The Sunday Dozen: Lawyer Movies

I have no desire to practice law again, but I’ve been in close touch with my inner lawyer since the Trump crime wave began. It’s informed much of my blogging and legal education made me a more organized and better writer. Thanks, Tulane Law School.

This week, we tackle the tendentious topic of lawyer movies. They’re selected because of entertainment value not accuracy. Hollywood gets the details of most professions wrong when they’re depicted onscreen. The law is no different.

My focus is on movies that mostly take place in the courtroom. The films are rated in order of preference and reflect my own personal taste. The top three were no-brainers after that it took some thinking. I suspect that my number four and  twelve selections will surprise many.

I’m not a fan of John Grisham’s legal thrillers or their movie adaptations. This is a Grisham free list.

The selections will be framed by stills from the movies. I’ll have a quick and dirty summary at the end of the post as well.

On with the show this is it.

Otto Preminger’s Anatomy Of A Murder is the clear number one draft pick. In my Worst Best Picture Oscars Dozen, I declared it the Best Picture of 1959. Here’s what I said in that post about the Preminger classic:

Anatomy of a Murder is one of the best of the overlooked nominees. It’s a courtroom drama that was edgy for its day and still packs a punch. It’s one of the finest flicks of director Otto Preminger’s career and features fine performances by James Stewart, Frank Albertson, Ben Gazzara, Lee Remick, George C. Scott and real-life hero Joseph Welch.


All that and a score by Duke Ellington makes Anatomy of a Murder one of the best films of the 1950’s.”

Self-quotation is my jam.

Grading Time: 4 stars and an Adrastos Grade of A.

Stanley Kramer’s Inherit The Wind is based on a play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee. It’s a fictionalized version of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. Famous outside lawyers tried that case: three-time Democratic nominee William Jennings for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow for the defense.

Two of the finest actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Fredric March and Spencer Tracy, are brilliant in the leads. Ironically, leading Hollywood liberal and JFK friend March plays the bible banger and conservative Republican Tracy plays the Darrow guy. That’s why it’s called acting.

Inherit The Wind is full of outstanding character performances most notably by teevee’s Dick York and Harry Morgan.

Grading Time: 4 stars and an Adrastos Grade of A.

Robert Mulligan’s To Kill A Mockingbird carries more baggage than it deserves. Atticus Finch *is* the archetypal “white savior” character but that doesn’t diminish the pleasure of watching this great 1962 movie.

Gregory Peck brings his Lincolnesque gravitas to the role of Atticus. Orson Welles, who turns up later on the list, was fond of talking about the time the California Democratic party approached him to run for office. He suggested Gregory Peck instead. He never ran. I wish he had.

Grading Time: 4 stars and an Adrastos Grade of A.

Rob Reiner’s Ghosts Of Mississippi is the first “ripped from the headlines” movie on the list. It’s based on the third trial of white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith for the murder of Civil Rights hero Medgar Evers.

There’s no ironic casting in this fine film. Liberal jerk Alec Baldwin plays the prosecutor and wingnut jerk James Woods kills it as the killer.

The third time was the charm as the good guys won. The Klan can suck it.

Grading Time: 4 stars and an Adrastos Grade of A.

Speaking of “ripped from the headlines” movies, 1990’s Reversal Of Fortune tells the tale of comic opera villain Claus von Bulow who was convicted of the attempted murder of wealthy wife, Sunny. The conviction was reversed on appeal, hence the title.

It’s the sole appellate lawyer film on the list. How appealing is that?

Jeremy Irons gives a droll and creepy performance as the anti-hero of the piece. He won the Best Actor Oscar for creeping out the world. Hollywood liberal turned wingnut Ron Silver is outstanding as Harvard liberal turned Trump apologist Alan Dershowitz.

Grading Time: 4 stars and an Adrastos Grade of A.

Allan J. Pakula’s Presumed Innocent is based on the best-selling novel by Scott Turow. IMO, the Chicago-based attorney is the best legal thriller writer around.

Harrison Ford stars, but the supporting cast steals the show: Brian Dennehy, John Spencer, and especially Raul Julia as Ford’s flamboyant defense counsel. Who among us wouldn’t want Gomez Addams as your lawyer? Actually, everyone.

Grading Time: 4 stars and an Adrastos Grade of A.

Billy Wilder’s Witness For The Prosecution is based on the smash hit West End play by Agatha Christie. It was out of Wilder’s comfort zone, but the movie was a triumph.

It features the sort of plots twists for which Agatha Christie was famous AND the sort of brilliant performances for which Billy Wilder was famous.

Charles Laughton walks away with the movie as Tyrone Power’s barrister, but Elsa Lanchester, Marlene Dietrich, and Power also excel in this courtroom drama.

Grading Time: 4 stars and an Adrastos Grade of A.

A Few Good Men was a collaboration between director Rob Reiner and writer Aaron Sorkin. This 1992 film finds them at the peak of their creative powers. It’s Reiner’s second appearance on this list.

It’s the lone military courts martial movie on the list and it packs a wallop. There are stellar performances by Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, and Kevins Bacon and Pollak. Tom Cruise chews the scenery a bit too much for my taste. I wonder if the Scientologists told him to ham it up.

Grading Time: 3 1/2 stars and an Adrastos Grade of B+

Primal Fear would rate above A Few Good Men if not for Jack Nicholson’s fabulous performance. I love me some Jack.

Speaking of fine performances, Richard Gere is no slouch as the smarmy defense lawyer. Nobody does smarmy better than Gere.

The movie has an amazing cast: check out its IMDB listing. The other standouts are Laura Linney and Edward Norton in his breakout performance as the defendant who hoodwinks everyone.

Grading Time: 3 1/2 stars and an Adrastos Grade of B+

Richard Fleisher’s Compulsion is a thinly fictionalized account of the Leopold and Loeb thrill killing. The tagline says it all:

It was one of Dean Stockwell’s first adult roles and he stuck the landing as did co-star Bradford Dillman.

Clarence Darrow was Leopold and Loeb’s defense counsel. In the movie, Orson Welles plays the Darrow guy. He’s more flamboyant than Tracy but Orson was a flamboyant guy.

Orson’s strategy is to save his clients from execution. He makes one of the most powerful arguments against the death penalty ever. It works: his clients’ lives are spared.

Grading Time: 3 1/2 stars and an Adrastos Grade of B+

Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict is a star vehicle for Paul Newman. Newman plays an alcoholic lawyer with one big case left in him.

The great James Mason excels as one of the villains of the piece but it’s Newman’s movie.

Grading Time: 3 1/2 stars and an Adrastos Grade of B+

1985’s Jagged Edge features a typically great performance by Glenn Close. She finds herself defending a husband who killed his wealthy wife. Fortunately for Close the defendant is played by one of the most likable actors of all-time, Jeff Bridges. The Dude abides in this movie too.

Grading Time: 3 1/2 stars and an Adrastos Grade of B+

I promised a quick and dirty summary of the Lawyer Movies Dozen. This is it:

  1. Anatomy Of A Murder
  2. Inherit The Wind
  3. To Kill A Mockingbird
  4. Ghosts Of Mississippi
  5. Reversal Of Fortune
  6. Presumed Innocent
  7. Witness For The Prosecution
  8. A Few Good Men
  9. Primal Fear
  10. Compulsion
  11. The Verdict
  12. Jagged Edge

It’s lagniappe time This week, two courtroom comedies that don’t quite fit in with the rest of the list.

George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib is wildly unrealistic and utterly irresistible. Hepburn and Tracy are always excellent together and they’re ably supported by Judy Holiday and David Wayne.

Grading Time: 3 1/2 stars and an Adrastos Grade of B+

My Cousin Vinny gets high marks for comedy and low marks for realism. It’s the acting that makes this movie a triumph, especially that of Joe Pesci, Marisa Tomei, and Frew Gwynne. That’s right: Herman Munster kills it as the judge. I hope Eddie was proud of him.

The movie contains a classic line that has become a catch phrase at Adrastos World HQ:

Grading Time: 3 stars and an Adrastos Grade of B.

Court dismissed. The last word goes to Spencer Tracy and Fredric March in Inherit The Wind.

3 thoughts on “The Sunday Dozen: Lawyer Movies

  1. I’d take out A Few Good Men and substitute The Caine Mutiny, if you simply must have a court martial movie on the list. My objection to A Few Good Men is that the story turns and the climax ensues on a cheap lawyer trick which the hard-bitten seen-it-all Colonel Jessup wouldn’t have fallen for in a million years.

  2. I graduated from La Salle Academy with Stephen Famiglietti who prosecuted Claus vin Bulow in one of the trials.

  3. Great list, though I’d put 12 Angry Men at the top. It’s not in a courtroom, but it is about the trial.

    Favorite quotes:
    Anatomy of a Murder:
    Paul Biegler: Mr. Paquette, what would you call a man with an insatiable penchant for women?
    Alphonse Paquette: A what?
    Paul Biegler: A penchant… a desire… taste… passion?
    Alphonse Paquette: Well, uh, ladies’ man, I guess. Or maybe just a damn fool!
    [laughter in the courtroom]
    Judge Weaver: Just answer the questions, Mr. Paquette. The attorneys will provide the wisecracks.

    Judge Weaver was played by Joseph N. Welch who destroyed Joseph McCarthy

    Inherit The Wind:
    Matthew Harrison Brady: I do not think about things I do not think about.
    Henry Drummond: Do you ever think about things that you DO think about?

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