Top 25 Courtroom Movies

VerdictAs I have blogged before, I love legal drama on the screen. Maybe it’s because I trained to be a lawyer (in the interests of full disclosure, my legal background informs the work I do in education in terms of copyright, contracts and licensing but I have never actually practised law professionally). Mostly though it is because the adversarial system used in courtrooms is potentially such a dynamic way to explore topical issues – and of course, unravelling complex mysteries. So I decided to come up with a list of some of my favourite move dramas featuring lawyers and courtroom. So, all rise …

The following is offered for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme over at his fab Sweet Freedom.

“You know, so much of the time we’re just lost. We say, “Please, God, tell us what is right; tell us what is true.” And there is no justice: the rich win, the poor are powerless. We become tired of hearing people lie. And after a time, we become dead… a little dead. We think of ourselves as victims… and we become victims. We become… we become weak. We doubt ourselves, we doubt our beliefs. We doubt our institutions. And we doubt the law. But today you are the law. You ARE the law. Not some book … If we are to have faith in justice, we need only to believe in ourselves. And ACT with justice. See, I believe there is justice in our hearts.” – Frank Galvin’s closing speech from The Verdict (1982)

First off, we’ll need to establish some ground rules – and yes, they are personal to me and a bit inconsistent (there’s a reason I never actually practised as a lawyer …). Most of the films included in my list, it turns out, are either taken from popular novels and plays or taken from real-life cases. Various obvious titles failed to make the cut however, for various reasons. For instance, despite its good intentions, I have omitted In the Name of the Father because the real events have been so comprehensively fictionalised as to depart almost completely from the true events (they couldn’t even spell the surname of one of the main characters correctly), and seriously botched British legal procedures, which I think excludes them from serious consideration for this list. I am also excluding the fantastical in most cases (really hated to omit Powell and Pressburger’s classic A Matter of Life and Death (1946) which uses a heavenly court as its premise) as that seemed to open up the list too much. On the other, I have left in The Devil And Daniel Webster (1941), because despite its fantasy aspects, it does have a traditional (earthbound) courtroom climax on which the story hinges. As I said, I realise I have been a bit inconsistent – but hey, on this occasion, I get to be judge and jury!

So, here we go, in chronological order of first release:

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1926)
An extraordinary film, anchored by a haunting, once-in-a-lifetime portrayal by Falconetti in the title role, this is a silent movie that is extraordinarily moving and expressive – proving that verbal pyrotechnics, even in the courtroom, are not all.

Young Mr Lincoln (1939)
Henry Fonda finally became a star with his beguiling performance as Lincoln before he became president, defending two men in a murder trial. An early John Ford classic.

The Devil And Daniel Webster (1941)
Walter Huston plays ‘Mrs Scratch’ (aka Satan) in this extraordinary fantasy set in 1841, beautifully shot, subtly acted and just one of the best films made in the classic Hollywood era and one that deserves to be better known. It would help if it had not been released under so many titles however – it is also known as: All That Money Can Buy, Mr. Scratch, Daniel and the Devil and Here Is a Man. Recent video releases by Criterion and Eureka have the full-length version (at last) and should be in everybody’s to-see list.
Adapted from the short story by Stephen Vincent Benet.

Adam’s Rib (1949)
A classic screwball comedy about warring lawyers who happen to be married but who end up on opposing sides of a case. May just be the best of the nine films made by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy and written by real-life husband-and-wife authors Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin.

Intruder in the Dust (1949)
A superb rendition by writer Ben Maddow and director Clarence Brown of a classic novel of racial tension in the South, anchored by a magnificent performance by Juano Hernandez.
Adapted from the novel by William Faulkner

Paths of Glory (1957)
This tale of a World War One court-martial, directed by Stanley Kubrick from a screenplay co-written by Jim Thompson, has lost little of its dynamism since its first release which elicited much controversy in France (it was banned for decades for its critical depiction of the upper echelons of the military). Kirk Douglas plays the lawyer tasked with defending men accused of cowardice but its the uncaring higher echelons of the military that should be on trial for their callous indifference.
Adapted from the novel by Humphrey Cobb

12 Angry Men (1957)
Easily the best known story about juries ever committed to film – not very plausible perhaps when you look at it but beautifully done by a great cast and still very powerful, thanks to incisive direction by Sidney Lumet and brilliant cinematography by Boris Kaufman, who does wonders with a very small space. Henry Fonda is the man with doubts, Lee J Cobb the bully, Martin Balsam the foreman, and Jack Warden the one who wishes he could get away to watch a ballgame. The entire cast is electrifying.
Adapted from the TV play by Reginald Rose

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Billy Wilder does a great job as director and co-writer of this ingenious tale by Agatha Christie, buoyed enormously by sensational performances by Charles Laughton as the grumpy barrister, Tyrone Power as the meek defendant, Marlene Dietrich as his sexy wife and Elsa Lanchester as the long-suffering nurse. Even if you guess the trick ending, I think you’ll still love this!
Adapted from the stage play by Agatha Christie

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
A startlingly modern film for its day (notorious for its use of such naughty words as ‘virgin’ spermatogenesis), this lengthy movie looks at the multiple shades of gray in a case of rape and murder. James Stewart gives a very intriguing portrayal as the slightly eccentric small town lawyer (who also gets to jam with Duke Ellington) while Lee Remick and Ben Gazzara are terrific in their early roles as the married couple who prove to be surprisingly united in adversity.
Adapted from the novel by “Robert Traver” (aka Supreme Court Judge John D Voelker)

Compulsion (1959)
One of many telling of the notorious Leopold and Loeb case (Hitchcock’s Rope is another), with Orson Welles playing a fictionalised version of Clarence Darrow – his closing speech in particular is stunning, while Richard Fleischer deserves a lot fo credit for his steady handling of sensational material.
Adapted from the novel by Meyer Levin

Inherit the Wind (1960)
The Scopes Monkey trial of 1925, about the teaching of evolution in school, is here fictionalised, with Spencer Tracy in fine form as the Clarence Darrow figure, Fredric march as a man inspired by William Jennings Bryan by Gene Kelly is surprisingly good as the cynical journalist inspired by H. L. Mencken.
Adapted from the stage play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee

Sergeant Rutledge (1960)
This rather unusual Western by John Ford takes the form of a courtroom whodunit in which an African american cavalryman is put on trial, and rather an old-fashioned one at that, though its aim is clearly a progressive one that chimes with the changing politics of the times. I previously reviewed the film here.

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
A great movie about childhood that has at its heart a courtroom scene that is enormously compelling (and which does in fact dominate it as it takes up about 30% of the running time). A bit softer and more idealised than its original novel (something that has probably become clearer to readers of the ‘prequel), it still holds up beautifully, thanks to remarkable child performers and a haunting score by Elmer Bernstein.
Adapted from the novel by Harper Lee

Conduct Unbecoming (1975)
This is a highly unusual tale of a court-martial set in the British Raj, starring Stacy Keach, Susannah York, Richard Attenborough, Christopher Plummer and Michael York, and I  previously reviewed it here.
Adapted from the stage play by Barry England

Breaker Morant (1980)
Set during the Boer War, this is a story of a court-martial of the Australian soldiers and is based on contested accounts of a true event. Edward Woodward is just incredibly in the title role – the ending will make you cry whether you think justice was served or not.
Based on the play by Kenneth G. Ross.

The Verdict (1982)
A story of medical malpractice and the redemption of a lawyer who has taken to drink, this is one of the best films of its type ever. Paul Newman was arguably never better and James Mason makes for a terrific nemesis.
Adapted from the novel by Barry Reed

Cry in the Dark (1988)
Still a controversial story in Australia, the ‘dingo baby’ case still divides people and this film, by concentrating as much on the reaction to the reporting of the events as the people involved, broadens the scope of a tragic case. Meryl Streep and Sam Neill are great in very equivocal roles and Fred Schepisi does a great job in depicting the media circus surrounding the case.

Presumed Innocent (1989)
A very clever story with a stunning surprise ending. Harrison Ford and Bonnie Bedelia play the couple whose marriage is put under strain when his ex-mistress is murdered. Paul Winfield is just fantastic as the no-nonsense judge on the case.
Adapted from the novel by Scott Turow

Reversal of Fortune (1990)
Another true story, one told with great intelligence and daring, not for its ambiguity (we are offered different solutions, leaving us to choose) and for having as its narrator the victim, a woman at the time in a persistent vegetative coma (She passed away in 2008). Jeremy Irons as Klaus Von Bulow and the late Ron Silver as Alan Dershowitz are truly spellbinding.
Based on the book by Alan M. Dershowitz

JFK (1991)
Another film that falls into the historical genre but which has at its climax a long trial sequence, one in which we the audience are left to determine if the lawyer hero is right or a conspiracy nut. In its own specialised way, one on which truth, fiction, and politics rub shoulders, take potshots at each other and ultimately coalesce, this is just one my favourite films eve.
Based on books by Jim Garrison (‘On the Trail of the Assassins’) and Jim Marrs (‘Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy’)

The Rainmaker (1997)
Easily my favourite Grisham adaptation, beautifully put together by Francis Ford Coppola, with an amazing cast including Matt Damon, Claire Danes, Jon Voight, Virginia Madsen, Danny Glover, Mickey Rourke and the amazing Danny DeVito – and with a great blues score by Elmer Bernstein.
Adapted from the novel by John Grisham

A Civil Action (1998)
John Travolta in one of his best roles as the super-slick lawyer who finally finds a case he can’t let go of when representing men and women poisoned by toxic waste.
Adapted from the book by Jonathan Harr

The Winslow Boy (1999)
The original play has been adapted several times, but this version surprisingly came from writer-director David Mamet (who also wrote the screenplay for The Verdict) and is superb, with Nigel Hawthorne unbeatable as the indomitable father and Jeremy Northam wonderful as the surprisingly passionate advocate in the case of an unjustly maligned schoolboy.
Adapted from the stage play by Terence Rattigan

Erin Brockovich (2000)
Another true-life story, one that unlike A Civil Action ended in triumph for the lawyer. At a basic level it is ‘David vs Goliath’ but it doesn’t shirk from making even the lead character very far from perfect. Easily the best role Julia Roberts has ever had.

Michael Clayton (2007)
A truly terrific film, written and directed by Tony Gilroy, with George Clooney as a legal fixer who is finally confronted with a problem he can’t walk away from and can’t fudge. Tilda Swinton is really wonderful as the venal corprorate shark who is actually more human (if not excactly humane) than you might think and Tom Wilkinson sensational as the lawyer who truly loses his mind in a world of cynical double-dealing. We never actually get in the courtroom (as in the early Perry Mason novels), but for me this is a great legal drama, exploring moral and ethical issues in a legal framework. A great film.

So there you are, my top 25 (today) – what’s your verdict?

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71 Responses to Top 25 Courtroom Movies

  1. Patti Abbott says:

    I am going to go watch THE VERDICT!

  2. realthog says:

    Great stuff! — I’d agree with most of your choices.

    Edward Woodward is just incredible in the title role

    I never thought I’d read that sentence.

  3. Oh, Sergio, I couldn’t possibly agree with you more about Witness For the Prosecution, To Kill a Mockingbird and A Civil Action. All are absolutely fabulous. And your other choices are great too. I also was drawn in by A Few Good Men.

    • Thanks Margot. I did enjoy A Few Good Men for its overly old-fashioned movie-making values, and am generally a big fan of Aaron Sorkin in particular, but i always wished I’d seen the story from the point of view of the prosecution, not least because Kevin Bacon is much a better actor than Cruise.

      • smartalek says:

        Not to mention that there’s a great deal more moral weight behind the Jessep character’s stance than the script allows for.
        (The only nod to it is in one line assigned to the Demi Moore character — who is, of course, portrayed as “galactically stupid,” although reasonably hot.)
        Mr Sorkin appears to have let his liberal predilections get the better of his artistic proclivities — and I write that as a pretty major lib moonbat on most issues myself.
        “The Caine Mutiny” (of which this is something of a reboot) handled the complexities and ambiguities of characters in such situations better, imho.

        • I do like CAINE a lot and probably should have included it (though the Altman version of the play would perhaps be more appropriate) – but you know what? I actually think Sorkin isn’t even remotely liberal enough (fan though I am).

  4. le0pard13 says:

    Outstanding list, Sergio. So many of my favorites. What timing, too. Just finished watching Sergeant Rutledge on cable. So glad you finished with Michael Clayton. Love that movie.

    • Thanks very much Michael – I must admit, Sergeant Rutledge may well be my indulgence on the list. It was one of the first John Ford films I ever saw and I have a great affection for it, even though its ostensible liberal sentiments are not always very coherent and the structure and presentation quite remarkably creaky for a movie from that era. And yet I could happily sit down and watch it any time 🙂

  5. Bruce Marr says:

    Did The Winslow Boy depict a courtroom scene? I don’t believe so, so I take it your criteria allows “offstage” courtroom scenes, although the initial questioning of the boy by the by Sir Arthur Morton is an enormously effective bit of cross-examination.

    Though I haven’t seen all the films on your list, I can’t imagine it not including The Paradine Case and A Place in the Sun (where Burr demonstrated how well he could play a lawyer in action).

    • You are right Bruce, there are no scenes in the courtroom in The Winslow Boy, which is also true of Michael Clayton, but just because we don’t see these scenes doesn’t, for me, change the fact that the courtroom is the central focus of both films. I have always found Paradine Casequite dull I’m afraid (and I say that as a 100% fully payed-up member if the Hitchcock fan club) and A Place in the Sun always seemed overblown to me, despite many great virtues like the score and the elegant look – and yes, Burr’s scene with the boat is most definitely one of them!

  6. Colin says:

    A really strong list spanning all eras, and thus proving the durability and popularity of legal drama. It’s the combination of mystery, conflict and justice which draws me in. I guess the fact the law, to paraphrase someone or other, is an attempt to frame human conscience in as precise terms as possible is a big part of the near universal appeal of such material.

    • Thanks for that Colin – like the movies, it’s an artificial and heightened situation that can combine a forum to explore almost anything really. Just rewatyhed Coppola’s film of The Rainmaker, which has an incredibly dark subject matter but which is often extremely funny too!

      • Colin says:

        I remember reading Grisham’s novel before seeing the movie and being a little disappointed in the adaptation of that one. It’s been a long time though so I’d need to see it again.

        • I will have to immediately admit, in the interests of full disclosure (sic) to not having read the book – in fact, I’ve only ever read a couple of Grishams (but I have seen most of the movies). I think it was A TIME TO KILL that really put me off his work. I am a massive Coppola fan

          • Colin says:

            I’m not a big fan of Grisham’s stuff myself but I seem to remember the film in this case feeling a bit rushed and just not as satisfying as the book suggested it might be.

          • Well, I can believe that. Just looking at the deleted scenes on the DVD makes it clear the opening in particular got quite heavily re-structered, with the voice over (which I really like) used to keep it all together. On the commentary Coppola is remarkably candid about he thinks works and doesn’t work about the adaptation. But I do prefer it to any of the other films from hsi books – I can see why people liked the big budget starfest that was The Firm, but it does get progressively sillier as it goes ahead …

  7. Jose Ignacio says:

    Have only see a few on your list, but looks excellent to me, Sergio. Will see if can watch the ones I’m missing.

  8. Great list, Sergio! Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any of the early to mid-20th century “courtroom movies,” though I might have seen “12 Angry Men.” Is there a modern version? Out of the rest I’d pick “Erin Brockovich” and “JFK” for the reality jab and for sheer intensity. Recently, I watched (again) “A Few Good Men” and “Runaway Jury” and thought what a difference Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman make to any film they appear in. It was interesting to read your response to Margot’s comment — I agree, Kevin Bacon deserves better films that highlight his true capability, though I don’t like him as the bad guy.

    • Thank you Prashant. And yes, 12 Angry Men, having been initially adapted from a TV play, has been remade more than once for the large and small screen (it was also turned into a stage play). In 1997 it was updated, slightly, with Jack Lemmon and George C Scott heading the cast. I haven’t seen it, but there was also a Hindi version directed by Basu Chatterjee, Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, in 1986.

      • Sergio, thanks for bringing Basu Chatterjee’s Hindi adaptation to my notice. I had heard of the film but I didn’t know it was based on “12 Angry Men.” I have seen many of his films including “Man Pasand” (“My Favourite”) which was a remake of “My Fair lady” and a pretty decent one, albeit with a spot of melodrama. He is known for his Indianised romcoms.

        • Thanks for that Prashant – I don’t really know his work – sounds fascinating though and I thought the version of 12 Angry Men looked pretty close to the original (as far as I could tell without subtitles)

          • Santosh Iyer says:

            Ek Ruka Hua Faisla is basically a copy of 12 Angry Men with minor variations.
            Some brilliant original Hindi films with courtroom dramas are Kanoon(1960), Baat Ek Raat Ki(1962), Waqt(1965) and Damini(1993).

          • realthog says:

            I keep wanting to find more Hindi/Bollywood movies to discuss on my Noirish site, but it can often be quite difficult. In the upcoming tranche I have the topnotch indie Indian movie The Impossible Murder (2010), which I could tell from the start was going to be of interest, but far too often I’ve sat through three hours of a Bollywood movie to discover that (however much I may personally have enjoyed it) I’ve wasted my research time.

            On the other hand (he grins hopefully) it seems as if you’re willing to start giving us a list of worthwhile Hindi courtroom dramas, so why not some noirs?

          • Santosh Iyer says:

            I give below a list of very good noir films in Hindi:
            Manorama Six Feet Under (2007) (based on China Town 1974)
            Satya (1998)
            Ghajini (2008)
            Baazi(1951)
            Hatya (1988)
            Company (2002)
            Black Friday (2004)
            Kaminey (2009)

          • Good man! Are these available in versions with English subtitles, do you know?

          • I’ll second that 🙂

          • Thanks for the other titles Santosh, fascinating. I think Ek Ruka Hua Faisla is an actual remake (I don’t know if it was credited as such though).

          • Santosh Iyer says:

            Absolutely no credit was given !

          • Thanks Santosh – well, it is a close adaptation, I mean I could even tell that without understanding what was being said!

  9. Yvette says:

    A great list, Sergio. And surprise, surprise – I’ve actually seen some of the films on your list. Ta-Da! I especially loved SERGEANT RUTLEDGE (Woody Strode, so wonderful, Jeffrey Hunter, so beautiful), 12 ANGRY MEN (which I watched again recently and loved just as much as the first few times, maybe more), ANATOMY OF A MURDER (one of the few films in which I liked Jimmy Stewart – I am not his biggest fan), PATHS OF GLORY (which made me weep with anger and is not, for me, a film I would want to watch again) and of course, the glorious THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC – simply the only silent movie that I’ve ever watched all the way through – a brutally passionate film that should be required viewing for any film maven.

    • Thanks Yvette – so glad you liked those, i think they are all so bloody terrific. I did put ADAM’S RIB in there to try and lighten the mood a bit as I realise most of these are pretty heavy-going (ANATOMY OF A MURDER has a weird, semi-comic tone that adds to its slightly peculiar charm, I find.)

  10. Loved reading that – I have seen a lot of them, and the only one I can think of that I would add is the wonderful, the incandescent, the good-hearted, the hilariously funny My Cousin Vinny, which (along with some more serious and respectable movies) would be one of my top 10 movies ever.

  11. Roger says:

    Completely preposterous, but I love the trial scene in The Lady from Shanghai, with Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) cross-examining himself.

  12. Santosh Iyer says:

    Talking of courtroom dramas, I highly recommend the Hindi film Dhund (1973) which is an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Unexpected Guest with a courtroom drama added at the end in which the murderer confesses. (the unpleasant scene in the Christie play where an innocent person is accused and killed is avoided in the Hindi film). The courtroom drama is so superb and suspenseful that the viewers are kept on the edge of their seats.

  13. Bev Hankins says:

    I love the novel Intruder in the Dust…now I’m wanting to see the movie.

  14. Wow, Sergio, great list. Can’t think of any you missed. A bit of a sidebar here: I’m sure you know that INTRUDER IN THE DUST had a lot of location photography. I’ve been in Oxford, Mississippi and the square, where the courthouse stands, looks about the same as it did in that great 1949 movie.

    • Thanks Elgin – I’ve never been there but the authentic location work does make a difference, I agree (much as I love To Kill a Mockingbird, whenever I see the courthouse, I always think of Back to the Future and the dozens of other movies also shot on the Universal backlot).

      • Now that you mention it, I’ll have to agree about the courthouse, although I am so focused on Peck that I just accept the setting. But I was surprised to read recently that the street on which they lived was actually built on the back lot. Those little homes sure looked like the south.

  15. tracybham says:

    I was holding off until I could read the whole post to comment but it hasn’t happened yet. Work is horrible, etc., etc. Anyway this looks like a great post and I am eager to read it all and the comments too. I already spotted several movies I have enjoyed.

  16. Jeff Flugel says:

    Excellent list there, Sergio…can’t really fault any of those choices. There is something about a well done courtroom drama that is just inherently dramatic and interesting. THE VERDICT, ANATOMY OF A MURDER, and WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION are all fantastic films, and it’s good to see some unusual choices in there, too, like SERGEANT RUTLEDGE, which is an odd duck John Ford film but still well worth checking out. I don’t recall seeing JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG on your list, which would certainly be on mine.

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  18. stevie wonder says:

    No My Cousin Vinny or Primal Fear?????

    • What can i tell you – to me, they are not as good as the ones I included 🙂 I liked both OK at the time of release but have never felt the need to watch them again.

  19. realthog says:

    If you wanted to look further afield, there’s the Chinese movie Quan Min Mu Ji (2013; vt Silent Witness), which I watched the other day and liked a lot. It reminded me (the two movies share Aaron Kwok as the prosecutor) of the HK movie Sheng Dan Mei Gui (2013; vt Christmas Rose), which I’d say is the lesser of the two but is still pretty good. I wrote about the latter here, if you’re interested. (My piece on the former will be posted in a few weeks’ time.)

  20. vinnieh says:

    Some great choices there. I would also add Judgment at Nuremberg.

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