That Other Laura — Discovering Twin Peaks in Anatomy of a Murder

It seems that Twin Peaks was inspired by Otto Preminger’s masterpiece. Maybe not the one you’re thinking about.

It’s common knowledge that love of the old cinema (to name just The Wizard of Oz and Sunset Blvd.) is seeping through David Lynch’s oeuvre. There is also no doubt that Laura Palmer’s character was inspired by the titular heroine of Otto Preminger’s classic work Laura (1944). So far, the parallels between Twin Peaks and the other acclaimed Preminger’s effort, Anatomy of a Murder, have been escaping people’s minds. On closer inspection many plot points of this movie may seem familiar to the fans of the series.


Anatomy of a Murder premiered in cinemas in 1959. It is still regarded as a masterpiece of courtroom thriller. For example, it has been added to the National Film Registry in 2012. I heard about it for the first time in 1998, just when U.S. Marshals hit the cinemas. One Polish reviewer wasn’t impressed by this Stuart Baird flick. He used the phrase: “The more speed, the less wit” and then praised Anatomy for taking the time to show the murder investigation realistically. It sounded a little like an “old man yelling at clouds” but a 25% RT rating suggests that it wasn’t Tommy Lee Jones or Wesley Snipes finest hour.

Preminger’s film is based on the novel by the former Michigan Supreme Court judge John D. Voelker whose pen name in fiction was Robert Traver. In this book, he drew inspiration from his legal experience. In 1952 he won a murder case claiming that his client suffered from the form of insanity called “irresistible impulse“. Such a line of defense is used when the client allegedly couldn’t control his/her actions even if (s)he knew they were wrong.

…imitates life

An irresistible impulse is a variation of the so-called M’Naghten rule. This 1840s British jury instruction states that the defendant can’t be convicted for the acts they knew were wrong but they could not restrain from committing them. Ironically, those rules didn’t apply to the man called David M’Naghten who shot a certain Edmund Drummond in 1843 thinking he was the Prime Minister Robert Peel. Nevertheless, they bear his name because his trial helped to develop them. Over the course of history, the M’Naghten rule applied to people suffering from epilepsy, atherosclerosis and various types of delusions. Irresistible impulse was also successfully invoked in several cases of sexually motivated violence. It’s not an universally recognized form of defense—since 2002 its use is forbidden by the Penal Code of California.

As the title hints, the script of Anatomy of a Murder focuses on the crime committed by US Army Lieutenant Frederick “Manny” Manion (played by Ben Gazzara). He is tried for killing innkeeper Bernard “Barney” Quill who allegedly raped his wife Laura Manion (played by Lee Remick). As in the original Twin Peaks, the murder happens offscreen and the main topic of the movie is an investigative work that tries to clarify details of that violent act. However, it’s not conducted by the FBI. The sheriff’s office also barely features in this movie. That responsibility fell on the former district attorney Paul Biegley and his associates: Parnell McCarthy and Maida Rutledge.

Familiar Faces

It’s tempting to imagine those three pictured on a movie’s poster like MacLachlan, Laura Dern and Lynch in The Return’s ads. At a closer look, McCarthy’s homely demeanor as well as selfless friendship with Biegley bring to mind Harry S. Truman. It must be noted that the Twin Peaks’ sheriff never had such an acute drinking problem, though. (At least he was staying sober until his romance with Josie went out of hand.) Moreover, that’s Stewart whose voice resembled Gordon Cole’s cadence. It’s not only my observation—Piper Laurie wrote about it in her 2011 memoir Learning to Live out Loud. Not to pick on her age, but a star with such a cross-generational appeal should know best. All in all, The Return analogy works best with Rutledge and her witty repartee worthy of Diane.

Manion persuaded Biegley to defend her husband in court. Manny’s manner of speaking and violent altercations with the other inmates in the arrest suggested that he was a cocky hothead. The problem was that he hardly appeared to be insane. Also the results of his psychological tests were inconclusive. His only defense was that he claimed no memory of his confrontation with Quill. We learn later that it was enough to clear his name, but not before some Twin Peaks-worthy secrets were revealed and examined.

Anatomy and metaphysics

At the first glance, it seems that Leland Palmer’s claim of the irresistible impulse would be more successful than Manion’s. The oldest American description of the Irresistible Impulse Test was published in Alabama in 1887 and sounds fairly dramatic. It says that the defendant called Parsons was found not guilty by reason of insanity because “his free agency was at the time destroyed”. If we discard possible supernatural origins of BOB, it can be argued that Leland was subject to “the duress of such mental disease [that] he had […] lost the power to choose between right and wrong”. Palmer was evidently mentally unstable—his “Mairzy Doats” routine is only one example of this. On the other hand, the court would probably see rational premises in his murders—cover-up for sexual abuse of young women.

Another factor that brings those two men together is their respectable social position. Manion was an officer, Palmer, a lawyer. Obviously, juries don’t like the offenders who tarnish the reputations of their highly regarded professions. Maybe that’s the lesson both Lynch and Preminger wanted us to learn—that the killer is always ugly, no matter his background and alibi.

Frederick Mannion (Ben Gazzara) in US Army uniform sits in court looking menacingly
Frederick Mannion (Ben Gazzara) in court

Small-Town America

The location of the events depicted in Anatomy of a Murder is similar to Lynch’s masterpiece but in a superficial way. It is an area near the Canadian border and it is rich in woods, but the events take place in Michigan, not Washington. The Mannions and Quill live in a small holiday resort called Thunder Bay. Biegley lives nearby in Iron City. The trial also takes place in that town. There is only one real place of that name. Funnily enough, it lies in Alabama in Calhoun County (as in Will Hayward’s hospital name). Later we learn that to a huge extent Thunder Bay is shady Deer Meadows to wholesomely Twin Peaks-y Iron City.

The film’s opening is like a condensed Twin Peaks’ pilot because it creates the atmosphere of a sleepy town populated by salt-of-the-earth types. A good example of this is a shot of the people in the bar. The sequence focuses on Biegley driving through the town, e.g. passing by its welcome sign. He’s coming back from the fishing trip and our beloved trout are mentioned later in the movie. Rutledge even complains later about the fish in a refrigerator “ready to swim upstream and spawn for itself” which mirrors a foul percolator from Pete Martell’s story.

Seedy Underbelly

The Manions were living in the trailer park just like Teresa Banks in Fire Walk with Me. Obviously, they were not that type of outsiders. We don’t know anything about Frederick’s social life but Laura was definitely very outgoing. That type of housing was likely meant to signify the transitory nature of their life as a military family. The remoteness of that location was also an excuse for Quill to take Laura on an ill-fated ride through the woods. Notably, the park’s keeper Sulo is as powerless in the face of disturbances as Carl Rodd in Deer Meadows. It’s even more jarring that he was also a deputy sheriff.

It seems like no town near the border could be complete without Canadian cafeteria staff. In Twin Peaks there was sinister Jacques Renault, in Anatomy of a Murder, reserved Mary Pilant. In both cases, there was a trek to the Land of Maple Leaf to gather more evidence. McCarthy’s quest for Pilant’s documents was far less salacious than One Eyed Jacks escapade but also left the inquirer incapacitated. The aged lawyer ended up in hospital because his driving skills were not up to snuff after years without practicing. Of course, one person in intensive care looks insignificant in comparison with all the Coopers and Renaults treated by Doc Hayward.

Preminger named two important heroines of his films Laura but we can’t say he was obsessed with that name. It doesn’t feature in his other works and both Lauras are definitely not the same person. Laura Manion is not far from Palmers’ daughter—fun-loving, flirty but ultimately physically and emotionally wounded. She struggles with the society’s expectations regarding women, embodied by an aggressive behavior of prosecutor Claude Dancer during her husband’s trial.

The Man’s World

It’s excruciating to watch how Dancer debated publicly Laura’s sexual morality and speculated on the possible liaisons of the other witness, Mary Pilant. His inconsiderate remarks bring to mind another Big Town visitor not caring about backwoods sensibilities—Albert Rosenfield. However, in Anatomy of a Murder there is no talk of “life in the company of Gandhi and King”. There’s no strive for the truth, only a struggle to prove one’s point at any cost. I believe that it’s one of the reasons this film is worth revisiting. Watching Dancer, it’s hard not to see the shades of many current public figures.

Lawyer Paul Biegley (James Stewart) sits behind the steering wheel of the car while Laura Manion (Lee Remick) smiles at him seductively
Paul Biegley (James Stewart) and Laura Manion (Lee Remick)

Biegley also didn’t wholeheartedly accept Laura’s relaxed attitude. He wished that Laura should have been “a meek little housewife with horn-rimmed spectacles” when in court. He seemed to understand in the same way as Donna Hayward in Twin Peaks did that sunglasses magnify Laura’s seductive allure. Biegley rightly predicted that the jury would to a huge extent base their verdict on the assessment of Laura’s role in the incident. If they decide that she “deserved her fate”, the killer would lose a lot of their sympathy. It looked like Ms Manion didn’t want to relinquish her freedom. Later she realized that only playing along would save her from further troubles and changed her image accordingly.

Behind the Mask

Apparently, before the murder Ms Manion was looking for a hideout to indulge her wild sensuality, Fire Walk with Me style. That hideout was Barry Quill’s inn in Thunder Bay. The bar in Anatomy of a Murder possesses traits of both Double R and Bang Bang Bar—and proved as dangerous to its prominent female visitor as the latter. Bartender Al Pacquette was as hostile and nefarious as Jacques Renault. Mary Pilant who took over the business after the killing of the previous owner resembled Norma Jennings with her complicated family history. It takes us some time to get to know where she was from and who her father was.

On the other hand, her participation in Manny’s trial showed she differed from Norma in terms of sexual behavior. Dancer accused her of having an affair with Quill, but he was proven wrong. Like both Double R waitresses (Norma and Shelly Johnson), her life was marred by a connection to a shady man. She managed to break free only at the end. Because of this, Mary seemed to be the person who benefited most from the outcome of Manion’s case. In my opinion, her liberation from a bitter secret is as satisfying for the viewers as Norma kissing Big Ed in The Return.

Innkeeper Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant) stares angrily at Paul Beagley (not visible) while Maida Rutledge (Arden) eyes her with concern
Biegley’s people meet Mary Pilant for the first time

The Evil That Men Do

At the first glance the final of Anatomy of a Murder is more optimistic than the end of Laura Palmer mystery. The good guys (Biegley and Pilant) win, the bad guys are dead (Quill) or humiliated (the prosecutors). At the same time the main characters (Banions) remain in the gray area—probably forever. Laura was crying when they were leaving the town after the verdict. She couldn’t be happy because her man’s acquittal squashed her longing for freedom, at least temporarily. Maybe it’s too bold to imagine the movie concluding with her shouting: “I’d rather be Quill’s whore than your wife”, but it’s easy to guess that she would continue to live as unfulfilled life as, say, Shelly Johnson.

My final, ahem, verdict is: Anatomy of a Murder doesn’t have an eerie “she is dead, yet she lives” aura of Preminger’s Laura. The tale of Michigan murder is interesting for Peakies for the other reasons. It shows us how our favorite show would look with no supernatural factors at play. It would be still full of mysteries and endearingly quirky characters, but even more psychologically nasty than the version we got. For me, as a foreign pop-culture consumer, both works of art are interesting because they are scathing reviews of Northern American small town decorum. It’s a good history lesson to watch them both and notice the differences stemming from the historic context. Even more so, if we pay enough attention to the Anatomy‘s universal lessons about hypocrisy, jealousy and human fallibility.

Written by Kordian Kuczma

Kordian Kuczma is a writer, tour guide and teacher from northern Poland. One of his biggest dreams is to write the comprehensive biography of Pet Shop Boys. Being a good European boy, he chose to live his life in the company of Bergman and Tarkovsky. Kordian's path is a strange and difficult one.

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