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Joshua Wilson

ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959)

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I will be discussing the details of the plot in this post.

I saw this film last night for the first time, and I am sure that I would not have seen it in the same way if I had first watched it years ago.

The title refers to a murder trial, but really there are two crimes that are at issue: the murder of bar owner Barney Quill by an army officer, Lt. Manion, and the rape of Manion's wife Laura by Quill. There is never any question of whether Manion killed Quill--there is no twist whodunnit resolution, only the question of whether his plea of not guilty by reason of temporary insanity will prevail. In the case of the rape, however, there is a great deal of ambiguity surrounding the story. Ultimately, I think that the film most strongly implies that there was no rape, but rather Manion killed Quill out of jealousy due to his wife's flirtation. There's plenty of evidence in the film to support that interpretation, despite the fact that of course we never hear the alleged rapist's side of the story, but that's not really my concern.

It was alarming and very uncomfortable for me to see the way in which the issue of the rape was handled in the course of the trial. In real life, there have been some recent high-profile rape trials that resulted in the court effectively showing much more concern for the rapist than for the victim. In this film, even if we proceed with the ultimate interpretation that the rape did not take place (which I feel is the most reasonable interpretation of what we as a viewer are privileged to see) there is no justification for the way that the court handled the allegations and the presentation of the evidence, nor especially how it treated the alleged victim. Real rape victims today talk about being victimized a second time by the process of prosecuting a rapist. That couldn't have been more clearly dramatized than in this film. One of the primary lines of argument for the prosecution is to discredit Mrs. Manion by portraying her as a provocative temptress who flirted and possibly more with men in the town. Even Manion's lawyer, Biegler, (Jimmy Stewart), who objects throughout to the word choices of the prosecutor, never objects in principle to the idea that how a woman dressed or looked is not a relevant to the question of whether she was raped. The idea that a woman might "bring it on herself" by being too good looking and dressing too sexily is an undercurrent of the argumentation. Biegler implicitly acknowledges this by dressing her in an ill-fitting suit and floppy hat at the start of the trial. It can be said that he is cannily defending against a potential prejudice in the minds of the jurors, but my point is that even he will not directly argue that her looks or dress are irrelevant to the veracity of her rape claim.

A particularly telling moment occurs when the question of how to refer to Mrs. Manion's undergarments is brought to the bench. When it is agreed to use the word "panties," a general snickering envelopes the courtroom. The judge reprimands all present, instructing them that he will not tolerate any more laughter due to the gravity of the situation. He invokes the interest of the deceased man and the killer, but no mention of the woman who is in the dock, having an interest in not being laughed at as she recounts what are the embarrassing details of her attack. Following this, the prosecution attorney proceeds to grill her in an unmerciful manner.

This can all be chalked up to the idea that this is representative of how things were in 1959. I would find that more easy to deal with if we weren't still seeing this in real life. Much like the type of trial depicted in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD highlights racial problems in the court system that have become less overtly condoned, but are still present, this film highlights an inherent injustice to women. The problem becomes that, unlike Tom Robinson, Mrs. Manion is not nearly as sympathetic to the viewer, since it's very possible based on the evidence we see as viewers of the film that she was fabricating the story of the rape.

So despite the lauded ambiguity of the trial results and the groundbreaking "frankness" of the dialogue, I feel after a single viewing that this film may do more to reinforce problematic views of rape victims that still persist, than to challenge our thinking. This is despite the fact that the prosecutor comes across as fairly villainous for his line of attack, and that our natural sympathies are with Jimmy Stewart's character to win the case.

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Saw it last night.

 

SPOILERS

 

I actually found Mrs. Manion quite sympathetic, because the film makes it clear she's a victim of someone. Whether she's a rape victim of Barney Quill or an abuse victim of her husband, who along with Stockholm syndrome pressured her into lying about being raped to get him off, is unclear and outside the scope of the film. And I actually thought the film did make it clear that she was in no way responsible for whichever act of abuse actually happened, even if she was highly flirtatious or willingly having an affair. And the way Preminger framed the reaction to the "panties" scene made me sympathize with her even more, because he puts her right in the center of the frame, drawing all attention to her, which for me, put into stark relief the cruelty of laughing at her and the abuse she suffered.

However, I absolutely agree that the film doesn't really see a problem with the "what was she wearing" argument, as is made clear by how Biegler wants her to dress for the trial, even if it wants to put all the blame on the perpetrator (whoever he is). And the introduction of Mrs. Manion was also quite problematic, because it's designed to cast as much doubt on her story as possible, even if there are dramatic reasons to do that.

I suppose it's possible to say the film is depicting a realistic portrayal of what laws and attitudes were regarding rape in 1959, but it is cringe-worthy. I was thinking this would make a good double feature with Cape Fear, in which a defense attorney buries evidence that his rapist client's victim was flirtatious, because he knows that's immaterial and an immoral line of defense even though the law says otherwise.

Regarding what really happened in Anatomy of a Murder, whether Mrs. Manion's a victim of her husband or Barney Quill, the testimony from Quill's friend makes me think she was raped, because why else would he be so jumpy, nervous, and reticent. Also, the ripped panties suggest a more violent encounter, not an affair. On the other hand, Lt. Manion is so unlikeable and obviously violent that the prosecution's claim he caught his wife having an affair, beat her, and murdered her love seems more than plausible.

Anyway, it is certainly clear that the "temporary insanity" claim is bogus, and Diegler is defending a guilty man in regards to the murder charge, and I thought the film handled that aspect fantastically, showing how everyone is entitled to a fair trial and the ways that a guilty man could get off depending on how evidence is produced.

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