In 1958, Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker published “Anatomy of a Murder” under the pen name Robert Traver. Within a year this novel was adapted for the screen by Wendell Mayes. This screenplay quickly moved into production with acclaimed director Otto Preminger taking charge. Prior to this film Preminger and Stewart had never worked together and this would be their only collaboration. By the time of this film Preminger had already established himself with films like Laura and The Man with the Golden Arm. In addition to Jimmy Stewart, Preminger was blessed with an extremely talented cast including Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, George C. Scott, Eve Arden, and Kathryn Grant.
Paul Biegler (Stewart) is an attorney, a musician, and a fisherman. In the small town of Iron City, Michigan Biegler spends his day’s fishing and debating with his secretary Maida (Arden). In the evenings he moves onto jazz records and time with his drinking buddy and colleague Parnell McCarthy (O’Connell). This simple life is interrupted with a call from a young woman (Remick) seeking to hire Paul to represent her husband, Lieutenant Fred Manion (Gazzara). Manion is in jail after killing the man accused of raping his wife. Without an alibi or a clear defense, Biegler must search out a way to defend his client.
With the talent in front and behind the camera, this film was an immediate success. Despite some controversial subject matter the film was critically and commercially successful. The film also earned seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture. The film was also nominated for Best Actor (Stewart), Best Supporting Actor (Scott, O’Connell), Best Writing, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing. Despite losing in all categories, this film has become an American classic. In addition to the Oscar nominations, the film also won a Grammy for the incredible score written by Duke Ellington.
Writer Wendell Mayes had worked on another Jimmy Stewart film in 1957 when he wrote the screenplay for The Spirit of St. Louis. His work on the screenplay opened up some of the more controversial points of the book. The descriptive language used in the film was uncommon for 1959. The city of Chicago even attempted to ban the film, but were stopped by an appeal to the federal court by Preminger. In a historical context, this film is one of the purest courtroom dramas produced in America. The American Bar Association also listed this movie as number 4 of their top 25 Greatest Legal Films.
For the other stars in this film the rewards came quickly. George C. Scott not only had his first major role, but his first Oscar nomination. Lee Remick was able to make the leap from television to a career in films that would span three decades. The rest of the cast also found varied levels of success moving forward. Otto Preminger also continued to produce excellent work. Following Anatomy of a Murder he went on to direct Exodus, another successful film.
It’s also important to recognize Duke Ellington for an amazing score that added a layer to the emotion and intensity of the film. He would go on to be nominated for an Oscar for his work on the 1962 film Paris Blues. Here is a small sample of the music he created for this movie.
For Jimmy Stewart this was another hit film to add to his impressive resume. This movie earned him his fifth and last Oscar nomination in a competitive category. This was also a film that marked a turning point in Stewart’s career. His last work as a romantic lead had been completed in 1958 in Bell, Book, and Candle. In the following years he took roles in three John Ford films, and continued focusing on Westerns and family films. As the fifties ended, Jimmy Stewart capped off the decade with this incredible film.