The 12 Best Courtroom Movies of All Time
6. The Verdict (Sidney Lumet, 1982)
Adapted by David Mamet from a novel by Barry Reed, The Verdict is a powerful courtroom drama directed by the great Sidney Lumet, who also manages to get two entries onto this list of best courtroom films. We’ll get to that other on a bit later on.
Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) is an alcoholic downtrodden lawyer who is presented with a large case of medical malpractice when a patient is left in a coma as a result of an operation gone wrong in a Catholic hospital. Initially thinking it will be a breeze and hoping for a quick settlement, things change when he visits the patient and his conscience starts weighing on him. He decides to turn down the sizable settlement and fight the church-backed hospital in court, starting a true David and Goliath type battle whilst also battling his own demons.
One of the late great performances of Paul Newman as well as one of the last for James Mason as his formidable opponent in court, The Verdict is a tense, gritty and remarkable courtroom drama.
The film was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Film, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor and Adapted Screenplay, although it ultimately won none. But that’s no reflection on the quality of this underseen Lumet classic.
5. To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962)
A near perfect adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel of the same name, To Kill a Mockingbird still stands as one of the best movies taking a stance against racism and intolerance and one of the greatest courtroom dramas to have ever graced the screen even though the actual time spent in court does not constitute the majority of the film.
The story deals with Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), an highly respected and honest honest lawyer in Alabama during the depression era. He takes up the defence of a black man, who is wrongfully accused of rape, whilst trying to raise his two children to be moral and just human beings in a town filled with prejudice and hate. The whole story is seen through the eyes of his six year old daughter Scout.
A massive success and often cited as one of the greatest films of its era, the film earned ten times its original budget and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, ultimately taking home three (Best Actor, Adapted Screenplay & Art Direction). The film’s cinematography and sets perfectly evoke the Alabama period setting and the movie features a pitch perfect performance by Gregory Peck which anchors this all-time classic dealing with tolerance and mutual understanding. Also make sure to look out for Robert Duvall in his first ever screen appearance as the “village idiot” Boo. Blink and you’ll miss him…
4. Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959)
Adapted from the novel of the same name written by Robert Traver (a pseudonym for Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker), Anatomy of a Murder is a courtroom drama directed by Otto Preminger and stars James Stewart.
Paul Biegler (Stewart) is a small-town lawyer who agrees to take on the defence of Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), who has been arrested for the murder of bar owner Barney Quill. Lt. Manion admits to the crime, even though he does not recall it, and claims he killed Quill because the bar owner raped his wife, Laura Manion (Lee Remick).
Facing the defence is big-city hot-shot prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) and Biegler decides that the best defence is to try to persuade the jury that his client suffered from temporary insanity or “irresistible impulse”, causing him to forget his actions.
A film that pushed the envelope (as director preminger had a tendency of doing), with its themes of rape and legal ethics when it was released in 1959, Anatomy of a Murder is a detailed and deliberate courtroom drama and one of the most realistic films of its kind.
With a script by a real-life Supreme Court Justice, skilled direction by Preminger and a great cast, including George C. Scott’s first substantial movie role, Anatomy of a Murder is a true classic of the genre, which clearly blurs the line between good and bad and refuses to provide any easy answers or solutions.
The film also benefits from a fantastic title sequence by Saul Bass and a great jazz-score by Duke Ellington, who also briefly appears in the movie. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, four Golden Globes and three BAFTA Awards (all including Best Film and Actor), although ultimately winning none. James Stewart did manage to win Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival that year.
3. The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)
Based on the actual records of Joan of Arc’s trial, The Passion of Joan of Arc is considered one of the greatest cinematic achievements ever and an enormous leap forward in what film could be at the time.
The film chronicles the trial as Joan’s judges try to discredit her and recant her claims that she has had holy visions from God himself. They try to deceive and intimidate her but Joan remains steadfast throughout most of the trial. Only when she is threatened with burning at the stake does she agree to sign a confession but soon after recants it again, which leads to her execution and ultimately becoming a heroine of France and a saint in the Roman-Catholic church.
A landmark film, The Passion of Joan of Arc is renowned for its use of close-ups, highly stylised set design and a spellbinding performance by Maria Falconetti in her first and only film appearance ever. The crisp high-contrast close-ups of Falconetti’s face, without make-up and with uniform non-distracting backgrounds, were unlike any other film at the time and give the film an immediacy which is as effective today as it was in 1928.
Although the film was met with immediate critical praise and has since been considered as one of the most influential films of all time and amongst cinema’s very best, it did not do well at the box-office at the time.
2. Judgement at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer, 1961)
Originally written and produced as a play for television, Judgement at Nuremberg is anothe classic courtroom drama as well as a historical representation of one of the infamous 1948 war-crime trials.
Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) is overseeing the trials of four German judges and prosecutors who stand accused of crimes against humanity for their involvement in atrocities committed under the Nazi regime, most notably Dr. Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) and Emil Hahn (Werner Klemperer).
Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell) is defending them, whilst U.S. Col. Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark) is the attorney for the prosecution. During the trial, many moral complexities and grey areas come to the surface and the film examines themes of individual conscience, responsibility in the face of unjust laws and human behaviour at a time of nationwide immorality.
The cast is rounded out brilliantly with many outstanding performances by Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, William Shatner and Montgomery Clift, who received his last nomination for an Academy Award of his career (one of eleven the film received). The film ended up only winning two, one for Best Actor for Maximilian Schell and one for Best Adapted Screenplay for Abby Mann. An important and intelligent historical court-room drama, Judgement at Nuremberg is a must see film for anybody interested in the subject matter, the genre or simply great golden age Hollywood cinema.
1. 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957)
Adapted from a teleplay of the same name by Reginald Rose, 12 Angry Men is a courtroom drama and was the feature film debut of director Sidney Lumet and a marvellous one at that.
A young Puerto Rican kid has been accused of killing his father with a knife. Twelve jurors retire to the jury room to debate his fate and as it doesn’t seem unreasonable that the kid is guilty, eleven of the jurors vote that way. But one of them, Juror #8 (Henry Fonda), doesn’t and starts chipping away at the conviction of the other jurors, reminding them of those all too important words “reasonable doubt”. As the hot day progresses, we get to know the background stories of all the jurors and slowly but surely doubt starts creeping into the minds of most of them.
12 Angry Men takes place almost entirely in one location: the jury room. But that doesn’t stop the tension from being racked up to eleven. Sidney Lumet delivers one of the most memorable directorial debuts ever here and he is greatly assisted by a stunning screenplay as well as his entire cast.
Apart from Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden, Jack Klugman, E.G. Marshall and Martin Balsam all put in fine performances and contribute greatly to the claustrophobic and high tension scenario played out in the jury room as the debate over the guilt of the Puerto Rican kid rages. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Director, Best Picture & Best Adapted Screenplay) and won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival .An absolute masterpiece, 12 Angry Men is simply must-see cinema.
Author Bio: Emilio has been a movie buff for as long as he can remember and holds a Masters Degree in Cinema Studies from the University of Amsterdam. Critical and eclectic in taste, he has been described to “love film but hate all movies”. For daily suggestions on what to watch, check out his Just Good Movies Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/goodmoviesuggestions.
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