For those missing real-life courtrooms, these landmark films offer insight into the world of law. – By Arden Morley
HOUSTON (February, 2021) – Jury trials are a foundational element of democracy, but with jury trials suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many are missing the real-life opportunity to learn from the courtroom. In the spirit of the Constitution, Arden Morley of The Morley Law Firm reviews 10 legal movies that take us back to a time when everything rested in the hands of the jury.
- 12 Angry Men (1957)
Jury duty rarely tops the list of favorite pastimes, but as this movie reminds us, the citizen juror serves as a crucial element of the legal system. Henry Fonda gives a quietly commanding performance in this drama chronicling the hostile deliberations of a jury in a death penalty case. A lone juror (Fonda) expresses his doubts about what seems at first an open-and-shut prosecution and this riveting film explores the pressures we face in standing with principle and against prejudice. For a film that’s set almost entirely in a jury room it’s remarkably lively due to the cast of characters. The seething performance by Lee J. Cobb is unforgettable, and film itself, a masterpiece.
- Anatomy of A Murder (1959)
In this black-and-white classic inspired by true events, this realistic study of an Army lieutenant accused of murdering a bartender who allegedly raped his wife includes an all-star cast of James Stewart as the defense attorney, George C. Scott as prosecutor, Ben Gazzara as the defendant and Lee Remick as his wife. Real-life attorney Joseph Welch plays the judge, providing an outstanding performance that draws from his experience representing the Army in the McCarthy hearings. The plot skips nimbly through a thicket of ethical dilemmas involved in representing a murder defendant.
- Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Two giants of film and literature are for once combined, in this hugely entertaining film. Billy Wilder directs from a short story by the legendary British mystery writer Agatha Christie. But it’s the astounding Charles Laughton who steals the show as a pompous barrister who can’t resist taking on this puzzling murder case. With the witty repartee in the hands of Wilder and the dizzying twists and turns courtesy of Dame Agatha, this classic black and white film is a ‘must-see’ courtroom drama. To see Marlene Dietrich on the witness stand is delightful, but surprising, as she appears as a witness, not for the defense, but for the prosecution.
- To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
Gregory Peck lends his legendary dignity to the role of Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s iconic small-town attorney. Penned for the screen by Horton Foote, the movie was an instant classic, as lawyer Finch rises above the naked racism of Depression-era Alabama to defend a crippled black man (Brock Peters) falsely accused of rape by a lonely, young white woman. Finch’s quiet courage is seen through the eyes of Scout (Mary Badham), his 6-year-old daughter, and embraced by an emerging generation of lawyers as the epitome of both moral certainty and unyielding trust in the rule of law.
- A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Set during the reign of Henry VIII, this film swept the Academy and BAFTA awards for Best Film and Best Actor. Paul Scofield’s Oscar-winning performance as Sir Thomas More, the Tudor-era judge made chancellor of England. He is caught in the political struggle involving Henry VIII’s decision to defy the Roman Catholic Church and divorce his wife to wed Anne Boleyn. Lines from playwright Robert Bolt’s stirring script are frequently quoted in U.S. court opinions, such as, “I know what’s legal, not what’s right. And I’ll stick to what’s legal.”
- I Want to Live! (1958)
Though glamorized by Hollywood, this story is based on the real life and letters of Barbara Graham, a petty criminal and prostitute in 1950s San Francisco. A struggling single mother, Graham is implicated in the murder of an elderly widow. Despite claims of a somewhat murky alibi, Graham faces the gas chamber if convicted. Susan Hayward, in an Academy Award-winning performance, plays the hard luck Graham, whose guilt is still debated by historians. The press initially turned against her, even naming her “Bloody Baby,” but one journalist (played by Simon Oakland) becomes convinced of her innocence. Hoping to arouse public sympathy, he begins a desperate campaign to save her from the gas chamber.
- The Firm (1993)
Based on the best-selling novel by John Grisham, Mitch McDeer (Tom Cruise) is a young man from a poor Southern family who has struggled through Harvard Law School to graduate fifth in his class. Mitch is entertaining offers from major firms in New York and Chicago, but when Memphis-based Bendini, Lambert, & Locke offer him a higher salary, he decides to sign on and remain in the South. Mitch’s wife, Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn), warns him that the deal sounds too good to be true, but it’s not until after several weeks of working with Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman) that Mitch discovers that the vast majority of BL&L’s business is tied to organized crime.
- A Few Good Men (1992)
Okay, so we all know the famous lines from this movie, but it really does hold up as probably the purest legal drama on this list. And no matter what you think of Tom Cruise, he really is a high-octane presence as the Navy JAG prosecutor in this suspenseful military courtroom drama. Directed by Rob Reiner, A Few Good Men is Hollywood’s restaging of Aaron Sorkin’s successful Broadway play. The plot couldn’t be simpler. Two low-ranking Marines from the Guantanamo Bay naval base are being court-martialed for the death of another, allegedly part of an unofficial hazing/punishment known as a “code red.” The Marines say they were following orders. Their unapologetic commander, Col. Nathan Jessup (an absolutely electric Jack Nicholson), says they acted on their own. The truth, if you can handle it, turns out to be a complicated exploration of military duty, loyalty and whether those who proclaim it most loudly ever live up to its standards.
- Erin Brockovich (2000)
Erin Brockovich may feel like a bit of an outlier, as this Steven Soderburgh film concentrates more on pre-trial discovery and negotiation rather than courtroom theatrics. But with Albert Finney and Julia Roberts in starring roles, this picture perfectly captures the astonishing imbalance of power between huge corporations and the individual victims they harm. To address this imbalance, Finney gathers the disparate victims into a class action suit, making them, in essence, a single client. And then through Roberts’ flirty snooping, thorough research and tireless legwork, they prove that legal Davids may now and then bring down even the greatest corporate Goliaths.
- The Verdict (1982)
Written by David Mamet and directed by Sidney Lumet, The Verdict pits a devastated family against the twin powers of the medical complex and the Catholic Church. Paul Newman gives a bravura performance as a haggard, alcoholic attorney seeking one last shred of redemption in what will become a huge medical malpractice case. Though a stirring legal drama, the film is more a study in wealth and power and how they corrupt the law and bend it to their will.
About The Morley Law Firm: The Morley Law Firm is a unique Houston law firm that focuses on criminal defense, immigration and family law. The firm has over 40 years of combined experience protecting its clients’ rights, freedom and liberty. For more information, contact David Falk at (713) 839-9955.