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The Greatest Lawyer Movies of All Time: “Anatomy of a Murder”

LSAT students need a break every once in awhile, and lawyer movies are a great option for passive entertainment. There’s nothing like a good courtroom drama to keep you excited about your future legal career and get you through the LSAT slog. But which lawyer movies are the best? That’s what I’m trying to find out. This week, I watched #4 from the ABA’s Top 25…

Anatomy of a Murder
1959 dir. Otto Preminger

Of the many procedurals I’ve watched over these past few months, “Anatomy of a Murder” might be the most convincing in its verisimilitude and attention to detail. It’s based on a novel based on a real 1952 murder written by the defense attorney who tried the case. The screenplay was written by a member of the Michigan Supreme Court. The judge is played by Joseph M. Welch, real life attorney at law and legendary McCarthy-shamer.

With all of these legal minds working in front and behind the camera, the resulting film feels quite authentic, for better and worse. As its title suggests, “Anatomy of a Murder” is a procedural in the truest sense.

That is not to say that the proceedings lack drama. The film is chock-full of courtroom tropes. There’s the small town lawyer up against a big city ace; cheap legal tricks and down-to-the-wire private investigations; objections, and objections to those objections; surprise witnesses and cross-examination standoffs. If you had never seen a courtroom drama before and wanted to know what they were like, “Anatomy of a Murder” would be a good place to start.

The movie stars James Stewart as Paul Biegler, a former prosecutor who has been replaced in a recent election and is casting about for what to do next. When a scandalous case falls in his lap, he recruits the help of his old buddy Parnell, an alcoholic mentor, on the condition that the old man gets on the wagon.

The defendant is a young hotheaded veteran, Frederick Manion, accused of killing a man who may have raped his wife. “Accused” is a technicality here: he freely admits that he pulled the trigger. But he doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong. It was his right as a husband, he says, to shoot the man who raped his wife. In their first meeting, his counsel gives him a homework assignment: come up with a better excuse.

There are no real good guys in “Anatomy of a Murder.” The victim may have been a rapist. Manion is not just a murderer, but might be a wife-beater as well, and even his lawyer can’t stand him. Biegler, our protagonist, is not a bad person, but he’s not a particularly moral one either. He’s not driven by his conscience to defend Manion, he just knows that’s the role he’s been chosen to play.

Then there’s the defendant’s wife, Laura. She claims she was raped, but she gets little sympathy from her slut-shaming, victim-blaming neighbors. Even Biegler raises his eyebrows at her coquettish behavior, and there are plenty of moments when you wish the film treated her more humanely. It was 1959, but still.

The best moments in “Anatomy of a Murder” come in the courtroom, where the opposing lawyers use every rhetorical tool at their disposal to try to undermine each other, never mincing words. It’s a real dogfight, and a good show.

“The Anatomy of a Murder” is available to stream on iTunes and Youtube.