I recently rewatched the courtroom classic Anatomy of a Murder (1959), as it was on my Master List. I didn’t remember a librarian being in the film, but I did remember a pivotal scene set in a law library. And my memory was correct, there is no actual reel librarian in the movie — landing it in Class V territory — but there is indeed a law library scene in the film that is key to the trial, and therefore the plot of the film itself.
In the early scenes setting up the tone of the film and the main character Paul Biegler, played by James Stewart, we also get treated to Paul’s personal law library. His love of the old law books helps the audience trust him and his actions, as he is shown to be a careful and thoughtful person. Paul and his lawyer friend, Parnell, are settling down for a night in. Let’s listen in:
Paul: In the evening, I sit around and drink bourbon whisky and read law with Parnell Emmitt McCarthy, one of the world’s great men.
Parnell: That was a kind word, Paulie. You know, I might have been. I look at you and see myself years ago, with the same love for the smell of the old brown books and the dusty office. [Pointing to the bookcase of law books] … The United States Supreme Court reports. Well, what should we read this evening, counselor? How about a little Chief Justice Holmes?
At that point, the phone rings. It’s a call from Laura Manion (Lee Remick), and her call for Biegler’s legal aid propels the story forward. Her husband, Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) is in jail for murdering a local man, Barney Quill; his stated reason for doing so is that he believed Quill had raped his wife. Is this killing legally justified?
By the way, this film was a landmark movie in being open about the issue of rape, at least in a legal setting. It also caused controversy — and banning in some states — because of its inclusion of such words as “bitch,” “contraceptive,” “panties,” “penetration,” “rape,” “slut,” and “sperm.”
Later, Lt. Manion meets with the army psychologist, Dr. Matthew Smith (Orson Bean), and brings back notes that he’s suffering from “dissociative reaction,” also known as “irresistible impulse.” This is their ticket to a temporary insanity defense.
Paul: And what did he say about your knowing the difference between right and wrong when you shot Quill?
Manion: I don’t think he said anything. Why, is that important?
Lt. Manion goes back to jail, and Parnell and Paul strategize:
Parnell: You ever heard of a Michigan court accepting ‘irresistible impulse’ as insanity? .. Well, tomorrow’s Saturday. We just have the weekend before the trial. When do you want to start working?
Paul: Tomorrow morning, early.
And, of course, “start working” means … going to the library! 😀
Apparently, they research in the law library all weekend, as the next scene dawns on a new day with the judge walking to the courthouse. Judge Weaver, played by legendary real-life lawyer Joseph N. Welch — he went up against and brought down Joseph McCarthy! — introduces himself to the court by saying, “And while I might appear to doze occasionally, you’ll find that I’m easily awakened, particularly if shaken gently by a good lawyer with a nice point of law.” ♥
Judge Weaver walks up past the door marked “Library” and stops after hearing a book thud. He quietly opens up the door and peeks in on the two lawyers drowning in law books. Judge Weaver smiles and backs out again, unnoticed by Paul and Parnell.
By the way, the movie’s entry on IMDb.com reveals a fun trivia tidbit about the library set:
In this double-decker law library, the two lawyers find the precedent they need — at the same time!
Paul: Hey listen to this, Parn.
Parnell: Never mind that. Just find People v. Durfee, 62, Michigan, 486, Year 1886.
Paul: That’s it. I have it right here in the A.L.R. Listen. “The right and wrong test, though deemed unscientific, is adhered to by most states but the fact that one accused of committing a crime may have been able to comprehend the nature and consequences of this act and to know that it was wrong. Nevertheless … if he was forced to its execution by an impulse — by an impulse which he was powerless to control, he will be excused from punishment.” The Michigan Supreme Court did accept irresistible impulse. This is precedent.
Note: The A.L.R. stands for American Law Reports, published since 1919, which remain a key resource for legal research. And I looked the case in the LexisNexis library database, and it’s a real case! Here’s a related screenshot of that case and its appeal:
That piece of precedent does get its day in court — or rather, its day in chambers. About 2 hrs and 15 mins into the film, the prosecution lawyers ask for a recess after the testimony of the army psychologist. Paul is ready and brings his law book to the conference in chambers, as seen in the screenshot below.
The Assistant State Attorney Dancer (George C. Scott) and District Attorney Lodwick (Brooks West) ask if the defense wants to change its plea:
Lodwick: You know a guy’s not considered legally nuts in Michigan unless he didn’t know right from wrong. Why don’t you get this over with?
Paul: Your Honor, will you turn to page 486?
Lodwick: What’s that?
Judge: Appears to be a law book, Mr. Lodwick.
And, of course, Paul just happens to have left a fishing line hook in the book to mark its place. He and Judge Weaver enjoy a brief conversation about catching frogs, which frustrates the two prosecuting attorneys!
Lodwick: What case is he citing, Judge? What is it, your honor?
Judge: People vs. Durfee, 1886. Looks like a precedent. Would you like to read it Mr. Dancer?
Dancer: No, thank you, Your Honor. I think I recall the case. We’re hooked … like the frog.
It’s a relatively subtle moment, but I like that it echoes back to Judge Weaver’s personal introduction that he appreciates being “shaken gently by a good lawyer with a nice point of law.” 🙂
And if you’d like to see more of a law library — as well as a reel law librarian — click here for my post on the 1988 Gary Oldman legal drama Criminal Law.
- Anatomy of a Murder. Dir. Otto Preminger. Perf. James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, George C. Scott. Columbia Pictures, 1959.
- “Anatomy of a Murder (1959) Trivia.” Internet Movie Database, n.d.
- “Joseph N. Welch” via Wikipedia is licensed under CC BY SA 3.0.