Poster Anatomy of a Murder (image in public domain)

A few years ago, I co-authored with my wife, a defense investigator-writer, a nonfiction book geared to fiction writers: A Lawyer’s Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms. In it, we named our top 10 favorite legal films, which included Anatomy of a Murder. Below is an excerpt from the book about this film, with a right-on quote about trial lawyers by Jimmy Stewart, who played the defense attorney in the movie.

James Ellroy Hosting a Cinema Get-Together

By the way, esteemed crime fiction author James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential, other titles) is hosting a showing of Anatomy of a Murder on January 23, 2017, at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Littleton, Colorado. For more info, click here.

Book Excerpt: Anatomy of a Murder

Anatomy of a Murder starred Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick, George C. Scott, and Ben Gazzara; and was directed by Otto Preminger. It is a courtroom drama about a murder trial where the accused, a lieutenant in the Army, is charged with murdering a bar owner who had raped his wife. His small-town defense lawyer, played by Stewart, tackles the defense on the grounds of temporary insanity against the big-city slick prosecutor played by Scott. The movie crackles with courtroom conflicts and confrontations.

Jimmy Stewart Played the Defense Lawyer

“I spent a lot of time memorizing my lines for that movie. The picture demanded an awful lot of time and thought. As the defense attorney I knew I had to be glibber than usual. Trial lawyers are neither shy nor inarticulate.”

~ Jimmy Stewart on his role as the defense attorney

Stewart certainly had that part right—trial attorneys are neither shy nor inarticulate. In fact, the word ego comes to mind.

“This is a cross examination in a murder case, not some high school debate!” Brooks West (left) and James Stewart (right) face one another, as George C. Scott (center) looks on (movie trailer, public domain)

Counsel for the Army Cast as a Judge

The 1958 book was written by Robert Traver, the pen name of John D. Voelker, a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. After Spencer Tracy passed on the role of Judge Weaver in the movie, claiming it was too small of a part, a real attorney, Joseph N. Welch, the head counsel for the Army, was cast in the role. According to Welch, he took the part “because it looked like that was the only way I’d ever get to be a judge.” He was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor for playing this character.

Welch, by the way, was a familiar face to many after he publicly clashed with Senator Joseph McCarthy during the televised Un-American Activities hearings over Communist activity in the US. Welch is famous for his fierce eloquence when he chided McCarthy with the words, “If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty I would do so. I like to think I am a gentle man, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me.”

Realistic Proceedings

Real-life lawyers have also commended this film for its realistic depiction of courtroom proceedings. One attorney joked that perhaps one of the more lifelike moments in the film was that the lawyer didn’t get paid at the end of the case.


Click on cover image to go to Amazon page (image copyrighted)

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Managing Partner at Shaun Kaufman Law
Shaun Kaufman has 30 years of in-court experience, with hundreds of hours spent defending numerous high-profile cases including homicide, white-collar theft and RICO offenses. Specialties: Criminal defense, personal injury, business litigation, DUI.

Shaun Kaufman Law: 303-309-0430
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