Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Five Film Favorites: Courtroom Dramas

The courtroom in "To Kill a Mockingbird"
by F.T. Rea

After the crime has been committed, the cops have investigated it and the handcuffs have been slapped on the culprit some movies end. Most viewers probably assume the captive will face the music for having been caught breaking the law.

In a general sense, the characters in such films are usually developed by what they do -- action. If the story is more about the legal ordeal after arrest, the trial, then it’s usually dialogue that drives the story. Typically, the characters are developed by what they say … and of course, how and when they say it. 

This installment of five film favorites is focused on courtroom dramas. Legitimate courtrooms, please. Not kangaroo courts. So trials that take place outside of a real courthouse, such as in "M" (1931) or in "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943), as good as they both are, belong on another day’s list of favorites.

To further narrow the field, military trials aren’t being considered this time, either. So that means great war films with pivotal trials in them, such as "Breaker Morant" (1980), "The Caine Mutiny" (1954) and "Paths of Glory" (1957) can’t be included on this particular list.

My five favorite courtroom dramas are as follows:
  • "12 Angry Men" (1957): B&W. 96 minutes. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Cast: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman, Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, Ed Begley. Note: An 18-year-old boy/man is charged with murdering his father. Adapted from a teleplay, the story follows the jury’s deliberations to determine a verdict. On the first vote just one juror says he isn’t convinced of the defendant’s guilt. Then the perspectives and prejudices of each juror are examined as they argue their points.   
  • "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959): B&W. 160 minutes. Directed by Otto Preminger. Cast: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, George C. Scott, Eve Arden. Note: In the late-50s this story about a violent killing and some sex-related issues was a bodice ripper. Stewart is the easy-going defense attorney. Gazzara, the defendant, claims to have amnesia. Remick, a fun-loving temptress, is his wife. The judge is played by Joseph Welch, a lawyer made famous by the live telecasts of the Army-McCarthy Hearings.
  • "Inherit the Wind" (1960): B&W. 128 minutes. Directed by Stanley Kramer. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly, Harry Morgan. Note: Adapted from the play with the same title, which was a fictionalized version of the famous Scopes “Monkey” Trial (in 1925), the movie offers Matthew Harrison Brady (March) as a William Jennings Bryan-like figure. Henry Drummond (Tracy) as a Clarence Darrow-like figure and E. K. Hornbeck (Kelly) as a H. L. Mencken-like figure. To avoid a spoiler, I can't reveal here who plays the role of the monkey.
  • "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962): B&W. 129 minutes. Directed by Robert Mulligan. Cast: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Brock Peters, Robert Duvall, Phillip Alford. Note: Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, via Horton Foote’s screenplay, was smoothly interpreted to the big screen in this compelling story set in a small town in Alabama during the Depression. A respected white lawyer, who is the father of two precocious kids, is appointed to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman.
  • "The Verdict" (1982): Color. 129 minutes. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Cast: Paul Newman, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden, James Mason, Lindsay Crouse. Note: Newman’s character was a hot shot attorney at a big law firm before he let alcoholism unravel his life. A friend and former colleague tosses him what seems to be an easy medical malpractice case, as a favor. Of course, it turns out to be a much more complicated situation and some tough choices must be made. 
The courtroom in "The Verdict"
Maybe one reason so many courtroom dramas have been produced is that if most of the scenes are in the courthouse, it saves money on sets. Another reason is that a trial provides a ready-made and organized context in which to present a story. The testimony of witnesses can tell the whole tale. The disclosure of the verdict is a natural way to wrap up a story. Once the suspense is over, the viewers see The End appearing over footage of attorneys gathering up their papers.

Whether righteous justice has been wrought, or not, one table of lawyers is usually happier than the other.

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