Professor Michael Asimow of UCLA Law School said that about the subject of this month’s review, Anatomy of a Murder. I might disagree a bit (I can make a strong argument for My Cousin Vinny), but I think any trial lawyer who’s seen Anatomy of a Murder will put it right near the top of their list; it was Number 4 on the ABA’s list of 25 Greatest Legal Movies. The reasons for that are many.
First of all, there’s the story. Set in a small town in Northern Michigan, it centers on an army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) who’s accused of killing a tavern owner who allegedly raped the lieutenant’s seductive wife (the ever-fabulous Lee Remick.) The lieutenant is defended by the recently-ousted district attorney, played by Jimmy Stewart in one of his best ever performances. The defense attorney, assisted by his older, hard-drinking lawyer buddy (Arthur O’Connell) comes up with a defense based on an old—and real—Michigan precedent: “irresistible impulse.”
Interesting enough as it goes, but unlike much of what is claimed in the movies and on TV, Anatomy of a Murder actually is “based on a true story.” The basis for the movie was a book of the same title, written by Justice John D. Voelker of the Michigan Supreme Court under a pseudonym. (The book is well worth reading, too.) The book, in turn, was based on an actual murder case where Justice Voelker acted as the defense lawyer. The film was shot on location in the town where the actual murder happened – including in the tavern where the real killing took place. A number of the jurors who sat on the real trial are members of the jury in the film.
The film is masterful in showing how lawyers put together a case and present it in court. But it also contains some of the most close-to-the-line ethical issues ever put in a movie – especially the scene where Stewart and Gazzara discuss what defenses may be available. When Mark Caldwell and I show that scene at programs, it’s almost always a 50/50 split between participants who see it as “ethical” versus “unethical.”
In addition to having some excellent examples of what goes on in a courtroom, the movie was ahead of it’s time for its forthright discussions of sexual assault. Made in 1959, it caused some aggravation for what was seen (for the time) as “graphic” language, such as reference to a “sexual climax” and the use of the word “panties,” which the trial judge actually has to gently admonish the jury about.
A word about the trial judge. He was portrayed by Joseph N. Welch, counsel for the Army in the Army-McCarthy hearings in the ‘50s. He was a lawyer to be admired, the one who took on Joe McCarthy with the famous statement: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” Welch makes a great judge here, but lawyers should revere him for his courage in real life, too.
Anatomy of a Murder was highly regarded in its time, and its stature has grown over the years. It was nominated for Best Picture, Stewart was nominated for Best Actor, and both O’Connell and George C. Scott were nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Scott plays a prosecutor from the state AG’s office with such oily fervor that you feel a little tainted just watching him. But he gets what’s coming to him by asking a question on cross-examination that he doesn’t know the answer to.). There were other nominations for writing, editing, and cinematography. Duke Ellington wrote the score and appears in a minor role.
I could go on. But I’ll stop so you can go watch Anatomy of a Murder for yourself. Enjoy!
We invite you to comment below with your thoughts on Anatomy of a Murder or with your requests for a movie you’d like to have Judge McGahey review.
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