The casting of Jimmy Stewart in “Anatomy of a Murder” was a stroke of genius by Otto Preminger or whomever at Columbia dreamed up their pairing. Cast Humphrey Bogart and the tone mixed with the film’s already dark plot would’ve been too coldly grim for a courtroom drama, one more befitting a noir. Put another director in place, and Stewart’s performance turns away from the nuanced country lawyer with a sharp history and into the all too noble “aw, shucks”-ter he was always known for.
Maybe it’s Preminger’s cynicism that brings it out in him, but Stewart puts on one of the more unique performances in his career. He’s playing the sly, trickster always a few steps ahead and the smartest guy in the room, which is not usually the attitude of the humble defense lawyer in a movie such as this. Look at “The Verdict,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “12 Angry Men,” in which nobility shines through more than cunning. Stewart would’ve fit into one of those roles like a glove. But here he’s condescending of the witnesses on the stand, full of punchlines, playing the politics of the courtroom to his advantage, and only taking this murder case because it’ll give him a chance to get his feet wet against the current D.A., because he’s attracted to the defendant’s wife (Lee Remick) and because he’s not going to take any of his client’s (Ben Gazzara) crap.
Perhaps only Stewart would be able to nail this character, one who is acting not out of nobility but not out of sheer greed either, one who seems to be taking advantage of his situation, but also feels perfectly relatable, honest and even fatherly.
He helps to elevate “Anatomy of a Murder” to one of the best courtroom dramas ever made. It’s purely procedural, and it’s famous for its explicit discussion of rape, sex, panties and “spermatogenesis” in a Code-approved picture, but Preminger never goes for exploitation. Preminger denies us any of the explicit acts of violence used as the basis for the trial, which not only makes us suspect the truth later, but it also makes the courtroom scenes that much more effective and climactic. This is a film that only deepens in layers of intrigue as the plot goes on, and the whole thing feels just more devilish and suspenseful in the process.
Because at two hours and 40 minutes, “Anatomy of a Murder” feels almost intentionally long and indulgent on the part of Preminger. But he peppers all his characters with the right amount of wit to make the whole thing go down smooth. There’s a great line when Gazzara describes how he got divorced from his first wife: “Charge of cruelty. You know, eating crackers in bed, that sort of thing.” How Preminger manages to make all these characters likeable without making any of them into saints shows true mastery of character.
George C. Scott is probably best of all as an equally crafty, but subdued prosecution lawyer from “the big city of Lansing.” The courtroom chemistry he has with Stewart allows Preminger to play little sight-line games with the camera, making use of crisp deep-focus cinematography and plentiful two-shots that demonstrate the story’s layers even more. One scene has Remick on the stand with Scott grilling her. Stewart pokes his head around to give Remick a reassuring look, and Scott steps to the side, blocking Stewart’s face from the view of the camera. It seems like an accident the first time it’s done, but the careful repetition of this little cinematic trick without making it seem like a set piece and by doing it all in one shot only amplifies the tension between these two.
“Anatomy of a Murder” has a flat-out amazing finale, tying up all loose ends and leaving the ambiguity in the fate of the characters, not the fate of the court case. Gazzara and Remick have skipped out on their lawyer fees and Stewart decides the murder victim’s inheritor might be the best place to seek out his dues. It cements Stewart not as the hero but as the sly fox that makes him one of the movies’ great stars.