MY LIST OF THE TOP TEN LEGAL MOVIES
EVERY U.S. LAW STUDENT SHOULD SEE
David Letterman has popularized the "backwards" top ten list, but top ten lists, like desert island lists, have been a handy way of making recommendations for a long time. J. Edgar Hoover, then Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, used the technique to alert the public to the agency's most wanted fugitives (The FBI's Ten Most Wanted). You can find the "Top Ten Questions I'd Like a Theoretical Physicist to Answer for Me"; the "Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design", the "Top Ten Dot.Cons", the "Top Ten U.S. Killer Tornadoes" and the "Top Ten April Fools Hoaxes of All Time." Any "top ten" list is based on someone's opinions, of course, so this list of top ten legal movies represents my own views concerning the law related films that law students enrolled in U.S. law schools should see sometime before they graduate.
1. The film must say something important, enduring, and arguably true about law and justice.
2. The film should be a good piece of movie making: well-acted, well-directed, well-photographed.
3. The film should invite repeated viewing and encourage thought and study of the themes presented.
4. The film should be in English. While many excellent law related films in other languages have been and continue to be made (for example the Dutch A Woman Accused), my own view is that subtitles do not convey the subtlety of these films, and in many cases, the subtlety is a great part of the importance of the film. Since my list is primarily for U. S. law students, I favor those films made in English; they are necessarily more accessible (and more available). They are likely to be shown on both the network and cable movie channels, and/or be available for rental at libraries and video stores. This does not mean that the interested law student should not seek out foreign legal dramas; they offer a fascinating glimpse at the way that other countries solve their legal problems. For example the recent Le Procès de Bobigny, which dramatizes the story of the fight for abortion rights in France, is terrific; it's just not available on DVD here, and not (yet) dubbed into English.
5. The film should not be a "made for television" movie. Made for TV movies often don't have the budget to buy the best scripts and top flight talent that make the best law-related films (even though made for tv movies can be and sometimes are exceptional contributions to the genre. This rule allows me to do another "top ten" list!
6. The film should have been made a sufficiently long time ago to allow enough time for comparison to the existing corpus of law-related films.
My number 10 film is Adam's Rib (1949). I could have put Twelve Angry Men here, but the list is top-heavy with dramas, and Adam's Rib is a funny and farcical look at the legal system, marriage, and the meaning of equality in our society. Katharine Hepburn, a leading feminist before anyone used the term, is ambitious Amanda Bonner, who takes the case of Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday), accused of trying to kill her adulterous husband (Tom Ewell). Spencer Tracy plays the long-suffering Adam Bonner, Assistant District Attorney assigned to the case, to perfection. The clever script and pointed commentary about the roles of men and women in American society by Garson Kanin and his wife, actress Ruth Gordon, draw attention away from various improbabilities, like the one that puts two spouses on opposite sides of a case. There was a short-lived television series based on the movie and starring Blythe Danner and Ken Howard in 1973.
Number 9 on my list is Witness for the Prosecution (1957). This film directed by Billy Wilder was expanded from an Agatha Christie short story. Sir Wilfred Robards (Charles Laughton) recovering from a heart attack takes on the defense of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) accused of murdering an acquaintance for her money. His wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) attempts to provide him with an alibi; when Sir Wilfred indicates he does not believe her and will not allow her to testify, she turns up as "the witness for the prosecution." Highlights are the client interview with Vole, Robards' interaction with Christine, the cross examination of the prosecution's star witness, the victim's housekeeper Janet MacKenzie, and with the nurse assigned to care for him (Elsa Lanchester, Laughton's wife). The film is set at the Central Criminal Court (the "Old Bailey") and features English trial practice and the pageantry of a British courtroom proceeding, but U. S. law students will still find practices in common depicted in the film. Witness was remade as a television movie in 1982 with Sir Ralph Richardson as Robards, Beau Bridges as Vole, and Diana Rigg as Christine. The updated version loses some of the wit and bite of the original, including some of the best dialogue written by Wilder, but both Richardson and Rigg are wonderful.
Reversal of Fortune (1990) is number 8. A terrific movie about a real case, it is based on Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz's account of his successful attempt to reverse the attempted murder conviction of Claus von Bulow. Very few movies are made about appellate courts, and even fewer are good: this one is both. The scenes depicting Dershowitz's trial strategy, interviews with witnesses, and handling of various events in his personal life give us a look into the life of the lawyer handling a high-profile case. The actors, including Jeremy Irons as von Bulow, Ron Silver as Dershowitz and Glenn Close as Sunny von Bulow, are all excellent. The only bizarre note is Close's narration, which since her character is in an irreversible coma, is slightly jarring.
Death and the Maiden (1994). I've put this adaptation of an Ariel Dorfman play at number 7. Dealing with the eternal themes of justice and vengeance, it is set in an unnamed South American country recently emerged from a reign of terror. Sigourney Weaver plays a victim of rape and torture under the previous regime, who decides to kidnap a new neighbor she believes is one of the perpetrators, and get a confession out of him. Her husband, played by Gabriel Byrne, is a civil rights lawyer involved with the new government, who is understandably horrified by her actions. Weaver's target is Dr. Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley) who strikes just the right note as the man who refuses to admit guilt--we never learn if it's because he's innocent. The film explores the nature of revenge, the usefulness of truth commissions and war crimes trials, and the possibility of justice under any legal system. Dorfman himself was a victim of oppression in his native Argentina. After seeing this film I have trouble associating Schubert's quartet with anything else (much as Rossini's William Tell Overture now brings images of the Lone Ranger to mind).
Based on Scott Turow's novel, Presumed Innocent (1990) vividly brought the question of the presumption of innocence before the viewing public. Turow's cautionary tale of an Assistant District Attorney in an imaginary (but typical) Midwestern city reminds us of the difficulty we have in presuming someone innocent once he is accused. Harrison Ford plays unlucky ADA Rusty Sabich, accused of the murder of his lover, Raul Julia (himself a real life lawyer) is terrific as the smart and determined defense attorney with whom Sabich previously thought he had little in common. In some ways Presumed Innocent repeats some of the themes of Reversal of Fortune and Witness for the Prosecution: is the legal system intended to ferret out truth or resolve disputes--or both? Harrison Ford later played another lawyer in Regarding Henry.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), my number 5 pick, brought moviegoers Harper Lee's famous novel and gave the heroic and now iconic lawyer Atticus Finch Gregory Peck's face. This film, set in the pre civil rights era South, tells a story that was all too often true not just in the South but elsewhere in the country--the trial of a black man for a crime that he didn't commit, simply on the basis of his race. The wonderful Brock Peters plays the bewildered but resigned defendant, Robert Duvall, Estelle Evans, Paul Fix and Frank Overton among others, are all terrific as characters caught in a life-changing script they cannot control. Peck's Atticus Finch tries desperately to sort out his duty to his profession and his personal beliefs. Another movie about racism, Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys, appears on my 10 best made for television movies list.
Number 4, A Man for All Seasons (1966), based on the Robert Bolt play, dramatizes the life and death of lawyer Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield), one of Henry VIII's many Lord Chancellors. Eager to rid himself of his wife Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to provide him with a son to inherit his throne, Henry decided to break with the Roman Catholic Church and marry Anne Boleyn. He required his councillors and the citizenry of England to swear allegiance to him (the Act of Supremacy 1534). More found that the Act conflicted with his faith, and ultimately was unable to swear as Henry wished; Henry then condemned him to death. Bolt expertly examines the conflict between duty and conscience in this classic of the cinema. It was remade for television in 1988 with Charlton Heston as More and Vanessa Redgrave as his wife Alice. While the 1988 version follow's Bolt's original script more closely than the earlier release, Heston's and Redgrave's acting styles clash, and Heston is simply not strong enough in the part to erase our vivid memories of Scofield.
Number 3, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), is the best film ever made about judges and judging. Based on a script by Abby Mann, it uses as raw material the trials of Third Reich judges in 1947 and 1948. Spencer Tracy is Judge Dan Haywood, the thoughtful American faced with condemning men with whom he senses he has a great deal in common. Richard Widmark is the eager and tactless military prosecutor, Maximilian Schell, who won an Academy Award for his portrayal, is the committed advocate Hans Rolfe who attempts to mount a defense for a client (Burt Lancaster) who does not want to defend himself. Many famous folks appear in the film, including Judy Garland as a woman whom one of the defendants had sentenced for violating the notorious Nuremberg Laws, Montgomery Clift as a mentally disabled victim of Nazi sterilization policy, and William Shatner (in his pre-Star Trek period) as a charming American officer charged with looking after Tracy. The film poses important questions about the responsibility of judges who disagree both philosophically and morally with laws they are mandated to enforce. The contrast and the similarities between the judgers and the judged are particularly poignant.
Choosing the number two film is a little like eliminating film number 11 for a "top ten" film list. Number two films are those films that one can re-watch with almost as much pleasure as if you were discovering them for the first time. Number two films are films that are always a pleasant substitute if number one isn't available, or if you can't decided on number one. I decided to make my number 2 pick Inherit the Wind (1960), which is based on a real case, Tennessee v. Scopes, and dramatizes the fight over the teaching of evolution in United States public schools. Old pros Spencer Tracy and Frederic March make magic of every word, showing us what good acting is all about. Gene Kelly is sarcastic yet vulnerable as the fictional E. K. Hornbeck, based on the real-life curmudgeon H. L. Mencken. Harry Morgan steals all of the scenes he is in as the resolute but slightly bemused judge in charge of the legal circus that the local businessmen and a Baltimore newspaper have brought to his courtroom. The young Leslie Uggams sings the gospel song that overlays the opening credits with a quiet passion that lingers long after this legal and political carnival departs Heavenly Hillsboro. I would expect that, similarly, someone, somewhere is planning a film based on the recent Kitzmiller v. Dover "intelligent design" case.
And finally, the number one film that every U.S. law student should see is Anatomy of a Murder (1959). This movie, based on the fact based novel of the same name by "Robert Traver" (pseudonym of Michigan Supreme Court Justice John Jackson) combines wonderfully written and acted scenes of legal ethics, trial strategy, and courtroom drama with serious questions about the nature of justice and the purpose of the adversarial legal system. Jimmy Stewart is superb as the inventive defense attorney Paul Biegler, trying the biggest case of his career. Eve Arden is priceless as Biegler's ever competent, even-tempered secretary. A young Ben Gazzara projects mystery as the defendant Frederick Manion, accused of killing his wife's attacker in cold blood. In her first starring role, Lee Remick is appropriately alluring and innocent as Mrs. Manion. George C. Scott as the "imported legal talent from Lansing", Arthur O'Connell as Biegler's partner, and Kathryn Grant (Mrs. Bing Crosby) as the bewildered manager of the dead man's bar and hotel are all perfectly cast. Even Joseph N. Welch, the attorney famous for facing down Senator Joseph McCarthy, does a creditable if somewhat wooden job as the judge. Trivia: Roy Cohn, a featured player during the McCarthy hearings, is the subject of the docudrama Citizen Cohn (1992)--James Woods plays Cohn. [He also plays "Danny Davis" in the TV movie "Indictment: The McMartin Trial"--see below, and "Dennis Barrie" in the TV movie "Dirty Pictures", another great legal drama.] Otto Preminger, the director of Anatomy of a Murder, was himself an attorney in his native Austria and once in the U.S. went to court several times to protect the integrity of his work. Fittingly, the source of Biegler's clever defense is a real case, People v. Durfee, 62 Mich. 487 (1886), although the scriptwriters got the page wrong (they have Biegler citing it as starting on page 486).
For the law student with some extra time on his/her hands, a number of other law related films repay study.
Films 11-15 for those who have the interest and time...
Twelve Angry Men (1957). A look at the legal system through the eyes of the jury. This one has been remade, both using all men, and using all women. It's particularly interesting, because keeping the viewer's interest while using one set (the jury room) and one issue (the jury deliberation) is difficult.
Capote (2005). Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the late writer to perfection as he ferrets out the story behind the killings that would form the basis of his "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood. The film raises questions about the function of narrative and the nature of truth. Another film, Infamous (2006), starring Toby Jones as Capote, is also good.
In Cold Blood (1967). Remade for TV in 1996.Violent (for the period), thoughtful look at capital punishment. Based on the "non-fiction novel" by Truman Capote.
The Insider (Blue Sky Pictures, 1999). A whistleblower inside "Big Tobacco" (Russell Crowe) contacts "60 Minutes" to expose the truth behind cigarette addiction. Eventually the network refuses to air the "60 Minutes" piece and the whistleblower faces retaliation.
Amistad (Dreamworks, 1997). Slaves aboard a ship mutiny off the coast of New England and the question becomes can they then be given their freedom? Powerful and thoughtful drama raises questions about the limits of the law and the meaning of human rights.
The Top Ten Made for Television Legal Movies
This list is admittedly biased and reflects my own viewing tastes. That said, I've picked films that dramatize what I consider to be important cases and do so in an entertaining manner, using good scripts and talented actors. Most, if not all of these cases, deal with human rights. Coming in at number 10 and representing a number of very fine docudramas is Video Voyeur: The Susan Wilson Story (TVM 2002), well acted, about a woman who discovers that no remedy exists at law for what her neighbor has done to her. She sets out to remedy the wrong. To this date very few states have enacted video voyeurism statutes. At number 9 is Deliberate Intent (TVM 2000), a dramatization of the Paladin Press case. At number 8 I'd put Dirty Pictures (2000), a dramatization of the trial of Dennis Barrie, the museum director tried for obscenity for exhibiting photos taken by the artist Robert Mapplethorpe. My number 7 is The Man in the Glass Booth, starring Oscar winner Maximilian Schell, about a misguided defendant demanding to be tried for sins he didn't commit. My number 6 is The Andersonville Trial, the Saul Levitt dramatization of a war crimes trial in post Civil War America. For number 6 I pick Separate But Equal (1991). This dramatization of the trial strategies and political manuvering behind the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 allows us to witness what goes into the making of a crucial Supreme Court decision. Sidney Poitier plays Thurgood Marshall, the guiding light behind the NAACP's strategy. It does drag a bit in parts, however. My number 5 is the 1997 remake of Twelve Angry Men, featuring Ossie Davis, George C. Scott, Hume Cronyn, Tony Danza, and Jack Lemmon. I put Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys at number 3, not just because it's a good film but because it engendered a lawsuit on its own; Victoria Price Street (played by Ellen Price) sued NBC over the portrayal claiming she was defamed. At number two is Mr. and Mrs. Loving (1996) documenting the fight to end the laws against miscegenation in the U.S. And for number one (drum roll, please), Indictment: The McMartin Trial (1995), a dramatization of the numerous proceedings held and the media frenzy surrounding accusations that Peggy Buckey, her brother, her mother and several others at the school had abused numerous children who attended their pre-school. After years, Peggy was acquitted. Ray's first trial ended in a hung jury, and he was retried, the second trial also ending in a hung jury. Eventually, the entire system of child abuse investigation itself was put on trial.
The Top Movies That are Currently Unavailable--and It's a Crime!
The remake of Witness for the Prosecution, starring Beau Bridges and Diana Rigg, is well done, and is a good contrast with the Billy Wilder original made in 1957. The remake of Shadow of a Doubt, starring Mark Harmon as Uncle Charles, is also quite good. Harmon's take on the role is different from Joseph Cotten's, and very chilling. Vanishing Act, a good film that was available for a time on VHS, stars the wonderful Mike Farrell (M.A.S.H.) as a man whose bride unaccountably disappears from their honeymoon cabin. He has difficulty getting the local cops to believe him, especially when a pretty woman turns up claiming to be his wife. Someone should re-release this gem; it's based on the Robert Thomas play "Trap For a Lonely Man," and has been made several times, as Chase a Crooked Shadow, Honeymoon With a Stranger, and One of My Wives Is Missing, in English and several other versions in other languages. The TV movie The Jury, which examines a British jury deliberating, is due to come out on DVD in a few weeks.
TV Series for the Law Student
A lot of television series feature lawyers and judges and the legal system, and law students certainly cannot watch them all. But some of them are certainly worth dipping into, especially since they are available on DVD (and VHS), and they're available in many law libraries. The old standby is Perry Mason, based on the novels by Erle Stanley Gardner. Perry never represented a guilty client, and he only lost one or two cases, except the currently notorious The Case of the Terrified Typist, and those he won on appeal. His knowledge of the rules of evidence is legendary, and his courtesy to the D.A., clerks, and everybody is something to behold, even when they're amazingly nasty. His cross-examinations are really well-done, because Gardner was himself a good lawyer. He founded the Court of Last Resort, which took an interest in "lost cause" cases.
Law & Order and its spin-offs are, of course, widely available, both on prime time schedules and in syndication. I tend to prefer the original version and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Rumpole of the Bailey is another series that I really like, because Horace Rumpole is a really good attorney, devoted to his clients, knowledgeable about the law when he needs to be, but also smart about people. He knows how to get things done. Currently on air are Boston Legal, quirky but interesting because it points out how clever lawyers can push the traditional limits of the law, Raising the Bar, and Law and Order (and various spinoffs). Just started, a brisk and well-done new series: Lifetime's Drop-Dead Diva (Sundays at 9 p.m., 8 Central time). Coming this fall: The Good Wife on CBS.
The ABA Journal devoted some space in its August 2009 issue to the top 25 tv legal dramas. Here's a link. [Full disclosure: I was a member of the "jury" that participated in the decision making].