James Stewart plays Paul ‘Polly’ Biegler, an easygoing country lawyer in this courtroom drama adapted from the novel by Robert Traver – in fact, a pen-name for retired Supreme Court judge John D Voelker, and filmed in Voelker’s hometown in Michigan.
Biegler is defending hotblooded army Lieutenant Frederick ‘Manny’ Manion (Ben Gazzara) who is accused of shooting dead Barney Quill – the bear-like bar owner who allegedly tried to rape Manion’s teasing trailer-trash wife Laura (Lee Remick).
Manion and his wife are party people who hang around bars and dancehalls, they drink and they argue. Laura is accused of being a slut; she loves attention from men and Manion is the kind of guy who wants to sock anyone who ogles her.
These are not the kinds of characters that heroic movie lawyers usually defend.
Biegler is a former District Attorney who is keen to get back in court to clash with the political dullard who replaced him in office. He is assisted by his snide secretary (Eve Arden) and boozy-but-brilliant research partner (Arthur O’Connell).
For the prosecution, the befuddled DA hauls in Claude Dancer (George C Scott), a prissy legal eagle from the local big city whose sharp-suited, sly elegance makes an interesting clash with Biegler’s aw-shucks “jimmystewartian” conniving.
One of Hollywood’s first films to address sex and rape in frank terms, words like “panties” and “contraception” are daringly bandied about, and presiding over the court is real-life Boston lawyer Joseph Welch, the man who helped expose Senator McCarthy.
Simply the best trial movie ever made (far less contrived than the brilliant but stagey 12 Angry Men) with a real understanding on the part of Stewart and Scott of the way lawyers have to be not only great actors but stars, assuming personalities that exaggerate their inner selves and weighing every outburst and objection for the effect it has on the poor saps in the jury box.
Paul ‘Polly’ Biegler
Lt Frederick ‘Manny’ Manion
George C. Scott
Dr Matthew Smith
Sergeant James Durgo
Dr W. Gregory Harcourt
Joseph N. Welch