As 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 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)
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 of 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 while 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 the film 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 Australian soldiers and is based on contested accounts of a true event. Edward Woodward is just incredibly good 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
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 in which truth, fiction, and politics rub shoulders, take potshots at each other and ultimately coalesce, this is just one of my favourite films ever.
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 great 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. Nigel Hawthorne is 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?