I love the movies and I’m a former cops and court reporter. So it may be no surprise I love movies about lawyers and courtrooms.
I must also admit this blog is related my new book, VERDICT IN THE DESERT, which will be released April 30 by Arte Público Press. The book is a courtroom drama set in 1959 about a wealthy and alcoholic attorney defending a woman who killed her abusive husband. The attorney, who is also married, falls in love with the Mexican-American interpreter and faces another trial outside the courtroom because of the affair. The book is about prejudice and justice, and was partly inspired by a murder trial I covered as a newspaper reporter.
But the plug for my book also gives me the chance to write about movies, which I love to do.
After covering many legal proceedings I have to overlook the rampant procedural inaccuracies in the movies put there for the sake of drama. Take summations. Normally, lawyers will painstakingly review the facts of the case, but in movies, the actor lawyers give profound dramatic speeches that sometimes have little to do with the trial. One example is the summation of Paul Newman’s lawyer in “The Verdict.”
“You know, so much of the time we’re just lost,” his Frank Galvin begins.
I never heard that one in a trial.
That aside, I love movies about lawyers because as in real life, there is life and death at stake within the somber walls of a courtroom. The worse and best sides of people are revealed on the stand. And there is nothing better than to watch a masterful lawyer at work.
I love their emotional battles. Their losses and wins. Their eloquence and stumblings. I love the stories about a legal system both flawed and effective. And when lawyers seek justice for clients in the movies, they are also seeking a judgment, an answer in their own lives, be it honor, strength or redemption. And therein lies the drama.
Here are some of my favorite lawyer movies — in no legal order.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) – Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck, is the most humane of men and lawyers as he fights for a black man’s life against ruthless prejudice. His summation is a mighty call for decency and compassion in a time when it didn’t apply to Negroes.
“A Few Good Men” (1992) – Aaron Sorkin’s drama (based on his play) has produced many iconic lines (“You can’t handle the truth!”) But this yarn is really about a young lawyer who usually pleads out his cases finding the backbone to see one through to the end. It’s watchable every time it comes on TV for the writing and performances.
“The Verdict” (1982) – Paul Newman in one of his best roles ever as a down-and-out ambulance chaser handling the biggest case of his life in this dark tale of taking back his soul.
“Anatomy of a Murder” (1959) – The cast is superlative, especially James Stewart as the laid back defense attorney and a young George C. Scott as an ambitious prosecutor. They trade arguments like gladiators before the bench. The supporting characters are wonderfully drawn. Plus there’s music by Duke Ellington.
“Inherit the Wind” (1960) – Acting giants Spencer Tracy and Fredric March play lawyers butting heads over the teaching of evolution in a southern school. Still relevant.
“The Accused” (1998) – Difficult to watch because of the subject matter and rape scene, but an important story about the impact of the justice system on a rape victim. Jodie Foster in her Oscar winning role.
“My Cousin Vinny” (1992) – Just funnier than hell thanks to Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei. Vinny’s cross-examination of his girlfriend about her automotive knowledge is hilarious, and who can forget “yutes.”
“Michael Clayton” (2007) – While there are no actual courtroom scenes, you have to love this story by Tony Gilroy about a lawyer who must determine the next course in a life that’s been filled with compromise. Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton steal the show.
“Witness for the Prosecution” (1957) Based on an Agatha Christie story and penned and directed by the great Billy Wilder. The film offers a twist, which you’ll figure out early, but it’s a joy to watch Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich.
“The Rainmaker” (1997) – A legal David versus Goliath story at its best thanks to Francis Ford Coppola’s snappy writing.
My honorable mentions include “Adam’s Rib,” “Judgement at Nuremberg,” “And Justice for All” and “Amistad.”
I liked to hear about yours also.