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Who can forget Bogart as Capt. Queeg, or Nicholson bellowing "You can't handle the truth!"? This genre includes some of film's most indelible performances.
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March 11, 2008
A recent showing of the courtroom trial film, "Anatomy of A Murder" (1959) at Ann Arbor's Michigan Theater reminded me of just how entertaining and potent this type of screen genre can be. It also got me to thinking about what I would include in a list of "My Favorite Courtroom Films." There have been so many—some regarded as classics of the genre, and others just two hours of engrossing entertainment.
I've come up with a list. But first a bit of history. Trial films are as old as the movies themselves, causing a stir even before the on-screen lawyers could be heard making their cases. In 1899 the French film innovator Georges Melies made "The Dreyfus Affair," an 11-reel account of the trial and retrial of Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus was a French military officer who was charged with and convicted of bribery.
Many film historians and critics consider Carl Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc," (1928) the last great silent motion picture. It was a film made almost entirely of extreme close-ups of Joan of Arc and her inquisitors as she stood trial for heresy.
In a list of personal favorites I would have to begin with "The Caine Mutiny" (1954). I had read Herman Wouk's novel before seeing the film, but it is the screen adaptation that has remained vivid in my memory. Who can forget Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg on the witness stand, nervously handling two steel marbles as he's grilled about a revolt aboard his naval destroyer? The film's court martial of an officer who led the mutiny during a raging typhoon evolves into an intense inquiry into Queeg's mental competence and leadership capabilities in times of duress. Queeg's meltdown makes for fine psychologically-derived courtroom drama.
Although not actually set in the courtroom itself, Sidney Lumet's "Twelve Angry Men" (1957) would have to be considered a classic of the genre. In deliberating the fate of a boy on trial for murder, one man (Henry Fonda) reasons relentlessly with the other eleven jury members to achieve a fairly-derived, just decision. In addition to Fonda the film contains some of the motion picture's finest character actors, including Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden and Martin Balsam. "Twelve Angry Men"'s powerful dialogue and single set intimacy were derived from the fact that Reginald Rose's screenplay was originally a drama written for live television.
Another favorite of mine is also a Sidney Lumet trial film, "The Verdict" (1982). In a script by playwright David Mamet, Paul Newman portrays Frank Galvin, a down-and-out ambulance-chasing lawyer who takes on a medical malpractice case with seemingly insurmountable odds against success in court. In what is often a plotting staple of this type of trial film, the case involves negligence by an all-powerful organization that has resulted in the victimization of helpless people. "The Verdict"'s courtroom climax is all the more dramatically satisfying because of the unexpected largesse in the jury's rendered decision, and in the personal and professional redemption of the attorney Galvin.
A similarly plotted and equally satisfying film is Francis Ford Coppola's "The Rainmaker" (1997). In this screen adaptation of a John Grisham novel, Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) is an idealistic, novice lawyer who becomes involved in a civil litigation case against a powerful insurance company that is charged with reneging on medical claims made by poor helpless policy holders. "The Rainmaker"'s case-in-point victim is a young man dying of leukemia. Again it's the David vs. Goliath triumph that makes the film's denouement special.
Another highly engaging novice-lawyer trial film is "A Few Good Men" (1992), directed by Rob Reiner and based on the play by Aaron Sorkin. Tom Cruise is the cocky young Navy lawyer who must do combat with a gifted defense lawyer (Kevin Bacon) in a court-martial trial involving the killing of a young soldier by fellow Marines. With a nod to "The Caine Mutiny" Jack Nicholson takes the witness stand as the arrogant, incorrigible base commander who seeks to hide the truth behind the killing. The film's powerful, psychologically-manipulated climax made me gasp.
Jonathan Kaplan's "The Accused" (1988) employs a familiar plotting device in a film about a young waitress (Jodie Foster) who is gang–raped. In the ensuing trial against the men who were involved in abetting the crime, the victim becomes "the accused." The legal defense strategy raises questions about the character of the waitress and her "past" history, suggesting "she asked for it." Jody Foster's gritty, persuasive performance won her a Best Actress Oscar.
And that brings me to my very favorite courtroom film, "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959) with a script that may have inspired "The Accused" and similarly-plotted trial films. It is not insignificant that the recent screening at The Michigan Theater was underwritten by the local Washtenaw County Bar Association. "Anatomy of a Murder" remains to this day a classic take on prosecutorial-defense trial strategies and maneuvering. The court case is that of Lieutenant Manion (Ben Gazzara), accused of murdering a bar owner who has beaten and raped the officer's wife (Lee Remick).
Set and filmed in Michigan's Upper Peninsula (in Marquette and Ishpeming), the trial pits a witty, homespun defense attorney (James Stewart) against a prosecution team that includes powerful "downstate" (Lansing) legal figures, e.g. the Assistant State Attorney General (George C. Scott). The script, based on a novel by Robert Traver (a.k.a. Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker), gains through its authenticity – in the trial dialogue and in the depiction of courtroom procedure. The no-nonsense but endearing judge who oversees the trial is played by Robert Welch, a Boston judge who served as an Army lawyer in the 1954 Joseph McCarthy hearings. (I consider James Stewart's performance as "Yooper" lawyer Paul Biegler as good as any other in his long screen career as an interpreter of charming populist heroes.)
Legally, "Anatomy of a Murder" is nuanced and provocatively-dimensioned in its refusal to project absolutes in a trial whose testimony incorporates character inferences (a la "The Accused"), psychological analysis, and the hidden interests of self-serving witnesses. It's a trial film rich in innuendo and irony.
Because of its candor that included sexual and anatomical language, such as contraceptive, intercourse, sexual climax and spermatogenesis, Otto Preminger's film soon found itself on trial.
A police censoring board in Chicago banned the film, and the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency refused it a viewing license. But as is usually the case with controversial films, "Anatomy of a Murder" became one of 1959's biggest box-office successes. A half-century later it hasn't lost any of its dramatic punch.
Film historian and critic Frank Beaver is professor of film and video studies and professor of communication.