develop their case. This amounts to a film that feels strangely hard to classify; it's one of the purest and most thorough courtroom dramas you're likely to find, but it's hard not to feel like it doesn't also fall under the umbrella of social problem films.
All this, combined with the story's own ambiguity, allow Preminger to portray a legal case not as an investigation of facts, but as an affective struggle between human wills. The lawyers don't pursue the truth as much as they pursue narratives they think will appeal to the jury (which isn't implausible, since people have a basic cognitive inclination to adhere more easily to narratives when it comes to the consideration of evidence). If we take the side of Jimmy Stewart's Paul Biegler, the lawyer for the defense, part of the reason for it is that he's a much more likable character than George C. Scott's Claude Dancer, the lawyer for the prosecution. But the film acknowledges this manipulation directly, and understands that they can potentially have negative consequences, like Laura Manion's entrapment in the terrible catch-22 mentioned above.
Late in the film, in an attempt to persuade someone to testify in court, Biegler says: "As a lawyer I've had to learn that people aren't just good or bad, people are many things." The notion that the truth is always bent, evaluated, and fit into a larger schema whose other elements may or may not be true is nothing new, but this film at least creates real stakes and tension around it, and relates it to something more specific. Biegler eventually discovers the truth, but only through rigorous, thorough research and persuasion. Then, he must hope it ends up interpreted in the right way. As Biegler's friend, Parnell McCarthy, puts it:
"Twelve people go off into a room. Twelve different minds, twelve different hearts, and twelve different walks of life. Twelve different eyes, ears, shapes, and sizes and these twelve people are asked to judge another human being as different from them as they are from each other and in their judgment, they must become of one mind. Unanimous. That's one of the miracles of man's disorganized soul that they can do it and in most instances, do it right well. God bless juries."
It raises an eyebrow for the film to include something that sounds so celebratory of the law when it goes to such lengths to show the law's divorce from objective truth. But the film's conflict runs on social forces, conditions between people in which objective truth is only secondary.
Take, for example, the prosecution's strategy of trying to impugn the honesty of the women brought to the stand as witnesses for the defense. Claude Dancer constructs accounts of their lives not with evidence, but by questioning their motives on the basis that their behavior regarding the men in their lives defies normal expectations. The very few pieces of unequivocal truth the film offers us show us he's wrong, but for most of the film, that's no help to the women; it only means they're being unfairly victimized. The film's lighting and blocking reflect this, evoking the obstacles they face both in the form of Dancer himself and the social forces he's attempting to manipulate. It's also worth taking note of the film's casting: the judge is played by Joseph Nye Welch, a prominent lawyer who opposed Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954; Dancer's crass, self-righteous, and baseless accusations against the women Biegler brings to the stand are reminiscent of McCarthy's infamous excesses (though it hardly takes knowledge of McCarthy to see how cruel Dancer is).
It suggests that the law and film, in different ways, are both institutions that allow people to temporarily become of one mind, and just how important this can be. People are necessarily different and separate, but also flexible. It's as Biegler says: they can be many things.