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  • February 06, 2020

    Follow Your 'Irresistible Impulse' to Explore 'Anatomy of a Murder' in Michigan's UP

    In a small tavern in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, you can find an outline of a body on the floor and a special gun kept by the tavern's owners for public viewing. Anne Ertel Sawasky takes a tour of the filming locations for the award-winning 1959 film, Anatomy of a Murder, starring Jimmy Stewart.

    Anne T. Ertel-Sawasky

    Front of the Lumberjack Tavern

    The front of the Lumberjack Tavern in Big Bay, Michigan, displays its connection with the 1959 film, Anatomy of a Murder.

    If you are a fan of legal dramas, one of the all-time best is Anatomy of a Murder, the 1959 Academy Award-nominated and Grammy Award-winning movie starring Jimmy Stewart as Paul Biegler, a small town lawyer from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP), pitted against the high-powered government lawyers from downstate.

    Biegler fought an uphill battle defending an Army lieutenant seen shooting the bartender of a local bar in Big Bay, Michigan, after his wife accused him of raping and beating her. The attorney came up with a novel defense of “irresistible impulse,” citing on an obscure old Michigan Supreme Court case. After a six-day trial, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.

    Anne Ertel-Sawasky Anne Ertel-Sawasky, Marquette 1987, is chief compliance officer and financial coach with Paul Winkler Inc., an investment advisory firm in the Nashville, Tennessee area. She also practices real estate, business, and corporate law with Sawasky Law LLC, Appleton.

    The courtroom scenes in the film are so realistic that the Army reportedly uses it to train JAG attorneys.

    The movie is based on the best-selling book of the same name, published in 1958 by author and Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker, who wrote it based on a 1952 case he defended while in private practice in Ishpeming, Michigan. In publishing the book, Voelker used the pen name Robert Traver.

    Following an ‘Irresistible Impulse’

    As a lawyer and classic movie buff, I saw where it all took place on a recent visit to the UP.

    About a half-hour drive north of Marquette, Michigan, on a country highway winding along Lake Superior, lies Big Bay, a tiny town you would surely drive right through if not for its lurid history, still in full view for legal buffs and classic movie fans.

    We stopped for lunch at the Lumberjack Tavern, a typical old UP knotty pine bar and restaurant forgotten by time.

    Not only was this the site of the murder on that long-ago Saturday night, but it was the first place a Hollywood movie was ever filmed in the actual location the murder occurred. Looking around, I was struck at how it still looked the same as in the 62-year-old movie.

    nne Ertel-Sawasky poses with the outline of the body

    Anne Ertel-Sawasky poses with the outline of the body on the floor of the Lumberjack Tavern in Big Bay, Michigan.

    The Dead Body is Outlined on the Floor

    The first thing that tells you this is not your typical small-town Northwoods bar is the outline of the dead body on the floor near the door. Those who have watched the movie immediately recognize this as the logo from the movie. Some claim this is the spot the bartender dropped, while others say he fell behind the bar. Either way, it’s a fun salute to the movie, and many visiting patrons lie on the floor and have their picture taken on it or – for the less fanatical (like me) – just find it a great place to pose with the “body.”

    We went to the bar and I told the bartender we were there to check out the place where the murder took place in Anatomy of a Murder.

    Nonplussed, he responded, “Well, you’re lucky you are here today. We only have murders on Saturdays.”

    Scrapbooks and Memorabilia

    After a chuckle by all, he let us see scrapbooks containing newspaper articles, actual statements by many local witnesses of the events, and other memorabilia about the real murder, the filming of the movie, and their brush with the Hollywood stars.

    Stories still abound with the locals. A friend of mine from Ishpeming told me how his father played a jury member in the movie. During filming, my friend – then a boy – witnessed the filming. He said he often strolled the streets of Marquette with Lee Remick, the beautiful female lead in the movie, between takes when she pushed her baby in the stroller.

    I asked if we could see the gun owned by the murdered bartender. He willingly went in the back room and brought it out for us to look at and take pictures with. We ordered lunch and read through the scrapbooks and looked at the photos and articles framed on the walls.

    Touring the Film Locations

    Down the street in Big Bay is another filming location, Thunder Bay Inn. The inn, a former hotel for Henry Ford and other Ford executives visiting the nearby auto plant, was where the stars stayed during filming, which was also the site of several scenes in the movie.

    When you are done visiting Big Bay, you can drive to Ishpeming, where the stars arrived on the train for filming, to the excitement of the locals.

    You can also visit the Ishpeming Carnegie Library where Justice Voelker frequented. The beautiful building was also used in several scenes in the movie as well, including the scene where the lawyers are shown digging through the law books to find some legal argument to excuse their client’s murderous actions. Justice Voelker’s actual house, located at 205 Barnum Street, was also used in the movie as the attorney’s office.

    The Courthouse

    Some of the most iconic scenes in the movie were filmed in nearby Marquette at the courthouse.

    Built in 1904 and on the National Register of Historic Places, the second floor where the court scenes were filmed still looks the same as 61 years ago, with its elaborate stained glass dome and mahogany woodwork.

    As long as court is not in session, you can tour the actual courtroom used in the film. Displays are in the lobby of the courtroom scenes filmed here. Joseph N. Welch, who brilliantly played the judge in the movie, was tapped after coming to recognition as the attorney who represented the Army during the notorious McCarthy hearings in the 1950s. No wonder he was so convincing in the role!

    Court transcripts and other details about John Voelker are available on the website for Northern Michigan University in Marquette.

    Planning Your Visit

    Legal buffs can spend as little as a few hours to several days checking out the sites related to the movie and the actual murder. It’s not your typical Northwoods trip, but legal fans will find it worth the visit.

    Before you go, I highly recommend you watch the movie. You will better appreciate the story, the legal theories used, and recognize many locations featured in the film … and watch a masterful legal drama as well.

    Want a great tour guide? Check out the entire recommended Anatomy of a Murder tour, from the Michigan Film & Digital Media Office.​

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