★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
This film is the epitome of courtroom dramas. It’s epic, at two hours and forty minutes, and includes a huge cast of characters that centralize around a single murder case.
Paul Biegler (Jimmy Stewart) is a former District Attorney who has recently lost his post in election and has reverted back to private practice. Seemingly upset over loosing his post, he spends most of his time fishing or drinking with his old lawyer friend Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell). One day Biegler receives a call from Laura Manion (Lee Remick) about taking on the case of her husband, Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), who is currently awaiting trial for murdering a bar owner, Barney Quill, who supposedly raped Laura. McCarthy tells Biegler to take the job, and he does. Being that Lt. Manion was able to premeditate the murder, the best defense they have is a plea for temporary insanity. The last two hours of the film are intense courtroom drama between Biegler as the defense and Asst. State Atty. Gen. Claude Dancer (George C. Scott), who is helping the local prosecuting attorney in the trial. Witness after witness come through and the tides seem to change back and forth until the final verdict is given at the end of the film.
Wendell Mayes wrote the screenplay based on the book by John D. Voelker. The script is extremely tight and has very realistic dialog for the era it was produced, which sometimes tended to be a bit melodramatic for modern tastes, especially in films of this nature. Austrian born Otto Preminger directed the film and boy did he direct the heck out of this movie. There are lots of dollies and other various motions in almost every shot that keep the film visually interesting.
The acting across the board is awesome. Gazzara, O’Connell and Scott as a supporting cast are tremendous. Remick as the flirty victimized wife really gives a great performance and is dazzlingly beautiful in this film. The real kudos here, however, belong to Jimmy Stewart. His portrayal of the relentless Biegler is a standout performance and, in a career as illustrious as Stewart’s, that’s saying a lot. Every minute he is on screen is captivating.
At the time this movie came out in 1959, it was very risque because of the taboo subject matter of rape and murder. It definitely has lost a little bit of the shock and awe from what 1950s audiences felt, but the film overall still holds up amazingly well. If only films like this could be released these days, then there might be a reason to make it to the theater more often.