With its inbuilt suspense, twists and turns – not to mention its many opportunities for scenery-chewing – the courtroom drama has long been a staple of cinema.
Although plots tend to concentrate on capital cases, there are a fair few where reputational damage, corporate malfeasance, freedom of speech, education, religion, sexuality, race, military justice, politics and discrimination drive the proceedings.
Here are some of my favourites:
Inherit the Wind (1960)
I am more interested in the ‘Rock of Ages’ than I am in the age of rocks.
Frederic March as Creationist Matthew Harrison Brady
Drawing on the real-life 1925 Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial in the US, Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind pits Creationism against Reason when a teacher is arrested for teaching evolution.
Sparks fly as the frenemies (Fredric March as Matthew Harrison Brady and Spencer Tracy as defence lawyer Henry Drummond) clash in front of a jury composed of Southern fundamentalist Christians and a judge (M*A*S*H’s Harry Morgan) keen to avoid political embarrassment.
Some of the best – and most humorous – lines go to Gene Kelly, who plays cynical newspaperman E. K. Hornbeck, including:
Darwin was wrong! Man’s still an ape. His creed still a totem pole. When he first achieved the upright position, he took a look at the stars… thought they were something to eat. When he couldn’t reach them, he thought they were groceries belonging to a bigger creature… that’s how Jehovah was born.
Inherit the Wind has proved catnip for actors of a certain age to show their chops, hence TV remakes with Melvyn Douglas/Ed Begley (1965), Jason Robards/Kirk Douglas (1988) and Jack Lemmon/George C. Scott (1999).
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)
A Few Good Men writer Aaron Sorkin returns to the courtroom for his retelling of the trial of the Chicago 7 – the anti-Vietnam War protestors charged with conspiring to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
The Verdict (1982)
Paul Newman arguably gives his greatest performance as Boston lawyer Frank Galvin, a washed-up, alcoholic, ambulance-chasing lawyer, in The Verdict, directed by Sidney Lumet, with a screenplay by David Mamet.
Galvin passes up a $200,000 out-of-court settlement in a case of medical malpractice at a prestigious Catholic hospital in favour of redeeming himself and exposing the institution’s failings. However, he fails to tell the family of the victim – a woman left comatose after being mistakenly given general anaesthesia during childbirth – that he is refusing the offer.
With the odds stacked against him and a formidable opponent in James Mason’s defence lawyer Ed Concannon – nicknamed ‘The Prince of Darkness’ – can Galvin demonstrate his mettle and win the case?
A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Fred Zinnemann’s multi-Oscar-winning adaptation of Robert Bolt’s hit play gives us Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More, who refuses to renounce Catholicism when Henry VIII assumes supreme religious authority in England to divorce Catherine of Aragon.
I’m afraid my sympathy with More’s pious smugness soon runs out, wonderful though Scofield is. (More was, in fact, something of a self-righteous bigot, who wasn’t above persecuting the ‘heretical’ Protestant faith with extreme measures whenever he had the chance.)
But count me in with avuncular realist the Duke of Norfolk (Nigel Davenport) and even turncoat Richard Rich (John Hurt) who, fed up with More’s irritating pieties, sold him out for the position of Attorney General for Wales.
A Man for All Seasons was unnecessarily remade for TV in 1998 with Chuck Heston as More.
The People vs Larry Flynt (1996)
Hustler owner Larry Flynt (1942-2021) appeared to spend much of his adult life as either a defendant or litigant in court, usually concerning freedom of speech issues or obscenity laws. In 1978, Flynt was shot, paralysed below the waist and left wheelchair bound for the rest of his life.
Miloš Forman’s biopic airbrushes out some of the more unsavoury aspects of Flynt’s life, aided by the presence of the amiable Woody Harrelson in the starring role. Courtney Love plays Flynt’s troubled fourth wife Althea Leasure, while Ed Norton is the pornographer’s steadfast lawyer Alan Isaacman.
The late Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther) plays future US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in a dramatised version of one of his first cases as a defence lawyer, in which black chauffeur Joseph Spell is accused of raping his white employer, Eleanor Strubing. Marshall must face entrenched prejudice, legal obstruction, and a not-altogether-truthful client in his search for the truth. A strong cast is rounded out by Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Dan Stevens, James Cromwell and Sterling K. Brown.
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
And Ernst Janning, worse than any of them because he knew what they were, and he went along with them. Ernst Janning: Who made his life excrement, because he walked with them.
Burt Lancaster as Judge Ernst Janning
Stanley Kramer may be regarded by some critics as the po-faced purveyor of message movies, but Judgment at Nurembergshows how, with a decent cast and script, the viewer can forget his sometimes-sledgehammer moralising.
This 1961 movie follows the fictional trial of eminent German jurists who fell in willingly with Nazi laws on race, eugenics, forcible euthanasia and other ethical abominations.
Not exactly a barrel of laughs then, but a cast that includes Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Maximilian Schell, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland give it their all.
Director Gregory Hoblit, who scored a hit with 1996’s legal thriller Primal Fear, provides an entertaining diversion that centres around the battle of wits between accused wife-killer Ted Crawford (Anthony Hopkins) and cocky state prosecutor Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling).
There’s more than an echo of Hannibal Lector in Hopkins’s performance, although his accent is at times as big a mystery as the plot. It all adds to the fun, at least for this viewer.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Written by Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker, Otto Preminger’s movie boasts the best screen role for everyman Jimmy Stewart as deceptively folksy small-town attorney Paul Biegler.
Hot-tempered Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) is accused of murdering Barney Quill, claiming that the barkeeper raped his wife Laura (Lee Remick). Biegler decides to use the defence of ‘irresistible impulse’ – a kind of temporary insanity – for Mannion, who plays along with the notion to secure his acquittal, outwitting legal eagle city prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C. Scott).
The picture plays like a black comedy, but there are some serious points made along the way. It’s an excellent picture, boosted by a great Duke Ellington score. Ellington appears as jazzman Pie-Eye in a club scene, Stewart (who could play) joining him to tinkle the ivories for a number.
Paths of Glory (1957)
Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war polemic is a bleak picture of so-called military justice in the French army during the second world war. Kirk Douglas is Colonel Dax, the commanding officer of a regiment of French soldiers who refuse to continue a suicidal attack against the German enemy, after which he tries to defend them when they face court-martial for cowardice and an inevitable sentence of death by firing squad.