TEN BEST COURTROOM MOVIES
As a writer and a trial attorney, I have often cringed at the way some movies portray what goes on in a courtroom. All of America saw the O.J. trial, but that was a very unusual case that was far from the typical trial, let alone murder trial.
In most cases, there is one attorney for the defense and one attorney for the prosecution, or, if it is a civil case - that's where nobody goes to jail but one party is suing another usually for money damages, as in an auto accident - then there is one attorney for the person suing (plaintiff) and one for the person or company being sued (defendant).
Most trials last for a few days, rarely more than a week. Usually, there is no publicity about the case. Many cases are tried by a judge, alone, without any jury. If there is a jury ( and every criminal defendant has the right to a jury trial, but, as I said, many waive that right) then the jury is selected in a few hours.
What distinguishes the good courtroom movies from the not so good is how effectively the movie uses the elements of a trial to heighten the suspense, the drama being portrayed.
Many lists of best courtroom dramas list movies that are only tangentially about the courtroom. For example, I think Michael Clayton is a great movie, but very little of it is about what happens in a courtroom. Rather, the movie is about attorneys and the role they play in our system of justice. The 'title character' is a 'fixer' - he gets things done, usually outside of the courtroom. The center of the story, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson in an incredible tour de force performance), much like Howard Beale from Network, is an attorney who 'goes off the deep end' because, finally, he breaks through the barrier that allows attorneys to represent evil people and companies without any guilt. Arthur feels guilt and that changes his life.
So, in my professional opinion, here are the ten best movies at portraying what happens in a courtroom.
ANATOMY OF A MURDER - It does not get any better than this. The book on which the movie is based was written by a prosecutor with vast courtroom experience. The story is simple - an army officer (Ben Gazzara) kills a man whom the officer's wife (Lee Remick) claims raped her. There is no question that he killed him and the only question is - can he be found guilty of murder? His attorney (Jimmy Stewart in one of his best performances) coaches Gazzara in the subtle way that most attorneys do by telling him that there is only one way he can be found not guilty - if he was in the grip of an 'irresistible impulse' (a form of insanity). Most of the movie takes place in the courtroom. If you haven't seen this one - you are in for a real treat.
WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION - An ex-soldier (Tyrone Power) is accused of murdering an older woman for her money. The alleged murderer is married (to Marlene Dietrich). An aging barrister (Charles Laughton) takes on the case against his doctor's orders (he was recovering from a heart attack). While much of the story is told in flashbacks, the bulk of the movie is the trial - and there are incredible performances by all involved!
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD - A small town lawyer, Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), in the deep South in the 1930s is given the job of defending an African-American (Brock Peters) accused of raping a white girl. The story is told from the point of view of the lawyer's children, especially his six year old daughter, Scout. This movie and the character of Atticus Finch are used as a template for what every attorney strives to be, but rarely achieves.
MY COUSIN VINNY - Newly minted attorney Vincent Gambini (Joe Pesci) and his fiancee, Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) come to the rescue of Vinny's cousin who is accused of murder in Alabama. Trouble is, Vinny has no idea how to try a case let alone a murder case. His ignorance proves to be his best asset. Law professors use this movie to teach trial tactics. The lesson is simple: forget what you've been taught and go with what you know. Bonus - this is one of the funniest movies you will see.
JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG - Is a society guilty for the crimes of its leaders? A group of judges and lawyers in Germany during the Nazi reign are put on trial for crimes against humanity. Maximilian Schell won a Best Actor Oscar for portraying their defense attorney. Spencer Tracy is at his best as the American judge who has to decide whether Nazi judges can be found guilty for applying inhumane laws. Every year, this movie becomes more relevant.
INHERIT THE WIND - Can laws be passed denying the teaching of certain scientific findings? A fictional account of the Scopes Monkey trial in which a Tennessee teacher is prosecuted for teaching evolution in his classroom even though there is a state law banning it. Spencer Tracy (the Clarence Darrow character) defends the teacher against prosecutor Fredric March (the Williams Jenning Bryan character). Another movie that has come back into relevance with the denial of global warming by some politicians.
ADAM'S RIB - Tracy and Hepburn. They are both lawyers. When a wife (Judy Holliday) shoots her husband (Tom Ewell) prosecutor Tracy is assigned the case. Hepburn decides to defend her. The courtroom scenes are some of the funniest ever written. The writers, Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, were married so the interplay between Tracy and Hepburn has the feel of a real couple. All are in the very capable hands of George Cukor who specialized in movies about couples (The Philadelphia Story, Gaslight, Born Yesterday and A Star is Born (Garland-Mason version)).
JAGGED EDGE - Husband (Jeff Bridges) is on trial for killing heiress wife and hires former prosecutor (Glenn Close) to defend him. She falls in love with him. The courtroom scenes with prosecutor Peter Coyote are spot on. I think this is the only very good script written by Joe Eszterhas who is famous for these kind of edgy, sexy thrillers.
THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE - Keanu Reeves as an attorney who sells his soul to the devil (Al Pacino) to get ahead. Reeves must defend a bunch of sicko, abusive men. His courtroom tactics are some of the best ever put on screen. The movie, itself, would be a classic but for its excursion into horror movie territory. In spite of that, this is one of Pacino's best performances as he argues for reigning in hell rather than serving in heaven.
THE LETTER - Bette Davis shoots her lover as the movie opens so this is not a who-done-it but rather a why-did-she-do-it. While the courtroom scenes do not take up much actual time, the conflicts that the attorney (James Stephenson) must face in defending someone whom he knows is guilty are well presented. There were two endings shot for this movie - I think they used the wrong one. In spite of that, this is a movie that goes to the heart of what it means to try to make a just world.