I wonder how many people who saw the film when it first came out would have realised that they were witnessing the last truly great performance from its star, James Stewart? Not many I would hazard to guess and why would they? After all, he was only 50 when the film was made but from 1960 it was all downhill for this American icon, career-wise. Sure there were one or two good performances on film and TV but this was the last role for which he received universal acclaim from every single critic who watched the film (and from those that didn't!).
And what a film to deliver such a role! Arguably the greatest courtroom drama ever made, the director Otto Preminger manages to keep the viewer glued to the screen despite it being nearly three hours long and the subject matter being of rape and murder! Stewart plays Paul Biegler, a country hick lawyer and lover of jazz, who is drawn into the case, suckered by it, and comes up against big-town prosecutor George C. Scott.
The film was shot in the Michigan peninsula communities of Ishpening and Marquette. Local people were used for the roles of the jurors and courtroom spectators. At the time the novel on which the film was based was enormously popular and to cash in on this Preminger rushed through the shooting in less than two months (March 23 1959 - May 16) with a view to hold a sneak preview in San Francisco in mid-June.
Lana Turner was the original choice to play the part of Laura but walked off the picture when the director refused to let her wear Jean-Louis gowns. He had a point. Would it have been common for an Army wife of that period to wear such gowns? Lee Remick was her replacement. Joseph Welch, the lawyer who had taken on Senator Joseph McCarthy in nationally televised hearings a few years earlier, was the trial judge.
Preminger himself had a reputation for a Gestapo-like method of directing and on this film, despite reports to the contrary, displayed vintage Preminger bastardness! Ben Gazzara, who played Lt Frederick Manion, diplomatically summed up the director as 'a vile prick'. Can't say fairer than that! Preminger abused and bullied assistants and minor actors of the film especially well!
Of course, any film of that era which used words such as "panties" and "spermatogenesis" (what a glorious word!) would be controvesial and this film was. With rape as its subject matter it was not surprising. In Chicago, the director had to go to court to get the film a license. In England the censors cut 20 minutes from the movie and critics reacted furiously as they had recommended the film in its original state; the film was unintelligible in its truncated form. Probaly the worst cut of all happened in South Africa where they banned a scene in which Jimmy Stewart shares a piano bench with Duke Ellington.
Many fans of Stewart wrote to him to express their dismay at the American icon tackling the subject of rape. Even his own father was concerned about the film his son had appeared in after some customers at his hardware store labelled the film a "dirty" movie. Once he actually saw the film, however, his fears were allayed.
Stewart won Best Actor awards from both the New York Film Critics and the Venice Film Festival. The Film Daily named the film Best Picture. Though it was up for many Oscars (incl. Best Actor for Stewart), it lost out, mainly to Ben-Hur.
And to label the fact that this was his last great performance, Stewart never received another Oscar nomination, though he did receive an honourary Oscar in 1985.
Anatomy of a Murderer is a trenchant, bitter, tough, witty dissection of the American legal system. The traditional American old-time moral values are left way, way behind.