Otto Preminger’s 1959 courtroom drama about a defense attorney’s effort to win a case of a soldier who killed a man who raped his wife. The soldier pleads temporary insanity, or as it’s called in the film, an “irresistible impulse,” drove him to kill the man.
Jimmy Stewart plays the lawyer Paul Biegler, a man who’d recently been voted out of office as the prosecuting attorney and turned to the private practice of law without much urgency. He liked to fish more than chase clients.
Lee Remick stars as the wife and victim of the rape, and she is completely captivating. She’s played with a sense of barely restrained sexuality, a sort that comes into play in the story in a way that sees various characters victim-blame her, from subtle whisperings to direct cross-examination on the stand from a perfectly smarmy George C. Scott playing one of the state’s prosecuting attorneys.
The film was considered radical at the time for its frank inclusion of words that, for the most part, seem tame by today’s standards but were rather shocking at the time. The details of the rape and its investigation and the honest discussion of an attorney with the defendant and his wife were not shied away from in the film, and that honesty, along with the procedurally accurate account of the courtroom scenes, has elevated the film as one of the best courtroom dramas ever committed to film.
I watched the film on the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray, and it was a beautiful transfer of the film. I was struck by how much I enjoyed Stewart’s performance as Biegler, because it so reminded me of how I felt when reading the book. I was in college, and I bought the book while I was doing a semester in Washington, D.C. for an internship program that saw me working with criminal defense attorneys.
I don’t know why I picked up the book, but I remember being somewhat shocked that such “old” material could read as so fresh and conversational. That was because of the way the author, John D. Voelker, a Michigan Supreme Court justice writing under the pen name of Robert Traver, had written the book from the first-person perspective of Biegler. He drew inspiration from his time as an attorney and fictionalized a case he’d actually tried. That insider’s knowledge transferred well to the page, and Biegler was a smart and funny narrator of the story. It was like a very gifted storyteller was sitting right next to you, speaking directly into your ear, and it read as if it could have been written in 2008, the year I was reading it. I don’t know why that surprised me so, but it did, and it was one of the most enjoyable books I ever read because of it.
Stewart’s Biegler doesn’t rise to the literary heights of the book’s, but his fundamental decency carried throughout his performance, and while he was quick to deliver a witty or smart remark in many places in the film, they never felt as fresh as the book’s did to me. They felt very much of the time and place of the film’s production and release, no matter how novel the use of such mature language and adult subject matter was used.
Overall, it was impressive how much of the film takes place in the courtroom, whereas I remember much more out of the courtroom elements from the book. But there is something fundamental in the film that captures why we remain enamored with legal dramas to this day. The back and forth between Stewart and Scott, the exacting nature of words, the gamesmanship, the tension, the swinging back and forth of fortunes, all of it is masterfully done in this movie as I’ve ever seen it. It is quite timeless that way.