Directed by: Otto Preminger
Screenplay by: Wendell Mayes
Tagline: “No search of human emotions has ever probed so deeply, so truthfully as ... Anatomy of a Murder.”
Anatomy of a Murder was directed by Otto Preminger and adapted by Wendell Mayes from the best-selling novel of the same name by Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker under the pen name Robert Traver. Voelker based the novel on a 1952 murder case in which he was the defense attorney.
The film stars James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Eve Arden, George C. Scott, Arthur O'Connell, Kathryn Grant, Brooks West (Arden's real-life husband), Orson Bean, and Murray Hamilton. The judge was played by Joseph N. Welch, a real-life lawyer famous for confronting Joseph McCarthy in the Army-McCarthy Hearings. Anatomy of a Murder was one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to frankly address sex and rape in its narrative. It features one of Saul Bass's most celebrated title sequences, a musical score by Duke Ellington (as a character named Pie-Eye) and is considered by some in the legal profession as among the finest pure trial movies ever made.
In 2012, it was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, small-town lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart), a former DA who lost his re-election bid, spends most of his time fishing, playing the piano and hanging out with his alcoholic friend and colleague Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell) and sardonic secretary Maida Rutledge (Eve Arden).
One day Biegler is contacted by Laura Manion (Lee Remick), the wife of US Army Lieutenant Frederick "Manny" Manion (Ben Gazzara), who has been arrested for the first degree murder of innkeeper Bernard "Barney" Quill. Manion does not deny the murder, but claims that Quill raped his wife. Even with such a motivation, it would be difficult to get Manion cleared, but Manion says he has no memory of the event, suggesting that he may be eligible for a defense of irresistible impulse — a kind of temporary insanity defense. Biegler's folksy way of speaking and his relaxed demeanor conceal a sharp legal mind and a gift for courtroom theatrics that has the judge busy keeping things under control. The case for the defense does not go well, however, especially since the local district attorney (Brooks West) has brought in high-powered prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) from the Attorney General's office.
Furthermore, the prosecution tries at every opportunity to quash any mention of Manion's motive for killing Quill. Biegler eventually manages to get Laura Manion's rape into the record, and Judge Weaver (Joseph N. Welch) agrees to allow it to be part of the deliberations. However, during cross-examination Dancer insinuates that Laura openly flirted with other men, including the man she claimed raped her. Psychiatrists offer conflicting opinions to Manion's state of mind at the time that he killed Quill. Dancer contends that Manion may have suspected Laura of cheating on him because he asked his wife, who is Catholic, to swear on a rosary that Quill raped her. This raises doubt as to whether the act was actually non-consensual.
Quill's estate is to be inherited by Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant), whom Dancer accuses of being Quill's mistress. McCarthy learns that she is in fact Quill's daughter, a fact she understandably wants to keep secret since she was born out of wedlock. Biegler, who by this time is losing the case, tries to persuade Pilant that Al Paquette, (Murray Hamilton) the bartender who witnessed the murder, may know that Quill admitted to raping Laura but Paquette is covering this up, either because he loves Pilant or out of loyalty to Quill. Through Pilant, Biegler tries to persuade Paquette to testify for the defense, but Paquette refuses.
Laura claims that Quill tore off her panties while raping her; they were not found in the crime scene, where she alleges the rape took place. Pilant, unaware of the details of the case, returns voluntarily to the courtroom to testify that she found the panties in the inn's laundry room. Biegler suggests Quill may have dropped the panties down the laundry chute, located next to his room, to avoid suspicion. Dancer tries to establish that Pilant's answers are founded on her jealousy. When Dancer forcefully argues that Quill was Pilant's lover and that Pilant lied to cover this up, Pilant shocks everyone by saying that Quill was her father. Manion is found "not guilty by reason of insanity". After the trial, Biegler decides to open a new practice, with a newly sober McCarthy as his partner.
The next day Biegler and McCarthy visit the Manions' trailer park home in order to get Manion's signature on a promissory note which they hope can be used as collateral for a desperately needed loan. It turns out the Manions have vacated the trailer park, however, with the trailer park superintendent commenting that Laura Manion had been crying. Manion left a note for Biegler, indicating that his flight was "an irresistible impulse" — echoing terminology Biegler used during the trial. Biegler states that Mary Pilant has retained him to execute Quill's estate. McCarthy says that working for her will be "poetic justice".