It has been bothering me for a long time what people find to be so charming about 1959's movie Anatomy of a Murder. While I do like many old movies, black and white films, courtroom drama movies and so on types of films this movie could be categorized in, I do not find enough reasons to consider Anatomy of a Murder such a good piece of cinema as it is regarded to be by many viewers. I hope there are not any real spoilers below but still note you may consider something a spoiler yourself.
While a lot of people state Anatomy of a Murder is very realistic, in fact I think just the opposite. You hardly see anything realistic in this film. You see a lawyer with huge experience in court trials to be easily manipulated by his client concerning his fee. You see a jury to make a verdict based on a version of a witness doctor (while also hearing another more experienced doctor having the opposite opinion) plus a pair of panties which presence or absence practically has not any real relevance to the defendant's actions (and even less to his mental condition). So, we have a verdict based on almost nothing but still we should believe the movie depicts real courtroom scenes.
Here are some of the other arguments you may read in support of Anatomy of a Murder being a good movie:
- It's the first movie to show what a jury trial looks like in reality. I've already written something above in regard to the realism of this film but in addition concerning the "precedence" part, there have been also other movies before Anatomy of a Murder dealing with jury trials. To name a few, 1957's 12 Angry Men and Witness for the Prosecution have been dealing with similar topics and in the author's humble opinion have been far more realistic.
- The movie shows how expert testimonies are used in a courtroom. While the movie shows some expert testimony, there is really nothing good about this part of the movie and it is really unconvincing.
- The movie shows how lawyers twist justice. Well, the earlier film Witness for the Prosecution shows it too. And also, what is so great about this? After all, it's lawyers job to twist justice. It's like showing how teachers teach. It's not that a-man-doing-his-job could not be shown in a great way because it could. But it is not something making a movie good just because it's there.
- The movie deals with rape and suggestive behaviour. Ok, it's true. But this is not anything unseen nowadays. Still, it could give an argument in Anatomy of a Murder supporters hands.
- The film deals with a controversial mental disease subject. Well, while this is also true, this topic is not a strong side of the movie - it is really presented very unconvincingly.
- You never see the murder in the movie. That's true but what is so great about it? You don't see the murder in many other movies including the 2 previously mentioned above 12 Angry Men and Witness for the Prosecution. In fact, you do not see the murder in court movies very often.
- You never see the murder and during the movie it become less and less clear what is the real story behind it. This point is not true. It's pretty much clear during the whole movie what exactly has happened. In addition there is almost no character development in the movie. We don't see any of the characters to make anything really surprising. We don't see also any unexpected twist in the movie. There is just a pair of panties, which we don't know whether will appear but as I've already said, they have absolutely no relevance to the case and their presence in the film seems really forced in order to add something interesting to the pretty straightforward story.
- The author of the book, the movie is based upon, has been a former prosecutor and the story is based on real case. I don't see how this point relates to a movie being great or not.
- The judge has been played by the famous lawyer Joseph Welch. Again, I don't see how this relates to the greatness of a film.
- Michael Asimow, a UCLA law professor, calls the film "probably the finest pure trial movie ever made." I'm not a law professor but after reading this lecture containing his quote, I do not find any good reasoning why this film should be the finest pure trial movie ever. In fact, there is almost nothing supporting the quote. The only thing mentioned several times in various ways is about "How far can counsel go in suggesting a defense to a client who hasn’t a clue?". Even if we consider the latter something valuable, it concerns only a small portion of the movie so it's not right to base such a strong statement just on it. Furthermore, even in regard to this aspect, Anatomy of a Murder is not a precedence because Witness for the Prosecution has introduced something similar although not so evident by showing a lawyer accidentally motivating some of the future behavior of the defence.
To end this article, Anatomy of a Murder is not all bad. There are great acting performances by James Stewart and George C. Scott. Most of the other actors have also done good job. The music is something good to be mentioned too. The movie has presented some interesting legal aspects and it has been among the first films to challenge the Hays Code in Hollywood. The straightforwardness of the movie is also not such a big problem on its own. But the story and the film as a whole lack any realism and believability which is a big issue when speaking of trial court drama movies. It's a decent film to see but do not expect too much or there is a big chance to be disappointed after the movie's almost 3 hour time span.