Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), a lieutenant in the army, is arrested for the murder of a bartender, Barney Quill. He claims, in his defense, that the victim had raped and beaten up his wife Laura (Lee Remick). Although Laura supports her husband's story, the police surgeon can find no evidence that she has been raped. Manion is defended by Paul Biegler (James Stewart), a humble small-town lawyer and recently deposed district attorney. During the course of interviews, Biegler discovers that Manion is violently possessive and jealous, and also that his wife has a reputation for flirting with other men. Biegler realizes that the prosecution will try to make the court believe that Laura had been drunk and was picked up by the bartender and then Her husband killed him and beat her up when he discovered they had been together. Manion pleads "not guilty" and Biegler, who knows that his case is weak, tries to find evidence that will save Manion. Written by
Absolutely first-rate courtroom drama, fascinating all the way
It's hard to think of any film that can surpass Otto Preminger's superb courtroom drama. Having seen this film countless times now, I'm hooked, each time I see it. Usually I find most courtroom dramas not all that fascinating. Most of them work up to the point they enter the courtroom, after which most of the sparkle disappears.
That's definitely not the case in this film. The writing is just as riveting (I don't think it's dated, and in a way, every film is dated) as it was back then and the film is greatly boosted by a fantastic cast led by Stewart in perhaps the best role of his career and that says something. It's a long film (160 min) but I never even notice the lengthy running time. It could go on for two hours more as far as I'm concerned.
The film is set in Thunder Bay in Northern Michigan, a town that lives mainly of tourism and the nearby army base. Stewart plays Paul Biegler, an easy-going small town Michigan lawyer at the dawn of his career, who likes to spend his spare time going fishing and play a tune on the piano once in a while to relax himself. One day, he is called by a young woman (Lee Remick) to defend the case of her husband, an army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara), who is accused of murdering the rapist of his beautiful seductive wife. He decides to take the case, but the prosecution calls in reinforcements from Lansing in the person of big-city prosecutor George C. Scott, who claims it's a case of cold blooded murder. The unfolding of the story with captivating new insights after each new witness and several surprising twists and turns will have you glued to your seat.
The courtroom theatrics are outrageous and they would probably never be allowed in a real courtroom, as the two lawyers try everything, even the lowest tricks in the book, to make their case. The cross-examinations are riveting and at times very funny. Preminger mainly uses long takes without too much cross-cutting and close-ups and in every take there's something droll, like the courtroom scene where George C. Scott continuously tries to block the view between Stewart and Remick, when he questions her on the stand. Strangely enough, when Stewart bursts out in protest about this behaviour, it becomes even funnier, when the two lawyers start bickering at each other in high fashion.
Arthur O'Connell is simply fantastic as Stewart's alcoholic sidekick, and Eve Arden is equally memorable as his cynical lace-tongued secretary hoping to receive her long-due paycheck with this case. Real-life judge Joseph N. Welch is a marvel to watch in his role as Judge Weaver. Welch got most famous in real life, because he stood up against communist witch hunter senator McCarthy during the Army hearings and told him on live television, "Have you no sense of decency, sir?"
Duke Ellington provided the score and also makes a brief appearance behind the piano in a nightly bar scene.
This is as good as it gets, extremely well written, superbly acted, directed, scored, every minute of it is supremely entertaining. A completely winning combination.
Camera Obscura --- 10/10
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