James Stewart’s air of awkward befuddlement served him well in comedies such as Bringing up Baby (1938; dir. Howard Hawks), but it does not always work in Anatomy of a Murder (1959, dir. Otto Preminger), although in a sense he's reemploying the character he played memorably in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939; dir. Frank Capra). However, befuddlement in his character Paul Biegler is a ruse: as a country lawyer pretending to be less capable than he is, he's sly.
The film is about the trial of an army lieutenant, Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), accused of murdering a bartender, Barney Quill, who purportedly raped Manion’s wife Laura (Lee Remick). Biegler defends Manion in the trial.
Much about the film is antiquated. Elements that might have seemed daring in 1959 because of the frank presentation of sex seem old-fashioned if not retrograde. An example is the treatment of rape. Although Michigan law doesn't recognize a man’s right to kill his wife’s rapist, Biegler works this argument into his defense anyway because he knows it will have an impact on the jury. The prosecuting attorneys would like to show either that Laura Manion was not raped or that she invited rape with her manner of dress and behavior. The film does everything it can to suggest that Laura is a wanton woman: she comes on to Biegler every time they meet, she leaves her husband at night to drink and dance at local night spots, and she flirts constantly. She’s a Lolita-like vamp, and we’re encouraged to suspect her. Her husband, Frederick, is unlikeable, gruff, and probably an abuser of his wife. There’s not much to like about either of them.
The ambiguity of the law, of what is and isn't true, is at issue. Biegler’s intention is to outwit the prosecution, not to demonstrate what is true or false. It's never clear that the accused Manion isn't lying or that his wife isn’t lying. (In fact, we suspect that they concocted the rape story to justify the murder of Quill).
After the trial ends with a finding of innocence, Manion and Laura run off. It's not clear that Biegler isn't aware that maybe his client was guilty after all. During the trial, Biegler used a phrase, “irresistible impulse,” to describe Manion’s supposed reaction when he learns his wife has been raped. The irresistible impulse leads Manion to kill Quill in a fit of vengeful rage. However, in the note he leaves for Biegler to explain his sudden departure, he writes that he was following an “irresistible impulse,” implying that it was all a deception.
The film’s music is by Duke Ellington, who shows up as the pianist in a small jazz combo at a night spot Biegler visits. Biegler’s fondness for jazz, which he plays on his piano, is the justification for the jazzy score. Except for the small group of musicians Ellington plays with, the only black person in the film is on a wanted poster at the sheriff’s office.