Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

“Probably the finest pure trial movie ever made.” – UCLA Law Professor, Michael Asimov

Anatomy of a Murder, starring James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell and Eve Arden was directed by Otto Preminger for Columbia Pictures in 1959. It’s based on a real murder case that happened in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (U.P)…

…and the entire film was shot on location close to where it took place, in Marquette County.

Anatomy of a Murder is the story of a jealous husband who’s on trial for killing the man that “allegedly” raped his wife. Laura Manion (Remick), the accused’s wife herself calls local attorney, Paul Biegler (Stewart) and begs him to take the case to defend her soldier husband (Gazzara). Biegler reluctantly decides to take it, in part because it’s getting a lot of attention in the U.P. which he thinks might finally get him the business that will let him make the money he needs to fund his fishing trips, and, pay Maida (Arden), his assistant…but mostly fund his fishing trips, despite Maida’s demands.

“You’re fired” – Biegler

“You can’t fire me until you pay me!” – Maida

It winds up being a whirlwind courtroom drama filled with clever ploys and constant bickering between Biegel and the “big city attorney from Lansing,” Claude Dancer (George C. Scott). It’s a heavy, riveting movie that’s as much about the human condition at that time as it is about a serious crime. Judge Weaver (Joseph N. Welch) does an excellent job of keeping the attorneys in line and even provides a little brevity just when we need it the most:

“One judge is quite like another. The only differences may be in the state of their digestions or their proclivities for sleeping on the bench. For myself, I can digest pig iron. 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.” – Judge Weaver.


The film is based on the bestselling novel from 1958 by Robert Traver, the pen name for John D. Voelker, The book is based on an actual case of Voelker’s in the U.P. where he was the defense attorney in a murder trial. Voelker was also a prosecutor in the U.P. and was later appointed a Michigan Supreme Court justice. Voelker said he used a pen name when he wrote his novels because he felt it would be inappropriate for a sitting judge to also be a crime novelist. Eventually he retired from the bench to concentrate on his passion for writing novels.

John D. Voelker is the attorney who Paul Biegler, played by James Stewart, is based on. Anatomy of a Murder spent 65 weeks on the best seller list and Illustrated two of Voelker’s passions: the law, and fly-fishing. (On a side note: Voelker became close friends with Joseph N. Welch, the actor who portrayed Judge Weaver, during filming. It was a friendship that would last their lifetimes).

While the town and place names are fictitious in the movie, they are closely based on places along U.S. highway 41, Michigan state highway M-28 and Marquette county highway 550. The street scenes in the movie were filmed in Marquette and Ishpeming. The courthouse scenes were all filmed at the county courthouse in Marquette. The Thunder Bay Inn, where the bar scenes were filmed used to be called the Big Bay Inn at the time, but is now, you guessed it, The Thunder Bay Inn. (Big Bay, Michigan has a little bit of a tourist shrine devoted to the movie and it’s worth a stop if you’re up that way), and the trailer park where the Mannions lived is an actual campground in Michigamme. All of these places are still there.

Anatamy of a Murder director Otto Preminger was known for films like Laura of 1944, and the film noir Fallen Angel of 1945 as well as other high-profile adaptations of novels and plays. He had a tendency to direct films with themes that were taboo and therefore on the radar of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), who approved and rated movies. There’s no doubt Preminger was an expert at defying the censors with this movies – In 1953 he directed The Moon is Blue, its storyline was about losing virginity was the reason it couldn’t attain MPAA approval. The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) couldn’t get MPAA approval because of its drug addiction plot. In 1962, Advise and Consent, didn’t get MPAA approval because it touched on homosexuality.

In Anatomy of a Murder, the taboo subject this time was rape. And boy are there frank discussions of rape and sex in this movie. It is said that the censors of the day objected to anything and everything that related to sex and rape but in the end, Preminger only made one concession in the film: he allowed them to substitute the word “violation” for “penetration,” which allowed the movie to be released with MPAA approval.  Many other “questionable” words were left in the script.

Once again, Judge Weaver eased us through a little of it:

“There’s a certain light connotation attached to the word ‘panties.’ Can we find another name for them?” – Judge Weaver

“I never heard my wife call ’em anything else”. – District Attorney Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West)

“Mr. Biegler?” – Judge Weaver

“I’m a bachelor, Your Honor.” – Paul Biegler”

That’s a great help. Mr. Dancer?” – Judge Weaver.

‘When I was overseas during the war, Your Honor, I learned a French word. I’m afraid that might be slightly suggestive.”  – Mr. Dancer.

“Most French words are.” – Judge Weaver.

Anatomy of a Murder was nominated for seven Academy Awards and its Duke Ellington soundtrack won the Grammy for Best Soundtrack album.

The American Bar association rated Anatomy of a Murder as one of the twenty-five best legal dramas ever made. I know it’s the best one I’ve ever seen. The fact that it all takes place and is filmed in the U.P is a bonus for me. We’ve spent a lot of time on road trips up there because of my huge crush on Lake Superior. We’ve taken the route in the movie dozens of times, always paying attention to the film’s locations….and while it’s fascinating and a lot of fun to know I may have walked the same sidewalks Jimmy Stewart once did, it’s the beautiful scenery that takes my breath away every time. Road trip!

This post is my entry in the Celluloid Road Trip Blogathon hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood.


Northern Michigan University
Life In Michigan

4 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

  1. Your wonderful article is very informative. It is the attention to filming on location that draws me again and again to Anatomy of a Murder. Movies from earlier eras take us to the time, but here we get to go to the place and it never grows old to me as a viewer.

    1. I’m so glad you stopped by, I’ve been reading your blog for years so it’s nice to have your thoughts here! I agree, being taken to this place never grows old. It’s just beautiful. I’m grateful to have a blogathon like this where we can spend time dreaming on the places as much as the movie. It’s so fun. Thanks again!

  2. I’ve seen this movie a million times and never knew it was based on a real case! Or that it was all filmed on location. No wonder if feels so gritty and slice-of-life. I’d love to see Big Bay’s tribute to the movie. I think it’s very cool that they have embraced the legacy of this film, despite its dark subject matter.

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