Anatomy of a Murder

Anatomy of a Murder is a 1959 American courtroom drama crime film produced and directed by Otto Preminger. The screenplay by Wendell Mayes was based on the 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.[2]

Anatomy of a Murder
Theatrical release poster by Saul Bass
Directed byOtto Preminger
Produced byOtto Preminger
Screenplay byWendell Mayes
Based onAnatomy of a Murder
by Robert Traver
StarringJames Stewart
Lee Remick
Ben Gazzara
Arthur O'Connell
Eve Arden
Kathryn Grant
George C. Scott
Music byDuke Ellington
CinematographySam Leavitt
Edited byLouis R. Loeffler
Carlyle Productions
Distributed byColumbia Pictures Corporation
Release date
  • July 1, 1959 (1959-07-01)
Running time
160 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$11 million[1]

The film stars James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Eve Arden, George C. Scott, Arthur O'Connell, Kathryn Grant, Brooks West (Arden's husband), Orson Bean, and Murray Hamilton. The judge was played by Joseph N. Welch, a real-life lawyer famous for dressing down Joseph McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings. It has a musical score by Duke Ellington, who also appears in the film, and has been described by a law professor as "probably the finest pure trial movie ever made".[3]

In 2012, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[4]


In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, small-town lawyer Paul Biegler (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 (O'Connell) and sardonic secretary Maida Rutledge (Arden).

One day, Biegler is contacted by Laura Manion (Remick), to defend her husband US Army Lieutenant Frederick "Manny" Manion (Gazzara), who has been arrested for the first-degree murder of innkeeper Bernard "Barney" Quill. Manion does not deny the murder, but claims that Quill raped his wife. Even with such a motivation, getting Manion cleared of murder would be difficult, but Manion claims to have no memory of the event, suggesting that he may be eligible for a defense of irresistible impulse—a version of a temporary insanity defense. Biegler's folksy speech and laid-back demeanor hide 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 district attorney (Brooks West) is assisted by high-powered prosecutor Claude Dancer (Scott) from the Attorney General's office.

Furthermore, the prosecution tries at every instance to block any mention of Manion's motive for killing Quill. Biegler eventually manages to get the rape of Laura Manion into the record and Judge Weaver (Joseph N. Welch) agrees to allow the matter to be part of the deliberations. During cross-examination, Dancer insinuates that Laura openly flirted with other men, including the man she claimed raped her. Psychiatrists give conflicting testimony to Manion's state of mind at the time that he killed Quill. Dancer says that Manion may have suspected Laura of cheating on him because he asked his wife, a Catholic, to swear on a rosary that Quill raped her. This raises doubt as to whether the act was non-consensual.

Quill's estate is to be inherited by Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant), whom Dancer accuses of being Quill's mistress. McCarthy learns that she is in fact Quill's daughter, a fact she is anxious to keep secret since she was born out of wedlock. Biegler, who is losing the case, tries to persuade Pilant that Al Paquette (Murray Hamilton), the bartender who witnessed the murder, may know if Quill admitted to him of raping Laura but Paquette is covering this up, either because he loves Pilant or out of loyalty to Quill. Through Pilant, Biegler is unable to get Paquette to testify on behalf of Manion.

During the trial, Laura claims that Quill tore off her panties while raping her; the panties were not found where she alleges the rape took place. Pilant, unaware of any details of the case, testifies that she found the panties in the inn's laundry room. Biegler suggests Quill may have attempted to avoid suspicion by dropping the panties down the laundry chute, located next to his room. Dancer tries to establish that Pilant's answers are founded on her jealousy. When Dancer asserts forcibly that Quill was Pilant's lover and that Pilant lied to cover this fact, Pilant shocks everyone by stating that Quill was her father. Manion is found "not guilty by reason of insanity". After the trial, Biegler decides to open a new practice, with a newly sober McCarthy as his partner.

The next day, Biegler and McCarthy travel to the Manions' trailer park home to get Manion's signature on a promissory note which they hope will suffice as collateral for a desperately needed loan. It turns out the Manions have vacated the trailer park, the trailer park superintendent commenting that Laura Manion had been crying. Manion left a note for Biegler, indicating that his flight was "an irresistible impulse", the same justification Biegler used during the trial. Biegler states that Mary Pilant has retained him to execute Quill's estate; McCarthy says that working for her will be "poetic justice".


On July 31, 1952, Lt. Coleman A. Peterson shot and killed Maurice Chenoweth in Big Bay, Michigan.[5] Voelker was retained as defense attorney a few days later.[6] The trial started on September 15, 1952,[7] and Assistant Attorney General Irving Beattie assisted Marquette County Prosecuting Attorney Edward Thomas.[8] Voelker used a rare version of the insanity defense called irresistible impulse that had not been used in Michigan since 1886.[9] The jury deliberated for four hours on September 23, 1952, before returning a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.[10] Two days later, after Peterson was examined by a psychiatrist who judged him sane, he was released.[11] Peterson and his wife were divorced soon after the trial.[12] Hillsdale Circuit Court Judge Charles O. Arch, Sr. tried the case because of the illness of a local judge.[13]




The film was shot in several locations in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (Big Bay, Marquette, Ishpeming, and Michigamme). Some scenes were filmed in the Thunder Bay Inn in Big Bay, one block from the Lumberjack Tavern, the site of the 1952 murder that inspired much of the novel.[14] The film was previewed on June 18, 1959, in Chicago,[15] which Variety said was 21 days after filming had finished and a record for a big-budget film.[16] It had its first screening at the Butler Theater in Ishpeming and the Nordic Theater in Marquette on June 29, 1959.[15] The world premiere for the film was held on July 1, 1959, at the United Artists Theater in Detroit.[17]

The film examines the apparent fallibility of the human factor in jurisprudence.[18][19] In various ways all of the human components—the counsels for defense and prosecution, the defendant and his wife, and the witnesses have their own differing 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.[19]

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,[20] 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, which 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.[3][21]


The language used during the film startled Chicago, Illinois, Mayor Richard J. Daley,[15] and his police commissioner. As a result, the film was temporarily banned in the heavily Catholic city.[22] Preminger filed a motion in federal court in Illinois and the mayor's decision was overturned. The film was allowed to be exhibited after the court determined that the clinical language during the trial was realistic and appropriate within the film's context.[23][24] Variety claimed that the film contained words never before heard in American films with the Motion Picture Production Code seal such as "contraceptive", (sexual) "climax" and "spermatogenesis".[16]

In another federal lawsuit in Chicago, the daughter of the real-life murder victim from the 1952 case sued Dell Publishing and Columbia Pictures in July 1960 for libel over accusations that the book and movie "followed [the actual trial] too closely" and portrayed the two women in an unflattering light;[25] the suit was dismissed less than a year later in May 1961.[26]

Anatomy of a Murder has been well received by members of the legal and educational professions. In 1989, the American Bar Association rated this as one of the 12 best trial films 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?"[27] The film has also been used as a teaching tool in law schools, 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. The film was listed as No. 4 of 25 "Greatest Legal Movies" by the American Bar Association.[28]

The film earned an estimated $5.5 million in rentals in the U.S. and Canada during its first year of release.[29]

Film critics have noted the moral ambiguity, where a small town lawyer triumphs by guile, stealth and trickery. The film is frank and direct. Language and sexual themes are explicit, at variance with the times (and other films) when it was produced. The black and white palette is seen as a complement to Michigan's harsh Upper Peninsula landscape.[30] The film is "[m]ade in black-and-white but full of local color".[31]

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."[32]

Time felt that it was well-paced, well-acted, and that the explicit language was warranted within the film's context.[22]

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.[33]

Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, reports that 100% of 44 surveyed critics gave the film a positive review; the average rating was 8.6/10. The site's consensus states, "One of cinema's greatest courtroom dramas, Anatomy of a Murder is tense, thought-provoking, and brilliantly acted, with great performances from James Stewart and George C. Scott."[34]


Anatomy of a Murder
Soundtrack album by
RecordedMay 29 and June 1–2, 1959
Radio Recorders, Los Angeles
CS 8166 (stereo) / CL 1360 (mono)
Duke Ellington chronology
Side by Side
Anatomy of a Murder
Live at the Blue Note

The jazz score of Anatomy of a Murder was composed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and played by Ellington's orchestra. Several of 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.[35]

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."[36]

The soundtrack album, containing 13 tracks, was released by Columbia Records on May 29, 1959. A CD was released on April 28, 1995, and reissued by Sony in a deluxe edition in 1999.[37]


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."[38] 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."[38] The AllMusic review by Bruce Eder awarded the album 3 stars calling it "a virtuoso jazz score—moody, witty, sexy, and—in its own quiet way—playful".[39]

Ellington's score won three Grammy Awards in 1959, for Best Performance by a Dance Band, Best Musical Composition First Recorded and Released in 1959 and Best Sound Track Album.

Professional ratings
Review scores
The Rolling Stone Jazz Record Guide[40]

Track listing

All tracks are written by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, except as indicated.

Original release
1."Main Title/Anatomy of a Murder"3:57
3."Way Early Subtone"3:59
4."Hero to Zero"2:11
5."Low Key Lightly"3:39
6."Happy Anatomy" (band-movie version)2:35
7."Midnight Indigo"2:46
8."Almost Cried" (studio)2:26
9."Sunswept Sunday"1:53
10."Grace Valse"2:30
11."Happy Anatomy" (P.I. Five version[lower-alpha 1])1:28
13."Upper and Outest"2:23
CD reissue bonus tracks
14."Anatomy of a Murder" (stereo single)2:44
15."Merrily Rolling Along (aka Hero to Zero)/Sunswept Sunday" (movie stings & rehearsal)3:49
16."Beer Garden"1:53
17."Happy Anatomy" (band-studio five version)2:43
18."Polly (aka Grace Valse, Haupe, Low Key Lightly, Midnight Indigo)"3:35
19."Polly" (movie stings)3:54
20."Happy Anatomy" (Dixieland version)2:15
21."More Blues"2:15
22."Almost Cried (aka Flirtibird)" (P.I. Five/movie version)2:13
23."Soundtrack Music: Anatomy of a Murder (Duke Ellington a la Guy Lombardo)"2:29
24."Anatomy of a Murder" (mono single in stereo)2:36
25."The Grand Finale (Rehearsal/Lines/Interview/Music/Stings/Murder)"10:47


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.[41]

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.[42]

The making of the film is the subject of the song, "Marquette County, 1959", by Great Lakes Myth Society.[43] The lyrics read: "Jimmy Stewart came to Marquette County in 1959/ And he was shot for two months there/ And all the pines wept stardust for a while/ And the Duke would play his soundtrack there/ As Preminger had cast him in the film/ His character was Pie-Eye".[44]

Awards and honors



Academy Awards:

British Academy Film Awards:

Directors Guild of America Awards:

Golden Globe Awards:

American Film Institute Lists

Anatomy of a Murder was one of 25 films added to the National Film Registry in 2012. "The annual selections by the Library of Congress span more than a century of American filmmaking."[48]

See also


  1. P.I. Five consists of Duke Ellington, Ray Nance, Jimmy Hamilton, Jimmy Woode, and James Johnson


  1. Leigh, Harri (October 21, 2016). "Looking Back at Anatomy of a Murder". Upper Michigan's Source. Negaunee, MI: WLUC-TV. Retrieved December 14, 2018.
  2. "Justice Story: The Murder Behind the Movie". Daily News. New York. Retrieved October 6, 2017.
  3. Asimow, Michael (February 1998). "Anatomy of a Murder: The 'Lecture'". Archived from the original on March 3, 2010.
  4. King, Susan (December 19, 2012). "National Film Registry Selects 25 Films for Preservation". Los Angeles Times.
  5. "Army Officer Held for Murder of Big Bay Tavern Proprietor: 'Mike' Chenoweth, Former State Policeman, Slain Following Alleged Rape". The Mining Journal. Marquette, MI. July 31, 1952. p. 1. ISSN 0898-4964.
  6. "Atty. Voelker Retained by Lt. Peterson". The Mining Journal. Marquette, MI. August 5, 1952. p. 2. ISSN 0898-4964.
  7. "Judge Arch Allows Motion by Prosecutor for Additional Witness in Murder Case". The Mining Journal. Marquette, MI. September 15, 1952. p. 2. ISSN 0898-4964.
  8. Pepin, John (2009). Anatomy '59: The Making of a Classic Motion Picture (DVD). Marquette, MI: WNMU-TV.
  9. Thomson, Kimberley Reed (February 2003). "The Untimely Death of Michigan's Diminished Capacity Defense". Michigan Bar Journal. Vol. 82 no. 2. pp. 17–19. ISSN 0164-3576.
  10. "Lt. Peterson Not Guilty Because of Insanity". The Mining Journal. Marquette, MI. September 23, 1952. p. 1. ISSN 0898-4964.
  11. "Last Chapter Written in Murder Case: Judge Frees Lt. Peterson from Custody". The Mining Journal. Marquette, MI. September 25, 1952. p. 2. ISSN 0898-4964.
  12. Krajicek, David (January 17, 2009). "Killing of Michigan Bar Owner in 1952 Inspired Film Anatomy of a Murder". Daily News. New York. Retrieved July 4, 2018.
  13. "Circuit Court Opens Monday; 58 Cases Listed on Docket". The Mining Journal. Marquette. September 6, 1952. p. 5. ISSN 0898-4964.
  14. "John D. Voelker". 50th Anniversary Anatomy of a Murder. Northern Michigan University. Retrieved December 7, 2011.
  15. Shaul, Richard D. (November–December 2001). "Anatomy of a Murder" (PDF). Michigan History. Vol. 86 no. 6. p. 89. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 1, 2008. Retrieved December 7, 2011.
  16. "Film Reviews: Anatomy of a Murder". Variety. July 1, 1959. p. 6. Retrieved May 19, 2019 via
  17. United Artists Press and Marketing. Anatomy of a Murder Premiere (1959). Archived from the original on September 7, 2017. Retrieved February 21, 2014 via Online Video Guide.
  18. Frank, Jerome (1973). Courts on Trial. Princeton University Press. pp. 23–24. 318.
  19. Thomas, Edward Wilfrid (2006). The Judicial Process: Realism, Pragmatism, Practical Reasoning and Principles. Auckland University Press. pp. 318–324. ISBN 978-0-521-85566-2.
  20. Shaul, Richard D. (November–December 2001). "Backwoods Barrister" (PDF). Michigan History. Vol. 86 no. 6. p. 82. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 1, 2008. Retrieved December 7, 2011.
  21. Saltzburg, Stephen A. (2006). Trial Tactics. American Bar Association. pp. 225, 231. ISBN 1-59031-767-X.
  22. "Cinema: The New Pictures, July 13, 1959". Time. July 13, 1959.
  23. Schumach, Murray (1964). The Face on the Cutting Room Floor. William Morrow and Company.
  24. "Chicago Loses Bid to Censor Movie". The Deseret News. Salt Lake City. July 9, 1959. Retrieved October 28, 2011.
  25. "Anatomy of a Murder Target of Libel Suit". Detroit Free Press. July 18, 1960. p. 2B. Retrieved January 19, 2019 via
  26. "Anatomy of a Murder Libel Suit Dismissed". The News-Palladium. Benton Harbor, MI. Associated Press. May 17, 1961. § 3, p. 11 via
  27. Verrone, Patric M. (November 1989). "The 12 Best Trial Movies". ABA Journal. Vol. 75 no. 11. pp. 96–100. ISSN 0747-0088. Retrieved June 10, 2015 via Google Books.
  28. Brust, Richard (August 1, 2008). "25 Greatest Legal Movies". American Bar Association Journal. Retrieved February 24, 2012.
  29. "1959: Probable Domestic Take". Variety. January 6, 1960. p. 34.
  30. "A Collection of Professional Reviews". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved November 22, 2007.
  31. Monaghan, John (January 20, 2009). "The Movie that Put Ishpeming on the Map: UP Plans Events this Summer to Mark 50th Anniversary of Anatomy of a Murder". Detroit Free Press. Archived from the original on January 24, 2009.
  32. Crowther, Bosley (July 3, 1959). "A Court Classic". The New York Times.
  33. "AFI's 10 Top 10". American Film Institute. June 17, 2008. Archived from the original on June 19, 2008. Retrieved June 18, 2008.
  34. "Anatomy of a Murder". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved June 30, 2019.
  35. McGregor, Tony. "Duke Ellington's Anatomy of a Murder soundtrack music". Jazz Forum@Xing. Retrieved August 28, 2012.
  36. Cooke, Mervyn (2008). History of Film Music. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-01048-1.
  37. "A Duke Ellington Panorama". Retrieved May 14, 2010.
  38. Stryker, Mark (January 20, 2009). "Ellington's Score Still Celebrated". Detroit Free Press.
  39. Eder, B. "AllMusic Review". Retrieved May 17, 2010.
  40. Swenson, J., ed. (1985). The Rolling Stone Jazz Record Guide. Random House/Rolling Stone. p. 69. ISBN 0-394-72643-X.
  41. "Anatomy of a Murder 50th Anniversary". Northern Michigan University.
  42. Winer, Elihu (1964). Anatomy of a Murder: A Court Drama in Three Acts. New York: Samuel French. ISBN 0-573-60530-0.
  43. "CD Review: The Great Lakes Myth Society". Blogcritics.
  44. Great Lakes Myth Society. "Marquette County, 1959" (audio). Retrieved April 5, 2014.
  45. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved February 3, 2013.
  46. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved February 3, 2013.
  47. "AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved February 3, 2013.
  48. Meslow, Scott (December 19, 2012). "The 25 Films Added to the National Film Registry in 2012". Retrieved January 4, 2012.

Further reading

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