Courtroom dramas have been popular for a long time. Starting off as radio shows in the 1930’s, television soon followed suit in the late 1940s, when the medium overtook radio as the most popular at home past-time. It wasn’t long before the genre was also well established on the silver screen, with the late 1950s and early 1960s being particularly fruitful. In fact, half of the entries on this list are from that period, including four of the top five ones.
Some of the films listed here are purely fictional, whilst others are based on real-life trials. Some even blend fact and fiction to great effect and there can be no denying that a well-made courtroom drama, despite its static environment due to its often one location limitation, can be true edge-of-your-seat stuff. Below, we have tried to compile twelve of the genre’s most lasting and gripping examples.
12. Reversal of Fortune (Barbet Schroeder, 1990)
Adapted from the 1985 book Reversal of Fortune: Inside the von Bülow Case by law professor Alan Dershowitz, Reversal of Fortune is a darkly humorous murder mystery based on the real-life court case of Claus von Bülow, who was accused of trying to murder his wife.
The film is narrated by Sunny von Bülow (Glenn Close), who remains in coma after she has been injected with insulin, and told partly in flashbacks expanding on the lead-up and the initial trial of her accused murderer and husband Claus (Jeremy Irons) and partly directly following the appeal proceedings following that first trail.
Whilst everybody believes that Claus is guilty, as his marriage to Sunny had been strained and as he has a lot to gain if his wife dies, Harvard Law professor Dershowitz (Ron Silver) agrees to handle the appeal and works tirelessly with a group of his students to reverse the judgement.
With a splendid screenplay, top-notch direction by Schroeder (both screenplay and director were nominated for Oscars) and delightful performances from all three leads (although Irons completely steals the show with his Oscar winning performance as the strange, snobbish and mysterious von Bülow), Reversal of Fortune is a highly original take on the legal drama by never providing any clear answers and a biting satire of the moral corruption of the upper classes.
11. JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)
The first and most successful of three films about American presidents directed by Oliver Stone, JFK was a highly controversial mix of fact and fiction surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the various theories and conspiracies which followed in its wake. The movie was primarily based on the books On The Trail Of The Assassins by Jim Garrison (played in the movie by Kevin Costner) and Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs.
The movie centres around New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Costner) whose initial investigation into the assassination is shut down but later re-opened when he reads the infamous Warren Report about the lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) and comes to the conclusion it is severely flawed. He is further spurred on when a high-level figure from Washington, who identifies himself as “X” (Donald Sutherland), meets up with him as a result of his investigation and tells him the rabbit hole might be much deeper than Garrison initially suspected, potentially involving the vice-president, the CIA, the FBI, the military-industrial complex as well as the Mafia.
The film is constructed from archival footage, reconstructions and lengthy courtroom sequences in which Garrison focuses on New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), who might have had ties with the CIA. And whilst Garrison knows that he is more than likely fighting a losing battle and that his career will be destroyed by his efforts, he continues the trial, knowing that all the presented evidence will become part of the public record, thereby exposing the inconsistencies surrounding the official reports.
Whilst Stone took some major liberties with the presented “facts”, JFK struck a chord with the audience and became a sizeable hit. The courtroom scenes, which constitute about half of the film, might actually be the weaker link in comparison with the reconstructions of the assassination and the investigation by Garrison before the trial but all elements are edited together so compellingly that the whole just works splendidly as a political thriller and, as described by Stone himself, as a “counter-myth” to the official conclusions of the Warren Report, which he described as a “fictional myth”.
So much so that the government, in the wake of the movie’s popularity, decided to make public many previously classified documents surrounding the case as well as forming the Assassination Records Review Board , a body which was required to ensure all related evidence was collected, reviewed and made available to the public. JFK ended up being nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning two for Best Editing and Cinematography.
10. Fury (Fritz Lang, 1936)
Adapted from the story Mob Rule by Norman Krasna and loosely based on the real-life events surrounding the Brooke Hart murder, Fury is a hard-hitting crime drama, a predecessor to film noir, the first film directed by Fritz Lang in the United States and its second half a riveting courtroom drama.
The film begins as Katherine (Sylvia Sidney) leaves her fiancée Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy) to get a better job in another city. Her main motivation is that she’ll be able to save for their marriage and they agree to see each other again in a year. Joe also does well during the year apart as he buys a gas station with his brothers, which becomes a money maker when a racecourse is built next to it.
After the year passes, Joe gets into his car to finally see and marry Katherine but before he arrives he is stopped by a deputy sheriff of a small town and due to some circumstantial evidence he becomes the suspect of a recent kidnapping in the area. When the people in town hear about his arrest, things gets out of hand and they form a lynch mob to exact their own revenge and justice on the innocent Joe.
A powerful drama and indictment of mob law, Fritz Lang’s first American film pre-empts certain elements of later film noirs whilst being closely associated with social issue films of the times. Spencer Tracy is fantastic as Joe Wilson and unafraid to play up both his wholesome and darker sides and the second half of the film, where it turns into a courtroom drama, is just as powerful as the events that precede it. The film was a great success at the time and was nominated for one Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
9. Breaker Morant (Bruce Beresford, 1980)
Adapted from the play Breaker Morant: A Play in Two Acts by Kenneth G. Ross about the real-life 1902 court-martial of Lieutenant Harry “Breaker” Morant and five other officers during the Boer War in South Africa, Breaker Morant is a great courtroom war drama directed by Bruce Beresford.
Lt. Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant (Edward Woodward) is serving in a special unit, the Bushveldt Carbineers, which is comprised primarily of Australian soldiers during the Boer wars between the English Empire and the Boers, descendants of Dutch colonists. After one of their officers is brutally killed by the Boers, Breaker Morant and some of his men pursue the killers, which ultimately results in the execution of various Boer prisoners.
Morant, Lt. Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) and Capt. Alfred Taylor (John Waters) are consequently put on trial, primarily because they are also suspected of having killed a German reverend in addition to the Boer prisoners, which might give the German government the perfect excuse to join the war on the side of the Boers with whom they are sympathetic.
From the very start of the trial, it becomes obvious that the English need a conviction in order to appease the Germans, even when it is pretty clear that the men were simply following orders. And so the trial becomes a battle of wills between Lt. Col. Denny (Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell), who wants to see the men convicted as soon as possible, and Maj. J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson), an inexperienced defence lawyer who gets assigned to defend the men.
One of the greatest films to ever come out of Australia and the one that gave director Bruce Beresford his first international recognition, Breaker Morant is maybe easiest described as the Australian version of Paths of Glory, in which a corrupt military system is more then willing to sacrifice some of its soldiers in a sham trial.
Featuring great period recreation, a superb screenplay and great performances all round, Breaker Morant is a stunning anti-war film and a critical indictment of British imperialism. The film was nominated for thirteen Australian Film Institute Awards, taken home ten, including Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actor and Cinematography whilst also being nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes and a receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
8. Inherit The Wind (Stanley Kramer, 1960)
Adapted from the play of the same name by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, Inherit the Wind is the first courtroom drama directed by Stanley Kramer to make it onto this list and stars Spencer Tracy, Fredric March and Gene Kelly.
Bertram Cates (Dick York) is a teacher who teaches Darwin’s theory of evolution to his high school students in the small town of Hillsboro in Tennessee. Doing so however is actually against Tennessee state law and Bertram is arrested. The trial becomes a national cause when former presidential candidate and biblical scholar Matthew Harrison Brady (March) becomes the state prosecutor, whilst famous journalist of the Baltimore Herald, E.K. Hornbeck (Kelly) hires renowned legal mind Henry Drummond (Tracey) as Cates’ defence lawyer.
With the people of Hillsboro rallied into a fanatical religious frenzy by Reverend Brown (Claude Akins), Drummond has his work cut out for him, especially when it’s ruled that he can not introduce some great scientific minds as witnesses in support of his defence.
Based on the Scopes Monkey Trial, which actually took place in Tennessee in 1925, Inherit the Wind deals with the Evolution vs. Creationism debate but was written in response and as a metaphor to the McCarthyism of the time and one’s right to think freely. Both Spencer Tracey and Frederic March stand out in their respective roles whilst Gene Kelly is delightfully smug as the big city atheist journalist and Claude Atkins particularly scary in his fanaticism as Reverend Brown.
One of Stanley Kramer’s best directorial achievements and a clear lead-up to the even greater courtroom film Judgement at Nuremberg, which he made the following year and is featured later on this list, Inherit the Wind is a faithful adaptation using many of the original court transcripts of the actual case.
Whilst critically acclaimed, the film did not do well financially upon its release despite its four Academy Award nominations (Best Actor for Tracey, Best Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography and Editing), two Golden Globes nominations (Best Film and Actor) and three BAFTA Awards nominations (Best Film and Best Actor for both Tracey and March).
7. Witness for the Prosecution (Billy Wilder, 1957)
Fantastic courtroom drama by Billy Wilder based on the stage play by Agatha Christie (in turn based on her own short story), starring Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich.
Master barrister Sir Wilfred Robards (Laughton), who has just recovered from a heart attack and has been advised to stay away from all stress, takes on Leonard (Power), a man accused of murdering an old rich widow, as a client. Things complicate quickly as Leonard’s wife (Dietrich) suddenly announces that they really aren’t married at all and that she will act as a witness for the prosecution instead of for Leonard’s defence. This in turn, leads to all sorts of anxieties for Robards whose health could do without all the added stress.
Full of twists and turns and with a healthy dose of humour to boot, Witness for the Prosecution is an absolute classic in the courtroom film genre, directed by one of Hollywood’s greatest and with a fantastic cast to boot as all three leads seem to be having a wonderful time. It’s testament to the quality of the following entries that this one doesn’t end up higher in the list. A must-see for lovers of courtroom dramas, especially for those who like them with a bit of comedy thrown in.