Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder”


US, the early 1950s. A messy war is fought in the Korean peninsula under a constant threat of escalation. Communism is confronted at home, too. There are, for example, popular warnings about the dangers of ‘brainwashing’. New York psychiatrist Meerloo calls it ‘menticide‘. Not only is psychology able to detect pathologies in surprising (i.e. all) places; it can produce them when used as a weapon of ideological war. And it’s not only war prisoners – as seen in some soldiers captured in Korea – that can be ‘converted’; all citizens are vulnerable. Anybody can be made insane.

But what counts as insane when one draws the line, that is, in legal terms? When, for example, is someone to be judged responsible for her/his deeds, and when should insanity be a legitimate legal defense? Up to the 1950s, a century old legislation prescribed that the litmus test was the ability to tell right from wrong, and to resist one’s impulses. Things change in 1954, when judge David Bazelon decides, in Durham v. United States, to take into account the progress (or status?) of psychological sciences by requiring juries to make decisions based on expert testimony. Matters of right and wrong become supposedly clearer scientific matters of health, disease and defect.

Not long before this change, but already in changing times, in 1952, an army officer enters a Michigan bar and shoots the owner. In court, he claims that the victim raped his wife. His attorney, John Voelker, goes for the insanity defense. Temporary insanity led to an irresistible impulse to kill the alleged rapist. The strategy works, the officer goes home a free man. The views of experts invited to testify already play a great role in the court decision.

In 1958, Voelker, under the pen name Robert Traver, publishes a novel based on the case: Anatomy of a Murder. His views on expert psychiatric testimony turn out to be rather caustic. Here is the character based on the officer Voelker defended:

“Well, we can’t prove insanity without a medical expert, you tell me. Yet you and I have already decided I was insane, we know that we’re going to plead insanity – you tell me it’s the only legal defense I’ve got. And even I can see that now. In other words you a mere lawyer and I a dumb soldier have between us decided that I was medically and legally insane. Having decided that, we must now go out and shop around for a medical expert to confirm our settled conclusion.” (cf. M. Staub – Madness is Civilization, p.101)

One year later, in 1959, Otto Preminger turns Anatomy of a Murder into a film less concerned with the relation between law and psychiatric expertise, but which nonetheless manages to provoke by its liberties of language. Duke Ellington, who can also be seen in the film, is responsible for the soundtrack.


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