Preminger’s courtroom chess match has the feel of time-tested chocolate bars, brittle on the outside, chewy within. On the outside is an ex-local DA named Paul “Paulie” Biegler (Jimmy Stewart) who spends most of his considerable free time fishing or hanging out with adoring mentor Parnell (Arthur O’Connell), an aging boozer. Together, they’re letter-of-the-law attorneys pleasantly parked in a Michigan resort town called Thunder Bay. The mundane is overturned when jazz-loving Paulie takes the case of a trailer park resident and Army lieutenant named Fredrick Manion (Ben Gazzara), who has confessed to gunning down a local bar owner named Barney Quill after Quill allegedly raped his wife. Paulie doesn’t much like the sound of it, but Parnell eggs him on, stating the film’s case: “You don’t have to love him, just defend him.”
Ingredients in place, Preminger lets law and appearances steer the script (from a book by a Michigan supreme court justice). There’s Laura Manion (Lee Remick), a flirtatious lush whose husband scares her and who may or may not be telling the truth about the rape. There’s Manion himself, a Jimmy Dean knockoff who thanks to Paulie’s nods and winks chooses a temporary insanity defense to dodge first-degree murder. Stewart’s Paulie is gleefully ambiguous, shifting between “humble country lawyer” to cynical shark. The court scenes are cinematic tenderloin, with Paulie goading and baiting, raging and placating, proving that he’s not “too pure” for the “natural impurities” of the law.
When hotshot Lansing prosecutor Claude Dancer (a drivingly smarmy George C. Scott) enters the case and turns “meek little housewife” into a vamp, the battle is joined. Judge Weaver (Joseph N. Welch, chief counsel for the Army during the McCarthy hearings) gleefully gobbles up scenes — “Just answer the question, Mr. Paquette, the attorneys will provide the wisecracks…”
Graphic discussion of rape, including on-and-off panties, intercourse, and oblique references to ejaculation, was controversial in the 1950s (the film was briefly banned in Chicago). So were Stewart’s subversions. Here was Mr. America diving into the sordid using law as his shield. “I beg the court to let me cut into the apple…” Does he ever.
Check out Jimmy’s duet with Duke “Pie-Eye” Ellington, with both men seeming deliciously at home.