Have you no decency, Jimmy?
Director Otto Preminger tested the limits of the Hollywood’s stringent production “standards,” the Hays Code, with the frank dialogue of 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder. The courtroom drama, set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, revolves around an Army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) accused of murdering a barkeeper who allegedly had raped the lieutenant’s wife, played by Lee Remick. James Stewart plays Paul Biegler, the accused murderer’s defense attorney. Anatomy of a Murder is based on a novel by Robert Traver, the nom de plume of John D. Voelker, a Michigan Supreme Court judge, who, in turn, had based his story on the real life “Big Bay Lumberjack Tavern murder” of 1952. The film examines the law’s necessary reliance on the very fallible aspects of human nature, and takes an especially pointed look at the practice of witness coaching—Stewart’s character advising his client to manipulate details of the killing to an unethical degree.
The film, nominated for six Academy Awards, is notable for a number of other interesting features. Its soundtrack—composed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, was performed by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and Ellington also appears in a cameo role. The judge was played by an actual lawyer, Joseph Welch, who had been the lead attorney representing the U.S. Army at the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. It was he who had dressed down Senator Joseph McCarthy with the famous line, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” In addition to Stewart, Remick and Gazzara, the film also features wonderful performances by Arthur O’Connell and George C. Scott.