With Matthew McConaughey returning to the legal drama genre for last month’s DVD and BD release of The Lincoln Lawyer (you can catch our review here), it seems a sensible time to consider the truly great courtroom scenes and films of cinema history.
No, this is not intended to be a definitive list and no, I haven’t watched every single courtroom sequence ever committed to celluloid. But I do think the following are pretty good, either as entire films, or as scenes in their own right.
An obvious choice, but only because the film defies superlatives. For the uninitiated, Gregory Peck stars as an attorney and father, defending a black man in the deep south of the USA on false charges of raping a white woman, at a time in history when any hopes of a fair trial under such circumstances were hopelessly futile.
Peck, as Atticus Finch, tries to instil a sense of right and wrong in his children and though he knows that in the courtroom his cause is hopeless, he fights on. Finch’s innate dignity, his moral strength and indeed his prowess as an attorney all shine through in Peck’s faultless performance, which wisely eschews sentimentality and Capra-esque wishful-thinking in favour of something far more measured and realistic.
The courtroom scenes, though not the whole story, are fascinatingly portrayed, with the black community isolated in the balcony and the whites filling the ground floor of the courtroom. Finch is never bullied or intimidated, always resolute and fair, passionately defending the rights of the defendant. It’s thoroughly impressive stuff and well deserves its place on this list.
Exhibit B: The People Vs Larry Flynt.
Okay, so this might seem like a left-field choice, but bear with me. I’m not trying to be terribly innovative, just looking to draw attention to the first film I always think of when considering top-drawer courtroom scenes. It’s not a bad film at all in its own right, but what I really have in mind is the scene towards the end, when Edward Norton pleads his client’s case before the Supreme Court.
As a solicitor, I have been in court a few times and have tried my hand at making representations to judges. I have also seen seasoned barristers and QC’s do the same thing. It is never quite as smooth as a John Grisham novel, nor as grand-standing as A Few Good Men. Yes, it is terribly invigorating to be able to yell, “You can’t handle the truth!” in open court, but it rarely works out that way.
What you do get though, is what Edward Norton so seemingly effortlessly portrays – careful, considered, a reach for the right words, the correct turn of phrase. This is what courtroom representations are mostly like. You know what you want to say, you have your key points that you want to get across, but it can take a little time to get there. The way Norton feels his way through his points is just too convincing, too life-like for this list to be complete without it.
Paul Newman delivers one of his very finest performances (which, considering the competition is saying a great deal indeed) as a washed up attorney who decides to fight a medical malpractice case rather than settle out of court. At stake are his clients’ lives, as they try to get over the death of their child and his own sense of self-worth.
It is a fascinating portrayal of a man who has long since lost his way, yet remembers the ideals that first served as the engine of his ambitions and who longs for an opportunity to do what is right. In different, less accomplished hands, it could so easily have been hackneyed, a bundle of disengaging clichés, but with Sidney Lumet at the helm (offering us a different perspective on the courtroom drama quarter of a century after 12 Angry Men) it rivets us.
In its portrayal of a man rediscovering what once made him tick, what once stirred his soul, it is in many ways the Casablanca of the legal world.
Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of A Murder caused quite a stir on its release. Given that this was the tail end of the 1950′s, a film about the trial of a man who murders the rapist of his wife and then pleads temporary insanity was something of a hot potato. Although the furore surrounding the use of words such as “bitch”, “contraceptive”, “panties”, “penetration”, “rape”, “slut” and “sperm” may seem awfully twee to a generation raised on the profanity of Tarantino, Kevin Smith and so forth, the film was banned in Chicago and James Stewart’s own father took out an ad in his local paper, telling people not to see it.
As with all great courtroom dramas, the jousting between the opposing lawyers is key, with this masterpiece proving to be no exception. James Stewart, as the defence attorney, is kind of James Stewarty: straightforward, humble, decent, passionate. The prosecutor is a big(ish) city attorney played by George C Scott, slick, smart, ruthless. The interplay is riveting, the drama compelling, the film matchless.
I recognise that this might seem like a slightly left-field choice and as with The People Vs.. I’m not trying to bait controversy, just hear me out.
For the uninitiated, Sleepers centres around the trial of two men who kill a man who had abused them as children, when they stayed in a juvenile detention centre following a prank gone wrong. Essentially, we feel great sympathy for these men, whose entire lives have been blighted by the emotional scars inflicted by the abuse meted out to them. Kevin Bacon, as the superbly cast sadistic warden of the detention centre seems like someone who got nothing more or less than he deserved and therein lies the primary compelling element of the film.
In the same way as John Grisham’s A Time To Kill paints us into a corner regarding vigilantism, Sleepers presents us with a monster, has sympathetic characters kill him and then dares us to consider them “guilty”. Despite its shortcomings in other respects (and it is by no means a flawless film), Sleepers offers us a brilliant moral dilemma at the end, as Robert De Niro’s priest, who has known and loved the killers since they were boys and would do anything for them, must choose between honesty and what he considers to be justice, when called to take the stand and possibly offer an alibi for the men on trial.
The exchange goes like this:-
Father Bobby: I’m telling you as a witness… and as a priest. We were at the game.
Michael: Yes, as a priest, and a priest wouldn’t lie? Am I right?
Father Bobby: A priest with ticket stubs wouldn’t need to lie. I always keep the stubs. Do you want to see them?
Michael: Why is that, Father? Why do you keep the stubs?
Father Bobby: Because you never know when someone might want more than your word.
Michael: Has anyone ever questioned your word before today?
Father Bobby: No. No one ever has. But there’s a first time for everything.
Jason Patric’s voice-over bears testimony to what it must have cost Robert De Niro’s character to betray what was right, in exchange for what felt right. That sort of inner moral conflict, the turmoil caused when deep-rooted beliefs hang in the balance and truth is no longer treated as an absolute, but is able to be traded off against other values, that is what makes for great drama and a lot of intense, heart-felt discussion afterwards. The trailer below makes it seem like a much more pacy thriller than it really is, but it thoroughly deserves its place on this list.
What do you think? Anything I’ve left out?