[Movie] Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

  • Directed by: Otto Preminger
  • Cast: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell
  • Based on: Anatomy of a Murder (1958 novel) by Robert Traver (John D. Voelker)

As a lawyer, I’ve had to learn that people aren’t just good or just bad. People are many things.

from the movie

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.

from the movie

“Anatomy of a Murder” is a courtroom drama based on the novel of the same name, which is also based on the actual murder case.


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

https:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anatomy_of_a_Murder

Even with some general stereotyping of characters, the film examines the ambiguity and fallacy of the legal process with wit and calculated creativity. It is ironic to see how a murderer can escape punishment when everyone is doing what they are supposed to do. The process of a trial seems rational but trickery. The borderline of sanity and insanity is ambiguous even though we can see it is the only mechanism of defense. The “irresistible impulse” seems only a deceptive word-play to evoke emotional reactions and confuse rational decisions.

The film is lengthy (2 hours 40 mins), but it is well-paced without losing its momentum. Even the use of explicit (?) languages seems to fit the environment of the court and can be justified. The best part of the movie can be the performance of the actors. It is quite a memorable film you can watch again!

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