Best Courtroom Movies – Anatomy Of A Murder

Best Courtroom Movies – Anatomy Of A Murder

Best Courtroom Movies – Anatomy Of A Murder

Almost any movie featuring Jimmy Stewart would be high on my list of must-see films, but a courtroom drama featuring him would be at the top of the list. Michael Asimow, UCLA law professor and co-author of Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies (2006), described the film as “probably the finest pure trial movie ever made.”

Anatomy Of A Murder directed by distinguished director, Otto Preminger, was written by former Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker under the pen name Robert Traver. The novel was based on a 1952 murder case in which Voelker represented the defendant. The judge in the film was played by Joseph N. Welch, a lawyer in real-life known for scolding Joseph McCarthy during the Army–McCarthy hearings of the 1950s.

The plot involves Paul Biegler (Stewart) an attorney in a small town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Biegler is a former district attorney who, after losing his re-election bid, spends most of his time fishing, playing the piano, and hanging out with his alcoholic friend and cynical secretary.

Biegler is contacted by Remick’s character to defend her husband, a United States Army Lieutenant (Gazzara) who has been accused of the murder of an innkeeper. While Manion does not deny the murder, claiming that the innkeeper raped his wife, he claims to have no memory of the heinous act, thus creating the opportunity to plead a version of the temporary insanity defense – irresistible impulse. A challenging proposition indeed.

While Stewart’s character engages in a folksy easy-going demeanor, he (of course) has a sharp legal mind. This results in abundant courtroom theatrics that keep the proceedings interesting. The challenge is for him to get the rape and Manion’s motives into the record.


  • James Stewart as Paul Biegler
  • Lee Remick as Laura Manion
  • Ben Gazzara as Lt. Frederick Manion
  • Arthur O’Connell as Parnell McCarthy
  • Eve Arden as Maida Rutledge
  • Kathryn Grant as Mary Pilant
  • George C. Scott as Claude Dancer
  • Orson Bean as Dr. Matthew Smith
  • Russ Brown as George Lemon
  • Murray Hamilton as Alphonse Paquette
  • Brooks West as Mitch Lodwick
  • Ken Lynch as Sgt. James Durgo
  • John Qualen as Deputy Sheriff Sulo
  • Howard McNear as Dr. Dompierre
  • Duke Ellington (who provided the musical score) as Pie-Eye (uncredited)


The film was inspired by a case that arose from events that occurred on July 31, 1952, in Big Bay, Michigan. Lt. Coleman A. Peterson shot and killed Maurice Chenoweth and retained John D. Voelker as defense attorney. The trial commenced on September 15, 1952, and Assistant Attorney General Irving Beattie of the State of Michigan assisted Marquette County Prosecuting Attorney Edward Thomas.

Voelker utilized a rare version of the insanity defense known as “irresistible impulse” that had not been used since 1886 in Michigan. The jury deliberated for four hours on September 23, 1952, before returning a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. George C. Scott plays the prosecutor, Claude Dancer, from the Attorney General’s office.

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