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Anatomy of a Murder

Theatrical release poster by Saul Bass
Directed by Otto Preminger
Produced by Otto Preminger
Written by Story:
John D. Voelker
Wendell Mayes
Starring James Stewart
Lee Remick
Ben Gazzara
Arthur O'Connell
George C. Scott
Music by Duke Ellington
Cinematography Sam Leavitt
Editing by Louis R. Loeffler
Studio Carlyle Productions
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release date(s) July 1, 1959
Running time 160 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Anatomy of a Murder (1959) is an American trial court drama film directed by Otto Preminger and written by Wendell Mayes based on the best-selling novel of the same name written by Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker under the pen name Robert Traver. Voelker based the novel on a 1952 murder case in which he was the defense attorney.[1] It stars James Stewart, George C. Scott, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O'Connell, Eve Arden, Kathryn Grant, Brooks West (Arden's real-life husband),[2] Orson Bean, and Murray Hamilton.[3] The judge was played by Joseph N. Welch, a real-life lawyer famous for standing up to Joseph McCarthy during an anti-Communist hearing.[4]

The film is famous as one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to talk frankly about sex and rape.



From the trailer for the film: Brooks West (left) and James Stewart (right) face one another, as George C. Scott (center) looks on

In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, small-town lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart), a former district attorney who lost his re-election bid, spends most of his time fishing, playing the piano and hanging out with his alcoholic friend and colleague Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell) and sardonic secretary Maida Rutledge (Eve Arden).

One day Biegler is contacted by Laura Manion (Lee Remick), wife of the loutish US Army Lieutenant Frederick "Manny" Manion (Ben Gazzara). It turns out that the Lieutenant has been arrested for first degree murder, that of innkeeper Barney Quill. Manion does not deny the murder which was committed when his wife claimed to have been raped by Quill.

Even with such a motivation, it would be difficult to get Manion cleared of murder, so Biegler pushes him into a position where he claims to have no memory of the event, thus giving them a chance of winning his freedom with a defense of irresistible impulse — a version of a temporary insanity defense.

As he sets about preparing his case, Biegler catches Laura Manion flirting with other army officers during a roadhouse party. He has to practically order her to stay away from "men, juke joints, booze, and pinball machines" and wear a girdle in order to play the part of a "meek little housewife" rather than that of a happy-go-lucky party girl. She also agrees to give up her tight-fitting clothes and wears a formal dress in court.

Biegler's folksy speech and laid-back demeanor hides a sharp legal mind and a propensity for courtroom theatrics that has the judge busy keeping things under control. However, the case for the defense does not go well, especially since the local D.A. (Brooks West) is assisted by a high-powered big city prosecutor named Dancer (George C. Scott). Furthermore, the prosecution goes all the way to block any mention of Manion's motive for killing Quill, i.e. the raping of Laura. Biegler eventually manages to get the rape issue into the record and Judge Weaver (Joseph N. Welch) agrees to allow the matter to be part of the deliberations. However, Dancer's cross-examination of Laura effectively portrays her as a woman who was not satisfied with her marriage and openly flirted with other men, including the one she claimed raped her.

A doctor casts doubt on whether she was raped or not, though Biegler questions the method he used to obtain the results, and psychiatrists give conflicting testimony to Manion's state of mind when he killed Quill. Furthermore it comes out that even Lt. Manion doubted his wife, as Laura, a Catholic, had to swear on a Rosary to persuade her husband that the sex with Quill was indeed non-consensual.

Quill's inn is due to be inherited by Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant), a mysterious Canadian who is suspected of being his mistress. Biegler later learns that she is in fact Quill's daughter, but she is anxious to keep this secret since she was born out of wedlock. Biegler, who is losing the case, tries to persuade her that Al Paquette (Murray Hamilton), a bartender who witnessed the murder, knows that Quill raped Laura but is covering this up, either out of love for Mary or loyalty to his late friend. Through Mary, Biegler tries to persuade Paquette to testify for the defense on these grounds but he refuses. Annoyed, Biegler leaves saying: "I'll leave a pass for you and Al at the trial. You might like to watch Lt. Manion get convicted."

Mary does actually attend the final day of the trial when the issue is raised about the panties that Laura was wearing on the night of the murder. These panties were never found at the spot she claims the rape took place. Mary, who was unaware of this, later returns with the panties which she claims to have found in the inn's laundry room, presuming that Quill dropped them down the laundry chute when he returned home.

Biegler has played heavily on the issue that he is "just a humble country lawyer" facing a "brilliant prosecutor from the big city of Lansing", a factor which has played well with the jury. After the closing speeches however, he privately admits that Dancer delivered the "best summary I've ever heard in a courtroom". It is to no avail though: Manion is found "not guilty for reason of insanity".

The next day Biegler and McCarthy go to see the Manions at their trailer park home in order to collect their fee only to find the trailer missing. A note left by Manion tells Biegler that he was "seized by an irresistible impulse" — the defense used by Biegler during the trial. Evidence left lying around indicates that Manion was actually a heavy drinker who beat Laura before they left. This might indicate that Laura's sexual encounter with Quill was consensual and that Manion killed Quill out of drunken jealousy.

Biegler does obtain some "poetic justice" by being the attorney appointed to administer Barney Quill's estate.


James Stewart in the film's trailer.


The Marquette County Courthouse was used for courthouse scenes.

The film was shot in several locations in the Upper Peninsula (Big Bay, Marquette, Ishpeming, and Michigamme). Some scenes were actually filmed in the Thunder Bay Inn in Big Bay, Michigan, one block from the Lumberjack Tavern, the site of a murder that had inspired much of the novel.

The Lumberjack Tavern is still in existence today. The murder scene body outline is still there, although it may be restored, and not the original outline.

The members of the jury panel from the original trial were contacted and asked to sit on the set. With the exception of a few that had either died or moved, most appeared in the film. The missing ones were replaced with local residents.

The script featured unusually frank dialog for 1959. It was among the first Hollywood films to challenge the Hays Code, along with Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959) and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960).

The role of the judge was offered to both Spencer Tracy and Burl Ives, but ultimately went to Joseph Welch, who had made a name for himself representing the U.S. Army in hearings conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was Welch who famously asked of McCarthy, "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" Welch accepted the part only after Preminger agreed to let his wife be on the jury.[4]

Chicago newspaper columnist Irv "Kup" Kupcinet has a small uncredited role in the film. Duke Ellington, who composed the music, appears as "Pie-Eye", the owner of a roadhouse, with whom Jimmy Stewart's character plays piano.

Legal aspects

Facade of the Lumberjack Tavern, scene of the actual crime the movie is based on.

The film examines the apparent fallibility of the human factor in jurisprudence.[5][6] In various ways all of the human components – the counsels for defense and prosecution, the defendant and his wife, and the witnesses – have different positions on what is right or wrong, and varying perspectives on integrity, justice, morality and ethics.

It is to be noted that the reliance on credibility of witnesses, and the "finding of facts" based upon those determinations, is the 'Achilles heel' of the judicial process.[6]

One controversial legal issue in this film is possible witness coaching, a violation of legal canons. The only plausible legal defense Lt. Manion has – the insanity defense – is virtually spelled out to a befuddled Manion by his prospective counsel,[7] who then temporarily suspends the conversation and suggests that Manion rethink his factual/legal position. Witness coaching by the prosecution is even more blatant as they call in other jail inmates awaiting sentencing to testify against Manion, and is portrayed as subornation of perjury to an extent. The first suggests that the defendant may be concealing the truth and manipulating his story in order to obtain the best possible verdict, and the latter that the prosecution dangled a possible lighter sentence through plea bargain as an incentive to perjury.[8][9]

Thus, there could be a synergy: compounding the inherent fallible nature of the process with the malleability of memory, the potential mendacity of witnesses, the showmanship and 'magic tricks' involved in trials[10] and advocacy,[9] and the self interest, venality, morality, poor perception and recollection, and ethical standards of the participants.[5][6] Indeed, the unreliability of judicial decisions based on demeanor is well established.[11]

In protracted litigation, confabulated memory – filling in the blanks and recreating memories – is common, and research has documented the tendency. Repetitive and suggestive questioning tends to plant the seeds of memory.[12] The book and the movie are among the most cogent examples of the lawyers' dance. “Horse shedding" of witnesses is well known, if controversial and potentially unethical; it is not just an occasion to directly orchestrate perjury. What is more problematic is that it is possible to reach a point where “if you believe it, then it isn’t a lie.” Thus, even letter-perfect bona fide certainty of belief is not equivalent to a certification of accuracy or even truthfulness. This process is called "horse shedding," "sandpapering" or "wood shedding" – the first and last names being metaphorical references to the location of such a "collaboration."[13]

Comparisons of film to novel

The issue of the insanity defense was more thoroughly explored in the novel, and a key scene in which Biegler destroys the credibility and professionalism of the prosecution's psychiatric expert for proffering an opinion without examining the subject is watered down in the film almost to insignificance.

Critical reception

Anatomy of a Murder 2.jpg

A UCLA law professor, Michael Asimow, calls the picture "probably the finest pure trial movie ever made."[8] It is noteworthy that some law school professors use it as a teaching tool, as it encompasses (from the defense standpoint) all of the basic stages in the U.S. criminal justice system, from client interview and arraignment through trial.[4]

Critics note the moral ambiguity, where small town lawyers triumph by guile, stealth and trickery. The movie is frank and direct. Language and sexual themes are explicit, at variance with the times (and other movies) when it was produced. The black and white palette is seen as a complement to the harsh Upper Peninsula landscape.[14] The movie is "[m]ade in black-and-white but full of local color".[4]

Bosley Crowther, film critic for The New York Times said, "After watching an endless succession of courtroom melodramas that have more or less transgressed the bounds of human reason and the rules of advocacy, it is cheering and fascinating to see one that hews magnificently to a line of dramatic but reasonable behavior and proper procedure in a court. Such a one is Anatomy of a Murder, which opened at the Criterion and the Plaza yesterday. It is the best courtroom melodrama this old judge has ever seen. . . . Outside of the fact that this drama gets a little tiring in spots—in its two hours and forty minutes, most of which is spent in court—it is well nigh flawless as a picture of an American court at work, of small-town American characters and of the average sordidness of crime." [15]

In 1989, the American Bar Association rated this as one of the 12 best trial movies of all time. In addition to its plot and musical score, the article noted: "The film's real highlight is its ability to demonstrate how a legal defense is developed in a difficult case. How many trial films would dare spend so much time watching lawyers do what many lawyers do most (and enjoy least) — research?"[16]

In June 2008, the American Film Institute revealed AFI's 10 Top 10, the best 10 films in 10 "classic" American film genres, after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. Anatomy of a Murder was selected as the seventh best film in the courtroom drama genre. [17] (In a 1999 AFI poll, star James Stewart was ranked # 3 of the Top 25 American male screen legends.) The Internet Movie Database rates it number 19 of 807 trial movies.[18]

The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 100% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on thirty-six reviews.[19]

"Over the years, the movie's reputation has grown. Many movie buffs believe that its adult subject matter (along with that of Psycho and Some Like It Hot) challenged the censorship guidelines the film industry" labored under at the time.[4]


Soundtrack cover

Anatomy of a Murder is noteworthy for being one of the first films to extensively feature jazz in the musical score – the entire musical soundtrack was composed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and played by Ellington's orchestra. Several of the Ellington band's sidemen, notably Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney, Russell Procope, and William "Cat" Anderson, are heard prominently throughout the film, and Ellington himself appears briefly as "Pie-Eye," the owner of a roadhouse where Paul Biegler (Stewart) and Laura Manion (Remick) have a confrontation.

Despite being heard "in bits and pieces" the score "contains some of his most evocative and eloquent music. . . . and beckons with the alluring scent of a femme fatale." Including small pieces by Billy Strayhorn, film historians recognize it "as a landmark — the first significant Hollywood film music by African Americans comprising non-diegetic music, that is, music whose source is not visible or implied by action in the film, like an on-screen band." The score avoids cultural stereotypes which previously characterized jazz scores and "rejected a strict adherence to visuals in ways that presaged the New Wave cinema of the ’60s."[20][21]

The score employs a "handful of themes, endlessly recombined and re-orchestrated. Ellington never wrote a melody more seductive than the hip-swaying “Flirtibird,” featuring the "irresistibly salacious tremor" by Johnny Hodges on the alto saxophone. "A stalking back-beat barely contains the simmering violence of the main title music" The score is heavily dipped in "the scent of the blues and Ellington’s orchestra bursts with color."[21]

Detroit Free Press music critic Mark Stryker concluded: "Though indispensable, I think the score is too sketchy to rank in the top echelon among Ellington-Strayhorn masterpiece suites like Such Sweet Thunder and The Far East Suite, but its most inspired moments are their equal."[21]

The soundtrack, containing 13 tracks, was released on May 29, 1959. A CD was released on April 28, 1995, and reissued by Sony in a deluxe edition in 1999.[21]

Stage adaptation

After Traver's novel was published, St. Martins Press planned to have it adapted for the stage, intending a Broadway production, which would then be made into a film. Before he died in December 1957, John Van Druten wrote a rough draft of the play adaptation. Some time after that, the publisher then made the film rights available, and these were purchased by Otto Preminger.[22]

Eventually, Traver's book was adapted for the stage in 1963 by Elihu Winer. It premiered at the Mill Run Theater in suburban Chicago, and was published in 1964 by Samuel French.[23]




Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Arthur O'Connell; Best Actor in a Supporting Role, George C. Scott; Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, Sam Leavitt; Best Film Editing, Louis R. Loeffler; Best Picture Otto Preminger; Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Wendell Mayes; 1960.



  1. ^ Anatomy of a Murder, ISBN 9780312033569, ISBN 0312033567, large print ISBN 0783816669.
  2. ^ Grave Hunter, Brooks West.
  3. ^ Anatomy of a Murder at the Internet Movie Database.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Monaghan, John, The movie that put Ishpeming on the map: UP plans events this summer to mark 50th anniversary of Anatomy of a Murder, January 20, 2009 Detroit Free Press.
  5. ^ a b Frank, Jerome, (1973) Courts on Trial, Princeton University Press, pp. 23-24. 318.
  6. ^ a b c Thomas, Edward Wilfrid. (2006) Judicial Process: Realism, Pragmatism, Practical Reasoning and Principles, Auckland University Press), pp. 318-324. ISBN 9780521855662; ISBN 0521855667. Winner Publishing Awards: 2005, J F Northey Prize for Best Published Work and 2006 Legal Research Foundation of New Zealand.
  7. ^ See generally, Shaul, Richard D., “Anatomy of a Murder”, Michigan History, November/December 2001.
  8. ^ a b Asimow, Michael. Picturing Justice, film review from a legal perspective, February 1998.
  9. ^ a b Saltzburg, Stephen A. (2006) Trial Tactics American Bar Association pp. 225, 231. ISBN 159031767X; ISBN 9781590317679.
  10. ^ See generally, Keeton, Robert E. (1973) Trial tactics and methods (2nd Ed.) (Boston: Little, Brown) pp. 456 ISBN 0316485721; ISBN 9780316485722
  11. ^ Societé d'Avancé Egyptienne v Merchants Marine Insurance Co. 'the Palitana' (1924) Lloyd's Law Rep 140 at 152 (1924).
  12. ^ "Underwood, J. & Pezdek, K. (1998). Memory suggestibility as an example of the sleeper effect. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 5, 449-453.". 
  13. ^ See Garner, Bryan A. (2004). Black's Law Dictionary, 7th Ed. (West Group, St. Paul Minnesota, 1999), pp. 742, 1342 and 1598) ISBN 0-314-22864-0. See also, Eugene C. Gerhart, Quote it Completely!: World Reference Guide to More Than 5,500 Memorable Quotations (Wm. S. Hein Publishing, 1998) ISBN 1575884003.
  14. ^ A collection of professional reviews, Last accessed: November 22, 2007.
  15. ^ Crowther, Bosley. The New York Times, film review, "A Court Classic," July 3, 1959.
  16. ^ Verone, Patric M. "The 12 Best Trial Movies" from the ABA Journal, November 1989 reprinted in Nebraska Law Journal.
  17. ^ "AFI's 10 Top 10". American Film Institute. 2008-06-17. Retrieved 2008-06-18. 
  18. ^ 807 "Best trial movies" at Internet Movie Database.
  19. ^ Anatomy of a Murder at Rotten Tomatoes. Last accessed: June 19, 2008.
  20. ^ Cooke, Mervyn (2008). History of Film Music, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 9780521010481.
  21. ^ a b c d Stryker, Mark, Ellington's score still celebrated, January 20, 2009 Detroit Free Press.
  22. ^ "Anatomy of a Murder 50th Anniversary". 
  23. ^ Winer, Elihu. (1964) Anatomy of a Murder: a court drama in three acts. New York: Samuel French, pp. 106 ISBN 0573605300; ISBN 978-0573605307.


Further reading

External links

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