Directed by Otto Preminger
Written by Wendell Mayes
For the longest time I thought this was an Alfred Hitchcock film. I don’t know, he’s just made so many great films, and often times they starred Jimmy Stewart, and this was about a murder, so I guess I kinda just sorta figured, but obviously I was wrong. No, it was instead directed by Otto Preminger, of whom I had not heard. Upon examination of his credits I found very few movies I had heard of, and none that I had seen, though he was nominated for 3 Academy Awards, including for producing, not directing, this picture. I have always loved Jimmy Stewart and I was happy to learn the film also starred a young George C. Scott. Score!
Paul Biegler (Stewart) is an attorney who hasn’t had much work in small town Michigan after retiring from the District Attorney position. But when he returns from one of his many fishing trips his good friend and colleague Parnell Emmett McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell), who has taken up the bottle, urges him to take the case of Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), who stands accused of murdering a local businessman. Biegler is contacted by Manion’s wife, Laura (Lee Remick), who claims she was raped by the man her husband killed and upon telling him, Lt. Manion went and murdered him. The case is tried and Biegler tries to get Manion off on a temporary insanity charge against the strong armed lawyering of the assistant state attorney general, Claude Dancer (George C. Scott).
I was immediately taken with the film because of one thing: Duke Ellington. It was much to my surprise to find that Ellington was responsible for the film’s score, which starts off, and ultimately ends, with a stellar theme music coupled with the images of Biegler returning home from his fishing trip. From this scene I was excited to experience the film to this unique treat of a music score, yet I was ultimately let down, and maybe I put too much credence in Ellington, but then again he is considered by some to be America’s greatest composer. But for the rest of the film the score only served as a minor atmospheric tool. Not bad, not great, though it did help provided he backdrop for jazz piano being a hobby of Biegler, a nice touch to add personality to the character.
And the character is so well portrayed by Stewart, who is always great in my opinion. The film is actually quite long, though it never really feels it as the courtroom drama is engulfed in tension and suspense, which often recalled Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird. But this film is clearly much different than that one, apart from the courtroom. It is entirely a psychological battle. There is no disputing that Lt. Manion did the killing, so it then becomes an argument of whether he is responsible for it, and watching Stewart’s Biegler manipulate the court in his favor is fantastic. Equally impressive is the strong arming nature of George C. Scott, who like Stewart is simply fantastic to watch.
The court is clearly dramatized, and I have never witnessed even a petty real life case, yet the film felt authentic thanks to some really nice small touches implemented by the script and director, allowing the judge some personality. The actor who plays the judge, I cannot recall his name, is deserving of his humanizing portrayal as well. He plays it like a real judge who has seen plenty of cases. It came complete with nice twists and plenty of tension within the courtroom, leaving me on the edge of my seat and forgetting about the extended run time. I just wanted to figure out all the pieces of the puzzle. I was also quite impressed with Lee Remick, impressed both by her performance and her astounding beauty.