Since the advent of cinema, courtroom and legal proceedings have been the subject matter of some of the leading films. The film lists are many but LKG weighs in on the “most important” films that focus on courtroom scenes. Disagree? Let us know.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Based on a best selling novel, based on Harper Lee’s father’s law practice, there are a generation of people who chose law as a career after seeing this movie. Set in the racist South, Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch profiles the promise of an attorney willing to take on an unpopular, unprofitable, and unsuccessful cause that makes one proud to be an attorney. This movie holds up remarkably well and the courtroom scenes are rich with examinations of witnesses; Peck does it as one would have imagined Lincoln in a courtroom. This movie is generally on the top of most lists as the best courtoom drama.
Swathed with the haunting Academy Award winning score by Bruce Springsteen, superb acting by Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks brings to the screen a courtroom drama within the context of an attorney infected with aids. Touching upon issues of law firm politics, work place discrimination, gay rights, the AIDS epidemic and a Don Quixote lawyer willing to take on a powerful law firm, this film is as important as To Kill A Mockingbird but with a more contemporary mission. Washington is more the anti-hero to Peck’s traditional hero, while the victims of discrimination take a very different posture; Brock Eli of To Kill A Mockingbird fights for his life as an unjustly charged rapist of a white woman and Tom Hanks is plaintiff in a lawsuit against his former law firm for money damages. The fight goes on and every generation of attorney has the potential to confront an injustice.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Out of typecast James Stewart plays a smarmy Michigan lawyer defending Ben Gazarra, a veteran, for murder. Produced and directed by one of the finest of his generation, Otto Preminger based the movie on a novel written by a Michigan supreme court justice about a murder case he defended before he took the bench. The judge in the movie is none other than the Joseph Welch, an attorney, who opposed Joseph McCarthy in the Army McCarthy hearings. Over the last 50 years there has yet to be a more accurate, true to life film depicting how things really happen in a courtroom. The movie is a nuanced, unvarnished view of the underside of the legal system. Why is this movie important?: short of showing up in a courtroom for a trial with a known backstory, this is the best that can be done.
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Sometimes identified as a “political drama”, director Stanley Kramer brings a fictionalized version of the Nuremberg trial of four judges during Hitler’s regime and their moral, if not legal, culpability for the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis. Richard Widmark plays the American officer charged with the prosecution; American supreme court justice Robert Jackson at the special request of Franklyn Roosevelt prosecuted the initial and most prominent of the Nuremberg trials. Probably one of the greatest casts to be assembled in a single film (Widmark, Spencer Tracey, Marlene Deitrich, Judy Garland, Montgomery Cliff, Maximillian Schell, Burt Lancaster, and Captain Kirk himself -William Shatner) judging judges who were following laws that were legislated by a sovereign government presents a troubling scenario that has replicated itself since in the Middle East, Africa and other parts of the world. Watch this film and be troubled by both the concept of judges enforcing laws that they knew were inherently unjust and the aggressive cross examination of the victims of the Holocaust by Shell advocating for the morally indefensible judges.
Twelve Angry Men (1957)
Although there is no scene that takes place in a courtroom, this Sidney Lumet film is the finest examination of America’s jury system and the process of deliberations that persists, some half a century after its creation. Like many classics, the all-star cast of Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam, E.g. Marshall and Jack Warden put the character study of 12 jurors laboring over a murder trial on their backs. Marked for preservation by the Library of Congress, “beyond a reasonable doubt” becomes more than just a cliché when the audience steps inside the jury room to feel the tension of personality conflicts, analysis of evidence at a molecular level, and a discussion of concepts and people without ever naming those people- “the boy” “the lady across the street” and the “older man” are metaphors for the democratic process that is virtually unheard of except in the United States. This movie will be important 100 years from now.
The Verdict (1982)
Based on a true medical malpractice case, this movie teaches by negative example; no plaintiffs attorney should want to be like Paul Newman and no defense attorney should aspire to be James Mason. The attorney despicability ranges from simple lying to mail fraud to perjury to subordination of testimony to conspiracy and that doesn’t even begin to discuss the incompetence that goes on. At end, the only attorney left with a law license should be Jack Warden, the referral lawyer of the malpractice case which Newman butchers and Marshall unethically defends. Newman, an alcoholic down and out attorney who shows up a funerals claiming that he knew the deceased in order to market his practice, not only fails to competently prosecute the case but then without consulting his clients turns down a settlement offer because he doesn’t want to be “bought”. Warden, injecting a bit of reality, responds “that’s the way it is supposed to work. You win when they pay you money” The courtroom scenes are entertaining and have the flavor of a real trial, including the trifecta: a dishonest judge that views the plaintiff’s case with disfavor. Why is this movie important: with the all pervasive dishonesty of the attorneys, the judge and generally the system, the jury finds its way to a just result. You’ll want to cry or cheer at the end.
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Tremendous performances by Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton with a story by Agatha Christie and no less than Billy Wilder directing, this film makes the Top Ten Important Courtroom dramas in part because it is the only one that takes place in England under the governance of English Common Law, the father of the American judicial system. The old master trial attorney (Laughton) convinced of innocence but in ill health and against the advice of his physician agrees to take on one more criminal case –the murder defense of a suave, manipulative Leonard Vole (Power) alleged to have stabbed a rich elderly widow who left her estate to Vole. Vole’s German wife (Dietrich) in post- World War II England not only fails to give her husband the alibi she claims in pretrial meetings which support his innocence, but testifies that he confessed the crime to her when called as a witness for the prosecution! Wait, how can a wife be forced to testify against her husband? How can damning hearsay letters be admitted into evidence? What does Laughton have up his robed sleeve? Is Power innocent or guilty? What’s the truth? The suspense is as good as any courtroom drama gets. See how it is done at Old Bailey in London as the other films on our list demonstrate it done in an American courtroom.
Presumed Innocent (1990)
After there was Vincent Bugliosi, before there was John Grishom, there was (and is) Scott Turow, a practicing attorney turned novelist who wrote the book the movie was based upon. Presumed Innocent is a complicated and tightly knit story of a prosecuting attorney (Harrison Ford) charged with killing another prosecuting attorney in his office (Greta Scacchi). The District Attorney (Brian Dennehy) unaware that there was a brief sexual relationship between the two, asks Ford to investigate the death and then charges him with the death after overwhelming evidence is uncovered: Ford’s prints are on glasses in the victims house, blood of Ford’s type and his semen are found at the scene. Ford retains a top defense attorney (Raul Julia) and the courtroom scenes with the judge (Paul Winfield) are as real and true to life as can be seen in any trial. The trial scenes are as truthful as Anatomy of a Murder, but with a more contemporary feel and setting. Why is this movie important and in the top ten? Although great acting, directing and plot line, it shows the legal system manipulated to the extreme by talented people looking for justice but disinterested in the methods necessary for the rule of law. Destruction of evidence? No problem. Conflicts of interest? No problem. Rules of evidence? What are those! Although this sounds like a free for all without the semblance of what would happen in a real courtroom, it is truly a film that is gripping, suspenseful and always entertaining without ever flirting with the incredible. A must see.
Inherit the Wind (1960)
Based on the losing effort of Clarence Darrow in the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, this film’s big Hollywood persona detracts from the historical significance and the poignancy of a teacher being prosecuted in the South for teaching evolution. Spenser Tracy and Frederic March overwhelm the plot as Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryant, respectively, with a memorable (and completely implausible) cross examination by Darrow, when he calls Bryant to the witness stand as a witness. Why is this movie important? Darrow and Bryant define the concept of courtroom presence. As a side note, cases based in a constitutional violation rarely find their way to a jury trial. Gene Kelly has a cartoonish role as a wise cracking newspaper reporter which has little to do with the courtroom aspect of the film.
The Caine Mutiny (1954) / A Few Good Men (1992) / Breaker Morant (1980)
You can’t handle the truth, but this is actually three movies we lumped together because each has phenomenal courtroom scenes in the context of a military tribunal.
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