‘Anatomy of a’ law library

Researching the night away in the law library

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?

Private law library
Private law library

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.” ♥

Screenshot of Anatomy of a Murder
Peeking into the law library

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.

Screenshot of Anatomy of a Murder
Researching the night away in the law library
Screenshot of Anatomy of a Murder
Research paying off

By the way, the movie’s entry on IMDb.com reveals a fun trivia tidbit about the library set:

IMDb.com trivia of Anatomy of a Murder
IMDb.com trivia of Anatomy of a Murder

In this double-decker law library, the two lawyers find the precedent they need — at the same time!

Parnell:  Paulie.

PaulHey 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.

Screenshot of Anatomy of a Murder
Research in the law library

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:

People v. Durfee case snapshot from the LexisNexis database
People v. Durfee case snapshot from the LexisNexis database

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.

Judge's private library in Anatomy of a Murder
Judge’s private library in Anatomy of a Murder

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!

Screenshot of Anatomy of a Murder
Enjoying the rule of law

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.


Sources used:


‘Criminal Law’ librarian

At first glance, it’s hard to tell which is the librarian!

In the 1988 legal thriller Criminal Law, Gary Oldman is almost unrecognizably bland as lawyer Ben Chase. After successfully defending a wealthy client, Martin (Kevin Bacon), against a murder charge, Ben finds out that Martin is, indeed, guilty. Oops. What’s a hotshot lawyer to do? Get drunk and pass out in your living room? Check! Reveal top-secret details of the crime by shouting on the street at a victim’s roommate? Check! Violate ethical codes by working with a police officer against his client? Check!

No doubt troubled by all his ethical violations, Ben goes his alma mater’s law library to talk to an old professor. Occurring a little over a half hour into the film, the camera pans around the double-decker library, lingering over statues and rows and rows of volumes. The light streaming in all the windows is quite atmospheric, doing its best to add some drama to this drama.

Law library in Criminal Law
Law library in Criminal Law

Rounding a corner, Ben finds his old professor, Clemens (Michael Sinelnikoff), sitting on a library ladder and decked out in a long, grey cardigan. An older lady (Irene Kessler) is handing him thick volumes and helping him shelve books. At first glance, it’s hard to tell which is the librarian! 🙂

Note: That’s when credits really help out, as Irene Kessler’s role is listed as “Librarian Peggy” (ding ding ding, we have a winner!).

Law librarian in Criminal Law
Law librarian in Criminal Law

Professor Clemens calls out from atop the ladder:

Clemens:  Ben, here, give me a hand? And we’ll let Peggy get back to work.

Peggy:  He’s a hard master.

Ben: You’re telling me.

Peggy, also decked out in a long cardigan, then disappears down a back staircase. Onscreen for only a few seconds, she joins the Class IV category of librarians. Although we hardly see Librarian Peggy, it’s obvious she has a warm rapport with both the professor and former student.

Law library in Criminal Law
Law library in Criminal Law

And based on the subsequent conversation (Ben to the professor, “You’re giving these away? Your collection of quotations?”), the professor has donated his collection to the law library. Later, we find out why, when Ben visits Professor Clemens in the hospital, who is quote-worthy and optimistic even on his deathbed.


Sources used:


  • Criminal Law. Dir. Martin Campbell. Perf. Gary Oldman, Kevin Bacon, Tess Harper. MGM, 1988.