Anatomy of a Murder

Anatomy of a Murder Information

Anatomy of a Murder is a 1959 American courtroom crime drama film. It was directed by Otto Preminger and adapted by Wendell Mayes from 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.

The film stars James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Eve Arden, George C. Scott, Arthur O'Connell, Kathryn Grant, Brooks West (Arden's real-life husband), Orson Bean, and Murray Hamilton. The judge was played by Joseph N. Welch, a real-life lawyer famous for berating Joseph McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy Hearings.

This was one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to address sex and rape in graphic terms. It includes one of Saul Bass's most celebrated title sequences, a musical score by Duke Ellington (who plays a character called Pie-Eye in the film) and has been described by a law professor as "probably the finest pure trial movie ever made".

In 2012, the film was added to the National Film Registry.


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), who has been arrested for the first degree murder of innkeeper Barney Quill. Manion does not deny the murder, but claims that his wife was raped by Quill.

Even with such a motivation, it would be difficult to get Manion cleared of murder, 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.

As he sets about preparing his case, Biegler finds Laura Manion dancing with army officers at a party. He admonishes her to stay away from "men, juke joints, booze, and pinball machines" and to wear a girdle. He says she should play the part of a "meek little housewife" so as not to appear a loose woman. She agrees to give up tight-fitting clothes and to wear a dress, glasses and a hat - and, when in court, a woman's suit - so as not to damage her husband's 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 a high-powered big-city prosecutor named Claude Dancer (George C. Scott). Furthermore, the prosecution tries at every instance to block any mention of Manion's motive for killing Quill (the violent rape of Laura Manion). Biegler eventually manages to get Laura Manion's rape 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 tries to portray her as a woman who was not satisfied with her marriage, who 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 (a fact undisputed in the case). When it is suggested that Lieutenant Manion may have suspected Laura of complicity because she, a Catholic, was asked to swear on a rosary to persuade her husband that she was raped by Quill, this raises doubt as to whether the act was non-consensual (that it was violent is well-evidenced).

Quill's estate is to be inherited by Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant), a mysterious and beautiful Canadian woman who is dramatically accused (in the court room on cross examination by Dancer) of being Quill's mistress. Inquiries by Biegler's partner Parnell McCarthy, however, have revealed that she is in fact Quill's daughter, a fact she is anxious to keep secret since she was born out of wedlock (a fact unknown to the prosecution). Biegler, who is losing the case, tries to persuade Pilant that Al Paquette, (Murray Hamilton) the bartender who witnessed the murder, may know that Quill admitted to raping Laura but Paquette is covering this up, either because he loves Mary, or out of loyalty to Quill (his friend and employer). Through Mary, Biegler tries to persuade Paquette to testify for the defense but Paquette refuses. Biegler tells Mary: "I'll leave a pass for you and Al at the trial [so that you can attend]." He then says, ironically, "you might like to watch Lieutenant Manion get convicted."

Mary does attend the trial when the issue of Laura Manion's panties is raised (panties she claimed she was wearing on the night of her rape and Quill's murder, panties she claims were torn off her during the violent act of rape). These panties were not found in the crime scenes where she alleges the rape took place. Mary, unaware of any details of the case, voluntarily returns to the courtroom to testify that she found the panties in the inn's laundry room. Biegler suggests that Quill may have dropped the panties down the laundry chute located (next to his room) to avoid suspicion. Dancer tries to establish that Pilant's answers are founded on her jealousy. When Dancer's asserts (forcibly in court) that Quill was Pilant's lover and that Pilant lied to cover this (incriminating) fact, Pilant shocks the court (and Dancer, who was unaware of the facts of record discovered by Parnell) by stating that Quill was her father.

Biegler suggests during the trial that he is "just a humble country lawyer" facing a "brilliant prosecutor from the big city of Lansing"; whether this suggestion has played well with the jury is unknown. After the closing speeches, Biegler indicates privately to his defense team that he thinks that Dancer has delivered the "best summary I've ever heard in a courtroom". Despite Biegler's misgivings, however, Manion is found "not guilty by reason of insanity".

The next day Biegler and McCarthy travel to the trailer park where the Manions lived - and presumably where Mrs. Manion lived during the trial - to get Lieutenant Manion's signature on a promissory note which they hope will suffice as collateral for a (desperately needed) loan. It turns out that Lieutenant and Mrs Manion have vacated the trailer park. The superintendent of the trailer park (who also appeared in court) say that Lieutenant Manion left a note for attorney Biegler. The note indicates that Manion's motivation for flight was "an irresistible impulse""?the term used to describe Lieutenant Manion's defense used during the trial (raising doubt as to his defense's veracity). Evidence left behind on the Manion trailer site suggest that Lieutenant Manion (or his wife) may have been a gin drinker. The alcoholic McCarthy states, "you can't trust a gin drinker".

Biegler tells McCarthy that Mary Pilant has retained the attorney to execute Quill's estate. McCarthy says that that working for her will be "poetic justice."


  • James Stewart as Paul Biegler
  • Lee Remick as Laura Manion
  • Ben Gazzara as Lt. Frederick Manion
  • Arthur O'Connell as Parnell Emmett McCarthy
  • Eve Arden as Maida Rutledge
  • Kathryn Grant as Mary Pilant
  • George C. Scott as Asst. State Atty. Gen. Claude Dancer
  • Orson Bean as Dr. Matthew Smith
  • Russ Brown as George Lemon
  • Murray Hamilton as Alphonse Paquette
  • Brooks West as Dist. Atty. Mitch Lodwick
  • Ken Lynch as Det. Sgt. James Durgo
  • John Qualen as Deputy Sheriff Sulo
  • Howard McNear as Dr. Dompierre
  • Emily Eby as Mrs. Welbourne
  • Alexander Campbell as Dr. W. Gregory Harcourt
  • Joseph N. Welch as Judge Weaver
  • Duke Ellington as "Pie-Eye"


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 1952 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 is possibly a restoration 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 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.

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

The film examines the apparent fallibility of the human factor in jurisprudence. 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.

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, 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.

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 and advocacy, and the self-interest, venality, morality, poor perception and recollection, and ethical standards of the participants. Indeed, the unreliability of judicial decisions based on demeanor is well established.

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. The book and the film 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."

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

The language used during the film startled the Chicago Police Commissioner and Mayor Richard J. Daley, and as a result Anatomy of a Murder was banned in that city. Preminger went to the federal court there and the decision was overturned and it was allowed to be exhibited. The court found that the clinical language during the trial was realistic and appropriate within the film's context.

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?" 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. University of California, Los Angeles law professor Michael Asimow calls the film "probably the finest pure trial movie ever made." It was also listed as 4 of 25 "Greatest Legal Movies" by the American Bar Association.

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

Film critics have noted the moral ambiguity, where small town lawyers triumph 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. The film is "[m]ade in black-and-white but full of local color".

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."

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

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. (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 23 of 1,177 trial films.

It holds a perfect 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 40 reviews with a consensus: "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."

"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.


The jazz score of Anatomy of a Murder 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."

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.


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." 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." 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".

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.


Track listing

All compositions by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn except as indicated

  1. "Main Title/Anatomy of a Murder" - 3:57
  2. "Flirtibird" - 2:14
  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] - 1:28
  12. "Upper and Outest" - 2:23
  13. "Anatomy of a Murder [stereo single] - 2:44 Bonus track on CD reissue
  14. "Merrily Rolling Along (aka Hero to Zero)/Sunswept Sunday" [movie stings & rehearsal] - 3:49 Bonus track on CD reissue
  15. "Beer Garden" - 1:53 Bonus track on CD reissue
  16. "Happy Anatomy" [Band-Studio Five version] - 2:43 Bonus track on CD reissue
  17. "Polly (aka Grace Valse, Haupe, Low Key Lightly, Midnight Indigo)" - 3:35 Bonus track on CD reissue
  18. "Polly" [Movie Stings] - 3:54 Bonus track on CD reissue
  19. "Happy Anatomy" [Dixieland version] - 2:15 Bonus track on CD reissue
  20. "More Blues" - 2:15 Bonus track on CD reissue
  21. "Almost Cried (aka Flirtibird)" [Movie version] - 2:13 Bonus track on CD reissue
  22. "Soundtrack Music: Anatomy of a Murder (Duke Ellington a la Guy Lombardo)" - 2:29 Bonus track on CD reissue
  23. "Anatomy of a Murder" [mono single in stereo] - 2:36 Bonus track on CD reissue
  24. "The Grand Finale (Rehearsal/Lines/Interview/Music/Stings/Murder)" - 10:47 Bonus track on CD reissue


  • Duke Ellington " piano
  • Cat Anderson, Shorty Baker, Herbie Jones, Ray Nance, Clark Terry, Gerald Wilson - trumpet
  • Quentin Jackson, Britt Woodman - trombone
  • John Sanders - valve trombone
  • Jimmy Hamilton - clarinet, tenor saxophone
  • Johnny Hodges - alto saxophone
  • Russell Procope - alto saxophone, clarinet
  • Paul Gonsalves - tenor saxophone
  • Harry Carney - baritone saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet
  • Jimmy Woode - bass
  • James Johnson - drums
Note"?tracks 11 & 21 performed by the P.I. Five: Duke Ellington, Ray Nance, Jimmy Hamilton, Jimmy Woode, and James Johnson.

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.

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.

References in media and popular culture

The making of the film is the subject of the song, "Marquette County, 1959", by Great Lakes Myth Society. 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". Jimmy Stewart's character Paul Biegler was the inspiration for many of the mannerisms of the Hyper-Chicken character in Futurama.

Awards and honors


  • New York Film Critics Circle Awards: NYFCC Award Best Actor, James Stewart, Best Screenplay, Wendell Mayes; 1959.
  • Venice International Film Festival: Volpi Cup; Best Actor, James Stewart; 1959.
  • Three Grammy Awards (see above)
  • Producers Guild of America Awards: PGA Award; Top Drama; Top Male Dramatic Performance, James Stewart; Top Male Supporting Performance, Arthur O'Connell; 1960.
  • Michigan Product of the Year.
Nominations Academy Awards:

  • Best Actor in a Leading Role: James Stewart
  • 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
British Academy Film Awards:

  • Best Film from any Source Otto Preminger, USA
  • Best Foreign Actor James Stewart, USA
  • Most Promising Newcomer Joseph N. Welch, USA; 1960.
Directors Guild of America Awards:

  • DGA Award Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film, Otto Preminger; 1960.
Golden Globe Awards:

  • Best Motion Picture - Drama
  • Best Performance By An Actress In A Motion Picture " Drama: Lee Remick
  • Best Director " Motion Picture: Otto Preminger
  • Best Performance By An Actor In A Supporting Role In A Motion Picture: Joseph N. Welch; 1960.
American Film Institute Lists
  • AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies - Nominated
  • AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills - Nominated
  • AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores - Nominated
  • AFI's 10 Top 10 - #7 Courtroom Drama
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."

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