Anatomy of a Murder says a lot about how much things have changed since it was made in 1959 and makes for a very interesting study. At the same time, the reluctant charm of Jimmy Stewart holds up as well as ever and still finds no actor today who can carry a movie by simply asserting uncertainty.
The Otto Preminger film finds Lt. Manny Manion, played by Ben Gazzara, in city lockup, having just turned himself in for shooting a local bar owner to death. The inciting incident for Manion is the alleged rape of his young, seductive wife, played by Lee Remick. A lesser charge than murder one is eviscerated of the one hour lapse between Manion learning of the assault and his deadly response.
So Stewart seemingly not knowing what he’s doing as Gazzara’s lawyer can only go so far, and a coherent defense must be established. Manion leads Stewart to a temporary insanity strategy.
This obviously brings the rape back into play. Herein lays a stark disparity to the world we live in today.
Our introduction to Laura Manion reveals a carefree, flirty young girl who sports her black eye as easily as the flow of her alluring red hair. The manner in which Remick offhandedly exposes the details of her abduction and violent assault are perplexing to say the least.
Distinctively absent are the harrowing accounts we know from Law & Order or even the nightly news. Conversely, Remick’s presentation of the facts makes the incident seem like an inconvenience. Interestingly, this didn’t lead me to question the insensitivity of the filmmakers. Instead, it felt more like American society possessed a sheer lack of knowledge in regards to the devastating impacts of a sexual assault - particularly males in position to make such uninformed assumptions.
That said, consideration to the victim in cross examination was still decades away. In fact George C. Scott, as the prosecuting attorney, gets right up in Remick’s grill. Demanding clarifications to the point of tears, he impinges Remick’s flirtatious behavior with the perpetrator on the pertinent evening, while calling into serious question the overall fidelity of the young bride.
Putting aside the societal deficiencies, the chances of Stewart obtaining an acquittal hinge on the admissibility of the actual rape – given the aforementioned gap and the prosecution’s intent on suppressing the testimony. The legal jockeying does, though, provide great entertainment value for the viewer - Joseph N. Welch refereeing the back and forth between Stewart and Scott as sitting Judge Weaver.
Somewhat passive aggressively, with his small town demeanor and a touch of grandfatherly wisdom, Welch steers the two attorneys to acceptable middle grounds without seriously hurting the feelings of either petulant child/lawyer. In turn, the verdict lies in whether temporary insanity holds up in the face of a defendant who’s clearly hot headed with a violent history of jealous behavior.
As such, an insanity defense on film might be close to a first for Hollywood. On the other hand, if you really want to see this type of scenario play out, take a look at Primal Fear with Richard Gere and Ed Norton. But the irony in which the revelation is delivered definitely stands the test of time, and makes this particular anatomy worth your time. The same goes for its place as a sociological measuring stick.