Anatomy of a Murder · Boss Tweed
Plus a trifecta of Gotham government graft
Sexual assault, followed by murder. Also, libel — and, meta-textually, McCarthyism. Oh, you’ll see.
I didn’t realize 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder is based — quite closely — on a real story until the paperback showed up in Exhibit B. inventory, complete with contemporaneous hep font, and even then, I assumed it was a novelization. But from the diving board of a “robert traver anatomy murder true story” search string, I plunged into the real case: Robert Traver was the pen name of John D. Voelker, an attorney and fly-fishing nut who had written a few stories and novels that didn’t do much, then decided to turn his hand to writing up “a criminal trial ‘the way it really was.’”
The trial in question, of Lt. Coleman Peterson for the murder of bar owner Mike Chenoweth after Chenoweth (…allegedly) raped Peterson’s wife Charlotte, appealed to Voelker as a subject because it highlighted the “moral ambiguities” of the law (and probably because Voelker, recently voted out of the county prosecutor’s office after years in the position, spent the bulk of his time on flashers and drunk-and-disorderlies in small-town Michigan, and needed the change of pace). Certainly it appealed to 1950s readers, because the book stayed on bestseller lists for over a year…and technically, it is a novel, thanks to different names for the subjects and the addition of more literary subplots.
Chenoweth’s widow, Mrs. Hazel A. Wheeler, didn’t feel that those cosmetic changes disguised the players sufficiently, especially not after Otto Preminger’s film version hit screens, and she slapped both the studio and Traver/Voelker’s publisher with a libel suit in 1960. I can’t say I entirely blame her — although no character associated with Wheeler appears onscreen in the film, Preminger did insist on shooting in actual case locations, including the courtroom and the tavern, so the Law & Order-style “purely coincidental” fig leaf didn’t cover much — but the court in her case seemed to feel that she’d waited too long to file (read: “until the movie and book had made enough money to justify the action”) and issued summary judgment for the defendants.
Most of that information, plus other petals of the blooming meta onion that is the Peterson case, is in Harold Schechter’s indispensable Ripped from the Headlines!, which I highly recommend, but the question before this court is whether I recommend the filmed version — which, although highly regarded and a regular on all-time lists, clocks in at a Scorsesean 160 minutes and may therefore take nearly as long as reading the original book.