Anatomy of a Murder

Rated: Not Rated
Runtime: 2 Hours and 40 Minutes

Reviewer: Dale
Grade: A

Just knowing that this movie is out there probably keeps John Grisham awake at night in a cold sweat. It would me if I were him. Because, even though he slaves in the lawyer-story field, he will likely never craft a yarn as thoroughly gripping as this one.

Best as I can see, this film sets the high water mark for all other courtroom flicks. It begins with Jimmy Stewart (who was the D.A. of his small, Michigan town until being voted out) returning from a fishing trip to receive a call from a frantic woman who asks if he will represent her husband in court. He finds this strange since he has never met this woman and, aside from that, he is not a defense attorney. But his alcoholic friend insists that he take the case, although he knows nothing about it, and so he does.

It soon turns out that he is representing a soldier (Ben Gazzara) who has killed the man who raped and battered his wife. Jimmy asks the man some questions and, yes, the man did indeed commit the crime. But can he be held responsible for his feelings of rage? Was the murder justified? After all, the man did rape his wife. Wouldn't any man want to put a few slugs into such a man?

These are the questions that Jimmy will have to wrestle with during the course of the trial. He knows that his client commited the murder, but was he in his right mind when he did so? That is the big question. Soon another question springs up: considering the wife's flirtatious attitude, can he be entirely sure that it was even rape?

There are a lot of questions to this case, which seems at first to be so clear-cut, but soon gets a lot more complicated. The complications seem natural, though, and I was not surprised to find that this is based on a couple of actual cases from the Michigan state files. The actors do a good job with their characters. Lee Remick is very good as the flirty wife, and George C. Scott performs an early miracle with the character of the prosecuting attorney: a man who can badger a witness so effortlessly that it almost becomes an art form. But Jimmy Stewart is the one who really steals the show. Does he believe his client? You are never quite sure, and this isn't conveyed through any dialogue. Instead, he sells this point through the discreet use of facial expressions. He conveys everything you need to know about this man through tone of voice, facial expression, posture, and it is a great performance. And the way he can play a jury? If I ever get caught shooting the guy who shtupped my wife, I want Jimmy as my lawyer. He has the jury eating out of his hand, and he pokes tiny imperceptible holes in the prosecution's arguments every step of the way. It's very smoothly done.

All in all, this is a vastly entertaining, often powerful, and thought-provoking film. Otto Preminger directs with a remarkable assurance and attention to detail. This film is 160 minutes long, but I assure you that you won't notice it. The movie races along and you are at the finish before you know it.

Like any excellent movie, this one leaves you wanting more rather than less. That is always a great achievement. Outstanding work all around. In fact, I don't think people have heard enough about this movie. Before it called to me from the racks of Best Buy's DVD section, I know that I had barely heard of it. That, more than anything, is the true crime here.