Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959) is all about the performance of human interaction; it’s charade and exploitation; it’s the manipulation and gamification of the system. This claim may seem superficial at first glance (the analytical equivalent of “it was all a dream”). But I’m not merely suggesting that the film is performative in the same sense that all films are performances—all artifice is artifice, to put it in tautological terms—and I’m not suggesting that the characters in Anatomy are necessarily behaving falsely or dishonestly.
What I am suggesting is that the ways in which these characters maneuver around each other are, like the film’s Duke Ellington soundtrack, a sort of jazz. Each interaction is a game of push-and-pull; it’s a showcase of virtuosity; it’s learning to improvise when another player takes you into unsuspecting rhythms or keys. It’s less about truth or falsehood and it’s more about the skill of the performance.
II: The Brown Paper Bag
Let’s start at the beginning. About six minutes into the film, in the home of small-town lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart), we see our first conversation between Biegler and his colleague Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell). McCarthy, as established in a brief earlier scene, is a bit of an alcoholic. He notices a brown paper bag on the counter and asks Biegler what it is.
“It might be a cabbage head,” replies Biegler.
McCarthy offers a wry smile. “But it wouldn’t be.” During much of this conversation, the two characters aren’t facing each other; the scene treats their spatial relationship as if they’re in the same room, with shot-reverse-shot editing, but they’re casually moving around the house as they speak. This stylistic choice withholds physical intimacy and offers a different kind of intimacy in its place: a comfortable, maneuverable, flowing, playful dynamic, not unlike musicians sharing a stage, or athletes sharing a field.
Presently, Biegler is in the kitchen stocking his fridge with fresh fish. “You’re a very suspicious man,” he retorts.
“True,” begins McCarthy, offering an oddly elegant response: “I’m everlastingly suspicious and/or fascinated by the contents of brown paper bags. Shall I sneak a peek?” He is invited to do so, and they share a drink. Biegler moves from the kitchen to the living room and starts quietly playing jazz piano. McCarthy notices that the bottle isn’t quite full. He explores the implications of this discovery with a literary, poetic tone: “you fought this soldier by yourself,” he remarks. “You’ve been drinking alone, Polly. I don’t like that.”
Biegler’s response is similarly poetic: “Ah, drop the stone, counselor: you live in a glass house.”
“My windows have been busted a long time ago,” McCarthy replies, continuing the metaphor, “so I can say as I please.”
This scene establishes right away what role dialogue plays in these people’s lives and in their relationships. They’re playing a verbal game. This, again, isn’t to say that they’re necessarily being false. “None but the lonely heart shall know my anguish,” Biegler says later, raising his drink for a toast. He’s being snide, of course, mocking McCarthy’s implications that he’s in some deep pit of despair—but at the same time, he’s acknowledging something real. The contrast between his flippant tone and his deeply melancholy phrasing let us know in a satisfyingly complicated way that while Biegler is by nature a performer, there’s still something honest even in his most transparently performative moments.
The basic meaning of what’s being communicated here is fairly clear: McCarthy finds a drink, wants to partake, is invited to share it, subtly warns Biegler (from experience, no doubt) of the dangers of drinking alone, and is gently rebuked in turn. It’s all quite mundane—but they go about expressing these things with an almost ornate or theatrical sense of poetry (“everlastingly suspicious,” “my windows have been busted”). And the words they use to refer to each other—in this scene and in others throughout the film—indicate a camaraderie that lets the audience know that their back-and-forth is friendly and safe: they’re sparring, surely, but with gloves on.
III: Music, Cigarettes, and Happy Marriages
About 25 minutes into the film, we get another interesting interaction between characters, each performing, each assessing, maneuvering, and disarming the other. As we’ll see, they’re ostensibly on each other’s side, but the way in which the dialogue between them is written, staged, shot, and paced gives the impression that they’re sort of sparring—just like Biegler and McCarthy at the beginning, though with distinctly different (that is, sexual and asymmetrical) undertones.
This time we’re in Biegler’s office. He’s meeting Laura Manion (Lee Remick) for the first time, and he’s trying to decide whether he wants to take the case (she’d been beaten and raped by a man who subsequently was murdered; her husband stands accused of the murder).
Manion has arrived early (and Biegler is a bit late), so she’s waiting in his office, listening loudly to his records. We first see her in a frame-within-a-frame as Biegler opens his office door. She’s young, attractive, and well-dressed. She’s looking right at Biegler—as if prepared for the exact moment he’d walk in—and is sitting on his couch, relaxed but posed, one leg over her other knee, arms stretched out across the back of the chair and the armrest. She’s wearing a half-smile across her lips, and large black sunglasses (to cover the bruises on her face). The frame-within-a-frame composition of the shot suggests Manion is trapped in a box, which makes sense on a surface level—she’s been through some trauma, and now her husband stands accused of murder—but the way Remick performs the part here tells us something different about Manion, even in this couple of frames. She’s not completely powerless; she’s very image-conscious and she’s very savvy when she wants to depict a certain persona. In other words, even if the frame-within-a-frame is a prison, Laura Manion is the kind of woman who takes control of her cell.
They say hi to each other, and Biegler begins to stammer a bit, in that signature Jimmy Stewart way. “I, uh—” he turns off the record player. “I hope you don’t mind. I think we’d better talk.”
Manion changes the subject. “You’re a funny kind of a lawyer.” She specifies: “The music, I mean.”
Biegler is curious: “aren’t lawyers supposed to like music?”
“Well, not that kind of music.”
“I guess that settles it,” he concedes. “I’m a funny kind of lawyer.”
Looks like she wins this round.
Round two: Biegler is rummaging through his bookshelves, his back to Mrs. Manion (this is not dissimilar to the way in which he and McCarthy had interacted earlier—often moving around, backs turned, engaging with their environment, sometimes genuinely distracted, sometimes perhaps only wearing distractedness as a costume). “Where’s your home, Mrs. Manion? Where’d you go to school? Where’d you live when you were growing up?” Notice how this flurry of questions are all pretty much synonymous, but he’s firing them off in rapid succession, as if to overwhelm, confuse, or disarm. He’s quickly trying to recover from the “funny kind of lawyer” line of questioning. He’s regaining control.
But Manion is nonplussed. “Oh, no place in particular; we sort of moved around,” she sighs. It’s a casual, easy deflection—but when I say “sigh,” it’s literal—there’s an audible exhalation here, and we’re given the sense that she considers the question (and its answer) quite boring. “My father was a boomer—construction boomer—building dams, mostly.” There’s a beat. You can see the gears turning in Manion’s head; she’s figured out a way to regain control of this conversation. She notices that Biegler had called her Mrs. Manion—a rather formal mode of address for a “funny kind of lawyer” who listens to Dixieland and Brubeck. She decides to pounce on that. “You can call me Laura,” she says, a subtle hint of playful flirtation in her tone. She’s toying with the boundaries of Biegler’s professionalism, trying to figure out where he’ll draw the line.
Biegler smiles a bit. He recognizes this Manion/Laura play, but he’s determined not to lose round two over something as silly as a name. He continues rummaging through bookshelves, then asks: “is your family still alive, Laura?”
He continues rummaging. At this point the bit is beginning to wear thin: what are you getting at? What are you looking for? He decides it’s time to reveal the answers to those questions, again taking advantage of the bumbling, shuffling, stuttering, small-town Jimmy Stewart persona:
“I don’t know—I have some cigarettes around here someplace…” he mutters.
“Do you want a cigarette?”
“No, I wanted to offer you one.”
Manion is smiling at Biegler’s antics. Maybe she’s unsure what to make of him. Maybe she’s charmed. Maybe she’s trying to see how disarmed he’ll be by seeing her smile, especially given the context of her visit. Maybe a bit of all three. “You could light it for me,” she offers, pulling out a cigarette of her own.
“Oh, yes,” Biegler agrees. She has courteously offered him an opportunity to be courteous; she's a good guest going out of her way to make him feel like a good host. Biegler rummages through his pockets for his lighter, but can’t find anything. At this point it’s not clear whether he’s genuinely disorganized or if he’s still doing a bit.
“Here,” Manion says, offering her lighter—again helping him help her. She’s still smiling, perhaps wondering the same things we are about Biegler’s performance. Round two appears to be a tie.
And round three starts rather quickly, with Biegler asking: “That’s just like your husband’s, isn’t it?” His back is to her now; he’s finding a seat.
“Mm-hmm. He gave me this because I liked the one he had. He’s like that—he gives me presents all the time.” Her smile is wider now, and there’s a hint of bragging in her voice.
Biegler approaches his chair and starts to get settled. He follows up on this he-gives-me-presents image: “do you have a happy marriage?”
And here, for the first time in 70 seconds of nonstop back-and-forth dialogue, Laura Manion looks taken aback. She’s now sitting upright, her posture definitely less casual than it’d been. “Yes,” she answers, somewhat timidly. Biegler has identified her exaggerated narrative and has honed in on it. And by so doing, he has won round three.
This boxing-match dynamic continues. If we were to closely analyze every line throughout the rest of the fascinating scene, it would likely push this blog entry beyond its intended scope. So, we’ll have to move on from here. But you get the idea: every scene in this film is a trial, every room a courtroom, every character an attorney, every line a manipulation, every response a defense, every moment an interrogation. Some of these interrogations are low-stakes (“what’s in the brown paper bag?”) and others a bit more intense (“do you have a happy marriage?”).
IV: Just a Humble Country Lawyer
For our final example, we’ll have to fast-forward about two hours and get to the climax of the film. The case of Lieutenant Frederick “Manny” Mannion (Ben Gazzara) has had its twists and turns, and it’s been hard to tell who is right or wrong—and who is winning or losing.
But district attorney Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West) and a prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) from the Attorney General’s office have been putting up quite a fight, and at one point, things look particularly bad for our friend Mr. Biegler and the Manions.
The prosecution brings in Duane “Duke” Miller (Don Ross), who had been neighbors with the Lieutenant while they were behind bars. This is a controversial but provocative choice. Duke says that he had spoken with the Lieutenant earlier—and that the Lieutenant had told him, “I got it made, buster […] I fooled my lawyer, I fooled that head-shrinker. I’m gonna fool those corn-cobbers on the jury, [and] when [I get] out, the first thing [I’ll] do [is] kick that bitch from here to kingdom come.”
The soundtrack at this point is all diegetic: we hear uncomfortable rustling, murmuring, and whispering. We cut to a close-up of Laura Manion’s face, and she is clearly troubled. Her mouth is slightly open and her eyes are wide with—well, what? It could be fear, upon realizing that these words sound exactly like something her husband would say (and therefore she may be in danger). Or it could be nervousness about the pure shock value of such a story—true or not—and about its ramifications regarding their chances of success in the courtroom. No matter what exactly is going on in her face, the camera gets close—not only because the film wants us to examine her response intimately but because the film wants us to understand how intimately the jury will be examining her response. This is a turning point in the trial, in the charade, in the game of it all.
Duke is asked, to clarify: to whom was the Lieutenant referring when he said “that bitch”?
“To his wife.”
Biegler is not happy with this development—his opponents have brought in a criminal with a history of arson, assault, larceny, indecent exposure, window-peeping, perjury, and disorderly conduct. So Biegler flies off the handle a bit, ranting and raving not only to the jury or to the judge (whom he occasionally even interrupts), but also to the witness himself. Biegler is furiously intent on painting the system as rigged and corrupt, trying to express that this “Duke” is an obviously untrustworthy source and that he has been manipulated by the prosecution, coached to say such defamatory things.
It’s not clear whether Biegler is right. But it’s clear that he’s passionate. Maybe that’s ultimately all he needs, but it’s not looking good.
The Lieutenant is brought back to the stand and asked from both sides about what this fellow inmate had accused him of. He denies it, of course. But the thing about stories is that they stick with you even when they’re denied or redacted—no matter how many times you hear the equivalent of “please disregard what you’ve just heard” (which we hear pretty explicitly, approximately four times throughout the film), it’s impossible to erase the memory of a truly compelling narrative. Truths and untruths don’t matter. The courtroom is a theater. It’s all a charade. To reiterate: this isn’t to say that everything said is false. Certainly, some things that are said by Biegler or by his opponents have got to be true. But in this context, it seems that distinction between accuracy and error is neither possible nor important.
As the Lieutenant puts it, more succinctly, towards the end of the first act: “how can a jury disregard what it has already heard?”
So, it’s up to Biegler now to turn the tables. What is he going to do now that his back is against the wall? The jury has heard a compellingly disturbing narrative. As Don Draper of Mad Men says: “if you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” But how?
And that’s when he leaves the courtroom and comes back with a surprise witness, Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant). I’ll skip the details of why Pilant is such a significant witness, but suffice it to say that the prosecution loses their minds. Biegler has pulled a fast one on them. When they react in outrage—protesting this “cornball trick” that’s been “rigged to unduly excite the jury”—Biegler responds ingeniously:
“Your Honor,” he says, with an air of modesty and deference, “I don’t blame Mr. Dancer for feeling put upon. I’m just a humble country lawyer, trying to do my best against this brilliant prosecutor from the big city of Lansing.”
This is an extraordinary move. Biegler is positioning himself as the victim, the everyman, and the underdog. But even more significantly: the film itself, almost breaking the fourth wall, is commenting on James Stewart’s persona, implicating us in the discourses of trust and mistrust that automatically color our expectations whenever we buy a ticket to see one of his appearances.
Which is to say: it’s gently mocking us for trusting Jimmy.
Anatomy of a Murder is about the ways in which our human interactions can be a sort of charade. Preminger’s camera endlessly dollies, pans, and meanders—often unwilling to privilege a specific point-of-view, thus forcing us to take sides, to examine every angle, and to revel in the spectacle of the verbal sparring that occurs in just about every scene (including, as I’ve explored above, several scenes that aren’t even in the courtroom).
Matching the aimless camera is a twisting story with a lot of ambiguity regarding people’s motives and actions. Our feet are never on completely solid ground; we can’t be totally sure who wants what from whom. There’s a sense in which we trust Paul Biegler, probably because he’s James Stewart—but as I noted above, the film is quite mischievous, even a bit biting, with how it treats that implicit trust.
Every character in Anatomy of a Murder is willing to don and discard (like a costume) various personas, emotions, arguments, or philosophies. The goal is to be excellent for excellence’s sake; and the goal of the film is to marvel at these people’s excellence. The excitement of Anatomy, then, is in the speed of its dialogue, the wit of its rebuttals, and the disorienting thrill of its reversals. It’s a series of tense verbal boxing matches—like Frost/Nixon (2008) minus the politics. It’s a showcase of madness and almost violent virtuosity—like Whiplash (2014) minus the drums and the blood. And it’s an escalating parade of disguises and obscured intentions—like Carnage (2011) minus the hamster and the vomit.
But what is it all for? I recently re-watched this film in a graduate class called "American Masterworks," and it makes me wonder: in what way is Anatomy of a Murder notably, quintessentially American?
I’d argue that the film aims to expose the ways in which this “charade” we’ve described exists and perpetuates itself throughout every cultural system in America (in both its casual systems like friendship and gender dynamics, but also in its more structured, institutional systems like justice and incarceration). There’s something deeply American about exploiting aphoristic turns of phrase to playfully build rapport with a drinking buddy (“drop the stone, counselor; you live in a glass house”), exploiting sexuality to disarm and manipulate a man who holds power over you (“you can call me Laura”), or exploiting class struggle to win an argument and keep a man out of jail (“I’m just a humble country lawyer”).
Furthermore—and I think this is why the film resonates so well—there’s something deeply American about enjoying this exploitation. Watching it, laughing at it, being engrossed in it, willingly buying into it, and, eventually—once the magician has revealed the secrets to his tricks—reeling, dazed and delighted, from the spectacle of it.
Because it doesn’t matter if it’s a lie. How can a jury (or an audience) disregard what it has already heard?