So often when you watch a film centred around a court case, you have a sense of the facts about the case. This can be done via the act occurring onscreen at the beginning or by having flashbacks punctuate the film as a way to confirm that what you are hearing is correct. Anatomy of a Murder does neither of these things. In fact, in a number of ways the truth of what happened doesn’t really matter.
This is a courtroom drama, a pure courtroom drama with Jimmy Stewart facing off against George C. Scott in the case of ‘was it temporary insanity that lead to this murder’. The only fact in the case that we have absolute clarity of is that a man was killed and the wife of the murderer was seen earlier having a good time with the victim. As the audience, we are left to chew over the course of events and to be swayed either by the charismatic Jimmy Stewart as defender or by Scott as the big city prosecutor.
With Stewart’s jazz-loving lawyer as our lead character, we are party to all he knows – as well as his suspicions that his client and his wife may not be telling the whole truth. Nothing is confirmed or denied, which makes for a brilliant film to talk about afterwards… if you aren’t talking about the brilliant pieces of acting by Stewart and Scott. These are two actors that shine no matter the film they are in – so to see them going toe-to-toe is something special. Especially as you watch them getting frustrated by the other’s courtroom antics.
At nearly three hours long you would think that a mostly courtroom based film would get a bit samey. Not so with Anatomy of a Murder. It’s hard to know who the ‘winner’ is going to be before the end and, ultimately, what decision you want the jury to reach by the end. It also speaks a lot for the quality of the screenplay and performances that Anatomy of a Murder is shown in some law schools as an example of how a trial can go down.