Courtroom dramas are about as frequent as star-crossed lover romance films, but we know how the romance films usually end.

We sometimes know, or hope we know, how the courtroom drama will end.  

The test of a good movie, especially a courtroom one, is in the rewatching.  When you already know the ending, do you want to see it again.

“Anatomy of a Murder” is one you’ll watch over and over and over.  At two hours and forty minutes, it demands a commitment from you.  Otto Preminger directs so artfully that you hardly notice his work.  The black-and-white film works, and I wonder if it was because of the subject matter.  You can get away with more in black-and-white, as Hitchcock showed in “Psycho” the following year, and this film was controversial to say the least.  It’s subject matter crime and the language used in court weren’t exactly common in 1959.

The film is carried by Jimmy Stewart, and it’s a good thing he is so great.   There’s hardly a scene without him, and his supporting cast is that – supportive.  Most scenes are about Stewart and everyone else either is feeding him setups for a great line or giving comic relief punchlines that set up his even better reactions.  If “Ben Hur” came out a different year, there is no way Stewart doesn’t with an Oscar for this performance.

Stewart plays Paul Biegler and Lee Remick plays the wife of the accused, who gets what she wants by flirting, and that reputation causes her trouble in court.  She tries to win over Biegler, but he’s too experienced to fall for it.  Biegler’s a former prosecutor, which means he’s an exceptional defense attorney.  He knows what the prosecutor will chase and sets various traps to get his way.

He’s the one we care about.  We don’t really watch to see if the accused husband is successful in beating the charge, and the wife’s charming flirtations don’t really go anywhere.  The big dramatic reveal really doesn’t shock anyone, and it’s not a “You can’t handle the truth” moment.

Because despite the courtroom script, Jimmy Stewart is why I like this film.  He’s a country lawyer who would rather fish than go to court.  He’s not rich and doesn’t seem interesting in getting so.  Everyone knows him in town, but he doesn’t show up much except to play occasional jazz piano.

In court, up against an Assistant Attorney General who just happened to come in for a trial (how often does that happen?), we are cheering for Biegler to win, not because of justice or a sympathy for the accused, but because we want Biegler to win.

That’s worth 160 minutes any day.

The Highlight Reel

Look for Duke Ellington playing piano with Jimmy Stewart.  Worth the price of admission alone.

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Anatomy of a Murder Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller | 161min | July 13, 1959 (Canada) 8.0
Director: Otto PremingerWriter: Wendell Mayes, John D. VoelkerStars: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben GazzaraSummary: Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), a lieutenant in the army, is arrested for the murder of a bartender, Barney Quill. He claims, in his defense, that the victim had raped and beaten up his wife Laura (Lee Remick). Although Laura supports her husband's story, the local paper has reported that the police surgeon can find no evidence that she has been raped. Manion is defended by Paul Biegler (James Stewart), a humble small-town lawyer and recently deposed district attorney. During the course of interviews, Biegler discovers that Manion is violently possessive and jealous, and also that his wife has a reputation for flirting with other men. Biegler realizes that the prosecution will try to make the court believe that Laura had been drunk and was picked up by the bartender and then her husband killed him and beat her up when he discovered they had been together. Manion pleads "not guilty" and Biegler, who knows that his case is weak, tries to find evidence that will save Manion. —alfiehitchie


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