(Dir. Otto Preminger) (1959)
Former D.A. Paul Biegler (James Stewart) would rather go fishing than push paper around his law office, divorcing Jane from John Doe, threatening a few deadbeats – but when a juicy murder trial comes his way, he is persuaded to take it on: his drinking buddy (Arthur O’Connell) needs the action and his secretary (Eve Arden) needs the fee to pay her wages and get some new typewriter ribbon (the ‘P’ and ‘f’ are wonky – her contracts keep saying “The arty of the irst art“).
But prospects of an acquittal look pretty bleak – the accused, Lt. Manion (a superbly creepy and menacing Ben Gazzara) walked in to the Thunder Bay Inn and shot Barney Quill down in cold blood. It seems Mrs Manion (a ravishing Lee Remick) was attacked and raped by Quill, so her husband thinks he has the ‘unwritten law’ on his side. Biegler points out that unwritten laws only hold up in Court if the windows are closed, so this defendant will have to think a bit harder about his defence. Maybe, he was in the grip of an irresistible impulse?
To make out that defence – based on a Michigan Court precedent dating back to 1886 – Biegler will have to force the issue of rape and call an army psychiatrist on the cheap to establish the mental element. Opposed to him, apart from the D.A. and a bunch of hostile witnesses, is special prosecutor Claude Dancer (a vulpine and brilliant George C. Scott).
This is a great court-room drama, one of the best in fact, with first rate performances, particularly from Stewart, Remick, Gazzara, Murray Hamilton, and especially George C. Scott, in an intimidating role somewhat similar to that in The Hustler.
Hats off to Duke Ellington as well, for the film’s jazzy sound-track, although his brief appearance as ‘Pie-Eye’ shows he was no actor.