‘Anatomy of a Murder’ Lives On
Review by Rick Gould
Robert Traver’s Anatomy of a Murder has enjoyed many lives. There was the actual Upper Michigan murder the summer of ’52. The case inspired the 1958 best-selling novel. The book became a classic 1959 film. There was a 2009 documentary. And there was a recent book, Dissecting Anatomy of a Murder, by Eugene Milihizer.
The actual murder occurred July 31, 1952. Coleman Peterson was the killer and Maurice Chenoweth was the bar owner victim. The killing was over the alleged rape of Peterson’s wife by the barkeep. In the book and movie of Anatomy of a Murder, they were fictionalized as Frederick Manion and Barney Quill. John D. Voelker was the defense lawyer. He later wrote under the pen name Robert Traver, and wrote about himself as Paul Biegler in Anatomy of a Murder. Got all that?
The “irresistible impulse” insanity defense for this murder case had not been used since 1886. Like the movie, the real murderer was found guilty by reason of insanity, examined by a psychiatrist two days after the verdict, declared sane, and divorced his wife shortly after.
All this brought me back to the original novel, which I had never read until this review. Given that Anatomy of a Murder is 400 pages and written by a 1950s lawyer, I was expecting a dry, technical take on this scandalous story. The book is a most pleasant surprise: a straight forward page turner, with the author’s humor coming through, and also his knack for sizing up human behavior. The book was perhaps the first to explore the preparation that goes into a trial, creating a genre that we’ve seen in later books, TV shows, films, and podcasts. While the book is lengthy, the details never bore the reader. While Anatomy of a Murder’s defense lawyer might be described as small town or folksy, the fictional counterpart to lawyer/author Voelker is no hick of a hero. He sees humor in the other characters’ foibles and personal traits, as well his own. As somebody who has moved back up to his Upper Michigan small town, I found the characters and attitudes are still most recognizable, for better or worse. The underlying theme that justice has different meanings to people still resonates.
I was especially impressed at how the film followed the novel, which is usually not the case. The pertinent details of the book make it to the movie. The main difference was that the defendant was younger than his somewhat older wife. The real wife and her novel’s counterpart, Laura Manion, was in her early 40s at the time—not the kittenish 23 that was Lee Remick.
Anatomy of a Murder was the first movie filmed entirely on location in Upper Michigan, to name a few spots—Ishpeming, Marquette, Michigamme, and Big Bay—where the murder took place. Not only were local exteriors used, Preminger even used Voelker’s Ishpeming house for the home of the lawyer’s fictionalized self. Anatomy’s movie jurors are some of the murder case’s actual jurors. Locals were used as extras during production, as well as to help behind the scenes. Anatomy of a Murder gave Jimmy Stewart his last Oscar nomination as the small-town lawyer and George C. Scott his first, as the sly prosecuting attorney. George C. Scott was born in Detroit, host to the world premiere of Anatomy of a Murder. Ishpeming’s Butler Theater hosted the Upper Michigan premiere.
The novel and film versions of Anatomy of a Murder endured as classics to the point that there was a 2009 documentary by Marquette journalist John Pepin called Anatomy ’59: The Making of a Classic Motion Picture. In 2022, law professor/writer Eugene Milihizer wrote a comprehensive look at the entire story, from the case to novel to film, called Dissecting Anatomy of a Murder. Both are well worth a look. Most of all, the original novel, Anatomy of a Murder, still makes a riveting read, 65 years later.
Rick Gould is a writer who lives in Upper Michigan and has a classic movie blog: https://ricksrealreel.blogspot.com/