While there have been notable examples of the trial film in international cinema – In the Name of the Father (UK, 1993), Court (India, 2014), The Insult (Lebanon, 2017), to name but three – the courtroom drama as a genre seems almost as innately American as the western.
It’s not just that the majority of trial films have come out of and been set in the US, nor that many of the best-known trial films have been Hollywood studio pictures. Rather, most important to the genre’s American identity is that, through the decades, the courtroom drama has maintained a firm belief in democracy, freedom and the sanctity of law – particularly American law.
This is true even of Judgment at Nuremberg, Stanley Kramer’s Oscar-winning 1961 drama based on the Nuremberg trials of the late 1940s. Released on Blu-ray in the UK for the first time this month, the film finds four German lawmen (one of them played by a haunted Burt Lancaster) before a trio of American judges led by Spencer Tracy, who try the defendants – and their decision to uphold the laws of the Third Reich during Hitler’s reign – as if in a US court.
A timely film that considers what is ‘right’ when unconscionable behaviour is enshrined into law, Judgment at Nuremberg asks whether it is better to defy the rulings of an immoral government in protest or remain allied in the hopes of acting as a benevolent collaborator. An atypical courtroom drama, Kramer’s film is one in which the concept of law itself – the very foundation of the genre – is challenged.
Here’s the case for the defence of 10 more milestones of this most gripping of genres.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer
With her life, and particularly final days, the subject of so many cinematic interpretations over the years, Joan of Arc’s trial might be the most frequently dramatised in film – though Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc has the distinction of being the only interpretation to feature in the Vatican’s list of approved films.
Based on the 1431 trial and subsequent martyring of the teenage would-be liberator of France, following her capture by English forces, Dreyer’s film melds realism with ecstatic melodrama. Excerpts of Joan’s actual trial for heresy are worked into the intertitles as Maria Falconetti, who plays Joan as if in a permanent state of rapture, is shot almost exclusively in close-up, her face framed like the saintly subject of religious portraiture.
For fans of what Paul Schrader dubbed transcendental style, the Joan of Arc trial was recreated in even more pared-back fashion in Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), an austere re-enactment that’s no less spiritually nourishing than Dreyer’s.
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s spellbinding ability to mix the everyday with the fantastical is perhaps encapsulated best in A Matter of Life and Death’s celestial courtroom finale. At the tail-end of the Second World War, British airman Peter Carter (David Niven) survives – by divine administrative error – what should have been a fatal leap from his downed Lancaster bomber, giving him time to meet and fall for an American radio operator (Kim Hunter) before Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), the angelic guide tasked with chaperoning Peter into the afterlife, comes calling.
Marked for death, Peter must make the case for his continuing existence on Earth before a heavenly court sceptical that love could blossom so quickly, and between two people from such apparently different walks of life. Prejudice casts a shadow over the beginning of the airman’s hearing, but with the film marshalled by two of cinema’s premier humanists, the viewer should expect no less than a reprieve.
12 Angry Men (1957)
Director Sidney Lumet
Director of no fewer than three courtroom dramas across a career spent exploring crime and punishment from every conceivable angle, Sidney Lumet would craft with his very first feature what would become a touchstone of the trial movie genre. With only seconds spent inside an actual courtroom, the bulk of 12 Angry Men’s action takes place inside an anonymous backroom, where Henry Fonda’s unassuming juror attempts to talk 11 others out of so casually sending an 18-year-old to the electric chair.
Made in a banner year for films about innocent men on trial (Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man were also released in 1957), 12 Angry Men represents the most perfect marriage of form and content. Lumet’s choices – no score and tight 385 camera set-ups Lumet himself considered to be flawless – match those of writer Reginald Rose, adapting his already lithe stage play for the screen. Pure, dense, brilliant.
Director Richard Fleischer
A courtroom drama in which the criminal and the crime are never in doubt, Compulsion first recounts in detail the undoing of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two wealthy and preternaturally gifted Chicago law students who in 1924 killed a schoolboy for intellectual sport. Once the pair, here lent the aliases Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell) and Artie Strauss (Bradford Dillman), land themselves in the dock through their own carelessness, it’s left to Orson Welles’ Clarence Darrow stand-in Jonathan Wilk to convince the judge – and the audience – that even people such as these should be spared the gallows.
The first chapter in Richard Fleischer’s unofficial trilogy condemning capital punishment – he would complete the cycle with 1968’s The Boston Strangler and 1971’s 10 Rillington Place, about their own grisly real-life murder cases – Compulsion makes the director’s most impassioned statement against the death penalty. Welles gives a masterclass in the art of courtroom acting as he delivers a closing 10-minute monologue on the horror and hypocrisy of state-sponsored eye-for-an-eye retribution.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Director Otto Preminger
With James Stewart cast against type as an ethically dubious defence attorney – one prepared to nudge his client, a US Army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) who killed a man for allegedly raping his wife, into submitting an insanity plea – Anatomy of a Murder prefers to keep such things as truth and morality ambiguous. What director Otto Preminger is really interested in is the workings of an American court, and in accurately portraying a trial in all its repetition, interrogatory blind alleys and halting, exacting procedure.
In a departure from the sometimes grave seriousness of the cinematic trial, levity is welcomed in Anatomy of a Murder’s courtroom, even as prosecution and defence engage in intellectual combat. Always professional, Stewart’s Biegler and George C. Scott’s prosecutor Claude Dancer establish a lightly antagonistic bonhomie, while the trial offers such delightfully absurd spectacles as the judge holding a sidebar to settle on a more formal term for ‘panties’. (“When I was overseas during the war I learned a French word, but I’m afraid that might be slightly suggestive,” offers Dancer. “Most French words are,” comes the judge’s reply.)
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Director Robert Mulligan
Not for nothing did the American Film Institute in 2003 name Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird’s thoroughly decent southern father and lawyer, its number one hero in 100 years of Hollywood cinema. Finch, as written by author Harper Lee and played in Robert Mulligan’s film adaptation by an Oscar-winning Gregory Peck, is the embodiment of core American values: tolerant, fair and a firm believer in – and, in this case, also an upholder of – the rules laid down by the state.
Set in segregated Alabama in the 1930s, To Kill a Mockingbird is part legal drama, part Twain-esque dust bowl coming-of-age story. Finch’s defence at trial of Tom Robinson, a black labourer accused of raping a white woman, is seen through the eyes of the lawyer’s two children, whose fantasy of shadowy neighbour Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) as some fairytale monster fades with their discovery of real-world barbarism.
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Director Robert Benton
In the opening scenes of Kramer vs. Kramer, Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) walks out on self-involved workaholic husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman) and their young son Billy (Justin Henry), leaving man and boy to learn how to care for one another in her absence; when she reappears in the second half of the film asking for custody, director Robert Benton shifts gear into bitter legal drama.
In a stark portrait of the potentially ugly legal consequences of breaking up a family, the two ex-partners’ characters and previously seemingly innocuous admissions – during a pre-trial reunion with Joanna, Ted takes responsibility for Billy falling and injuring himself in the playground – become fuel for their respective attorneys.
For an update on the American divorce, see also Noah Baumbach’s recent Marriage Story. Released 40 years apart from Kramer, the film stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, with Ray Liotta and Laura Dern as their bulldog lawyers airing long-held grievances in the hope someone will land the better separation deal.
The Verdict (1982)
Director Sidney Lumet
Where Sidney Lumet’s first courtroom piece, 12 Angry Men, taught the hard-won value of empathy and suggested the truth would eventually always out, his second, 1982’s The Verdict, takes a more cynical view. Here, even what appears to be an open and shut case, like the medical malpractice suit taken by washed-up Boston attorney Frank Galvin (Paul Newman, all charm even at a rumpled 57), can collapse with a series of unfavourable circumstances.
A star witness might go on vacation; the presiding judge who lands the case might have a habit of interrupting and undermining prosecutors; and the defence team, in this instance headed up by an oily James Mason, may be considerably better-resourced than the prosecution. With questionable tactics employed by both sides and everyone looking to make a buck, it’s not the law that Lumet has a problem with, but some of the people paid to interpret it.
Director Oliver Stone
Playing fast and loose with the facts, Oliver Stone’s paranoid magnum opus plays like a three-hour tumble down a YouTube rabbit hole into Cold War conspiracy and JFK assassination truther videos. As Jim Garrison, the real-life Louisiana District Attorney who in the late 60s investigated a number of tips regarding the ‘truth’ behind President Kennedy’s slaying, Kevin Costner leads a team of character actors down myriad alleyways of possibility in the search for who really killed 35 – and why.
On the stand are a gallery of all-stars including a manic, orange-hued Joe Pesci; a debonair Tommy Lee Jones; a mystery ex-military whistleblower played by Donald Sutherland and codenamed ‘X’; and a chillingly – or, perhaps, just unfortunately – blank Lee Harvey Oswald, with Gary Oldman playing Suspect Number 1 himself. The film’s court scene, in which Garrison puts America on trial, is Stone’s crowning achievement as a filmmaker, with all the evidence overwhelmingly laid out before us in a whiplash montage lasting some 30 minutes.
A Few Good Men (1992)
Director Rob Reiner
The trial film was given a blockbuster polish in the 90s. Films from Alan J. Pakula’s Presumed Innocent (1990) to Joel Schumacher’s A Time to Kill (1996) made a(n always male) matinee idol-type the hotshot lawyer, left him in over his head with a hot-button case and gave him an obligatory romantic sidekick for good measure.
1992’s quarter-billion-dollar-grossing A Few Good Men, written by Aaron Sorkin and starring Tom Cruise at his most cocksure, is the platonic ideal of the 90s trial movie. Featuring high-powered protagonists in the shape of Navy litigators Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Cruise) and Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore), an entertainingly fleet central mystery involving the accidental killing of a Marine and a neatly wrapped denouement, A Few Good Men is a veritable airport novel of a movie.
The characters’ propensity for talking in Sorkinese may prove prohibitive for some, but the rapid-fire dialogue at least makes perfect sense in the film’s climactic scene, in which Kaffee cross-examines Jack Nicholson’s imperious Colonel Jessup until the verbiage wears Jessup down into a full confession and an immortal Nicholson ad-lib.