In an interview with his fellow filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, Otto Preminger speaks of the influence of the law on his life and work. Preminger’s father was a District Attorney and Attorney General for the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1) and, even though Otto studied law formally, his education sprang more from his attachment to the law through his father and the trials over which the elder Preminger presided and the younger Preminger observed.

On a trip to Russia, Preminger screened Anatomy of a Murder (1959) at the Russian Academy of Film. The students erupted with criticism at the acquittal of Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara in his second feature). How could such a man with such a wife (Lee Remick) be acquitted? Preminger explained to the students that in America a man is considered innocent until proven guilty, a concept his Russian hosts had trouble grasping. He tells Bogdanovich: “I will say that I feel very grateful to my father, because the philosophy of law gives you a certain outlook on life” (2).

This philosophy of law, if not American jurisprudence itself, is one of several elements that run like veins of gold through Preminger’s film, which is based on a novel of the same name by Robert Traver. More than just a courtroom drama or police procedural (and one of Preminger’s most successful and recognisable films) Anatomy of a Murder peels back the layers of the American legal system and its complex processes as it examines murder, rape, marriage, dead-end careers and lives and a peculiar outcrop of American geography, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

The bare story is simple: A small-town lawyer who’d rather be fishing (and often is) named Paul Biegler (James Stewart) needs work, so he defends Manion who’s accused of killing innkeeper Barney Quill after, he says, Quill raped Manion’s wife Laura (Lee Remick). Biegler’s best friend, an ageing drunken lawyer named Parnell Emmett McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell), respects the law as deeply as Biegler. In fact, he’s the one who convinces Biegler to take the case. The judge (we know only his last name, Weaver) is played with charming, down-home elegance by Joseph N. Welch, who as counsel for the US Army is best remembered for scolding Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin lawmaker hell-bent on finding communists in the government, during congressional hearings that were broadcast in 1954. Biegler’s defense pivots on Manion’s temporary insanity, called irresistible impulse, over his wife’s rape.

Preminger’s cinematic scalpel does more than lay open the guts of the criminal justice system. It peels back layers of legal flesh and sinew and reveals the minds of the lawyers in the courtroom and their hearts and souls – their humanity – in memorable scenes outside it. Early on, McCarthy visits Biegler in his home in what we assume is a regular nightly ritual. Biegler tells McCarthy: “I make a living. […] and in the evening I drink rye whiskey and read law with Parnell Emmett McCarthy, one of the world’s great men.” A moment later, McCarthy reaches for a law book: “Now here’s a rose, a lily, a sweet lupine: the United States Supreme Court Reports”. As they bond with booze and Chief Justice (Oliver Wendell) Holmes, they are interrupted by a phone call and word of the Manion case. Even Justice Holmes had to eat.

As the trial begins, we witness the humanity of Welch’s visiting judge, sitting in for an ailing jurist, when he offers in a friendly sing-song voice: “And while I might appear to doze occasionally, you will find that I am easily awakened, particularly if shaken gently by a good lawyer with a nice point of law.” Later, as McCarthy and Biegler finish an all-night session in the law library (and make an important discovery that will save Manion’s neck), Weaver peeks in and grins impishly at the two lawyers knee-deep in law books, viewing the two exhausted attorneys as a law professor might view two nervous first years pulling another all-nighter. Preminger uses one of his rare close-ups, of Weaver’s knowing grin, to reinforce this deep connection between abstract law and the people who practice it. In these and other scenes, Preminger’s humanising approaches reverence.

Duke Ellington recording the soundtrack for Anatomy of a Murder

Jazz music is important to Biegler. In fact, he loves it as much as he loves the law. His record collection is as extensive as his law library, containing everything from Dixieland to (Dave) Brubeck, as the lieutenant’s wife, Laura, who can’t stop flirting with an occasionally flustered Biegler, discovers early on. Jazz is important to the film as well. Preminger marries his images to the precise and startling music of Duke Ellington and uses it as another piece of connective tissue throughout the film. Before we see one frame of the film, we hear the opening bars of a score that jazz writer Stanley Crouch calls one of Ellington’s grandest accomplishments. The man whose music many have called “beyond category” had been commissioned by Preminger to write the score to his tribute to American jurisprudence and the place where it slogs on, day after day: the courtroom. Oddly, we hear Ellington’s music only in scenes outside the courtroom, as themes, leitmotifs, choruses and solos help narrate the action, tell us who populates the frame and shadow the drama with the intimacy of a man whose beginnings outside the American mainstream matched the filmmaker’s. The score propels, hovers, calls attention to, suggests. Sometimes it even distracts.  Its dissonances can be as jarring as the busted up corpse in Saul Bass’ opening credits. Perhaps that’s why Ellington is silent when the camera is in the courtroom. Preminger wanted the law and its attendant props and trappings to attract our attention while Judge Weaver presides. As beautiful as it is, Ellington’s music might have sent our ears elsewhere, away from the dialogue and the larger themes of the film. Like Ellington’s music, this love of the law threads itself through the film, unifying the disjointed action. Like Ellington’s music – jagged, dissonant though it is – ties together the disparate elements of the characters’ complex, nuanced inconsistencies into a coherent whole, a cinematic tapestry whose complexities baffle even as they begin to coalesce. McCarthy refers to the music that Biegler plays on the upright piano in his ramshackle house as “rooty tooty jazz”. Ellington, who appears in a cameo as bandleader Pie Eye and lets Biegler sit in for a chorus or two, might have smiled at McCarthy’s phrase and written a suite around it.

An unlikely third important thread of humanity appears in the character of Maida Rutledge (Eve Arden), Biegler’s legal secretary, gofer, in-house accountant – and mother figure and female partner, a foil to McCarthy’s loyal friend. Maida nags Biegler about the refrigerator that’s full of newspaper-clad fish, reminds him that she hasn’t been paid and, in one of the film’s best scenes, describes her need for a new typewriter because of the missing “p” and “f”: when she types party of the first part it comes out “arty o the irst art”. More importantly, Maida is in the courtroom every day during Manion’s trial, leaning in to advise, observe and follow orders. In one of several scenes that refer to the treacherous financial state of Biegler’s legal practice, she complains about not getting paid when Biegler tries to fire her. She responds: “You can’t fire me until you pay me”. She is a subtly significant presence throughout the film, giving bachelor Biegler advice about the siren that is Remick’s Laura, watching after him and McCarthy as they wander womanless (and seemingly without direction) through life, and indulging their foibles and bad habits out of something like love or devotion. Getting paid is important to Maida but her loyalty, like McCarthy’s, which stems from his realisation that Biegler can steer his drifting law career, goes far beyond the money she’s convinced she’ll get when he wins the case. Ever protective of her (and her boss’) interests, she reminds Biegler that he should be wary of Manion’s ability to pay his fee because he’s a full-time soldier. “I was married to one”, she quips.

Robert Traver (John D. Voelker), the pen name of the author of the novel that inspired Preminger’s film, wrote a piece called “Dukie” which originally appeared an August 1967 edition of Voelker’s Detroit News Sunday Magazine column, the “Traver Treatment”. Voelker was present for a meeting between Preminger and Ellington while they discussed the film and the score Ellington would compose. At Voelker’s Michigan home before Ellington left, the Duke played a piano suite he’d written for the Queen of England: “For the next hour, or so it seemed, Duke held us enchanted.  Even Otto remained wordless, which may possibly be enchantment raised to new heights. It was jazz and yet it was not jazz. It was haunting, lovely, nostalgic, evocative”, just like Preminger’s film (3). The film haunts because of its many ambiguities, the most potent of which occurs at its conclusion. Was Manion guilty? Was Laura raped? Where did they go in such a hurry? Biegler won his case but what did he win? “Lovely” because of Preminger’s cocktail of frequent moments of humour and exposure of the dark recesses of his characters’ personalities. “Nostalgic” because of the film’s firm embrace of the history of jurisprudence and the role the law plays in much of the film, most poignantly in the relationship between Biegler and Parnell. And “evocative” because of the gift Preminger leaves us in his ambiguous portraits of the American justice system, its players and the larger population, which is never more than a step away from being swept up in its voracious hunger for truth in a world filled with so very little of it.

While Biegler, McCarthy and Maida wait for the jury to come back, McCarthy offers a Shakespearean soliloquy:

Twelve people go off into a room: twelve different minds, twelve different hearts, from twelve different walks of life; twelve sets of eyes, ears, shapes, and sizes. And these twelve people are asked to judge another human being as different from them as they are from each other. And in their judgment, they must become of one mind – unanimous. It’s one of the miracles of Man’s disorganized soul that they can do it, and in most instances, do it right well. God bless juries.

The jury decides Lt. Manion’s fate, as McCarthy, part oracle, part foil to his best friend, predicted. As the film ends, some loose ends are neatly tied; others are not. When he learns that a man accused of murder has left his jurisdiction to be examined by an Army psychiatrist, and done so without the court’s knowledge, the judge describes the habits of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as “queer”. So is the music Biegler listens to, at least in the eyes of his best friend. So too is the arrival of the state prosecutor from Lansing, the supercilious Claude Dancer (George C. Scott, like Gazzara, in his second screen appearance), who jousts with Biegler at every opportunity and makes a fool of the local prosecutor (who defeated Biegler in the last election) almost as frequently as Biegler does. Preminger’s film, diligent, faithful, even reverent to the law, paints a dramatic picture as disjointed as Bass’ realisation of the corpse: legs, arms, a torso: complete, yet incomplete. Complete enough so that we are free to wrest its meanings from the spaces in between. Incomplete enough to resemble the law around which the film centres and remind us that the truth, as the jury finds it, is as obvious and elusive as the final bleats of the trumpet in Ellington’s score, still audible after the last image disappears. Anatomy of a Murder might not be as American as apple pie, but it is American, despite Preminger’s country of origin. It is, as he tells Bogdanovich, “part of American life” (4), like the filmmaker’s Advise and Consent (1962) and Hurry Sundown five years later. It is an anatomy lesson in what America looked like at mid-century, from deep within its peculiar, dissonant midsection.


  1. Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1997, p. 630.
  2. Preminger in Bogdanovich, p. 630.
  3. Robert Traver, “Dukie”, Detroit News Sunday Magazine 6 August 1967, The Criterion Collection: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/2153-dukie.
  4. Preminger in Bogdanovich, p. 636.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959 USA 160 mins)

Prod Co: Carlyle Productions Prod, Dir: Otto Preminger Scr: Wendell Mayes, based on the novel by Robert Traver [John D. Voelker] Phot: Sam Leavitt Ed: Louis R. Loeffler Prod Des: Boris Leven Mus: Duke Ellington

Cast: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, Kathryn Grant, George C. Scott, Joseph N. Welch

About The Author

John Fidler is an award-winning writer for the Reading Eagle, a daily newspaper in Reading, Pennsylvania, USA. He also teaches at Reading Area Community College. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Cineaste and Society.

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