Top Ten Attorney Movies

(I originally posted this on The American Catholic.  This is rather off topic for Almost Chosen People, but I think our readers might enjoy it.)

Glenn Reynolds, the Instapundit, has asked for thoughts about movies featuring attorneys.  Faithful readers of this blog know that I have no hesitation about highlighting the less attractive aspects of my profession, for example here and here.  However, I would be less than candid if I did not admit that there are rather amusing or exciting aspects to being an attorney, and many of those occur in court.   Film reflects this, although it does not reflect the majority of an attorney’s work which is often congealed tedium.

10.  My Cousin Vinnie (1992)-One of the funniest movies I have ever seen, and hands down the funniest movie about a trial.  Joe Pesci is unforgettable as a fledgling litigator, a true diamond in the rough.  The late Fred Gwynne as the strict judge is very true to life.  (I suspect all attorneys who appear in courts encounter a judge as portrayed in the film sooner or later.)

9.     The Verdict (1982)-Paul Newman is unbelievably good as a burned out alcoholic attorney who gives everything he has to win a personal injury case. 

8.      A Few Good Men (1992)-The court martial is fairly unrealistic, but no list of films about attorneys would be complete without the cross-examination featured in the above video clip.

7.      Witness for the Prosecution (1957)-Charles Laughton steals every scene he is in as an aging barrister at the top of his game.  Besides, I really appreciate the comments about the British National Health Care system in the video clip!

6.        Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)-

Very loosely based on the Justice Trials of Nazi judges and Reich Ministry of Justice officialsJudgment at Nuremberg (1961) is a masterful exploration of justice and the personal responsibility of good men trapped in a totalitarian state.  Burt Lancaster, an actor of the first calibre, gives the performance of his career as Ernst Janning.  The early portion of the movie makes clear that Ernst Janning is in many ways a good man.  Before the Nazis came to power Janning was a world respected German jurist.  After the Nazis came to power evidence is brought forward by his defense counsel that Janning attempted to help people persecuted by the Nazis, and that he even personally insulted Hitler on one occasion.  Janning obviously despises the Nazis and the other judges who are on trial with him.  At his trial he refuses to say a word in his defense.  He only testifies after being appalled by the tactics of his defense counsel.  His magnificent and unsparing testimony convicts him and all the other Germans who were good men and women, who knew better, and who failed to speak out or to act against the Nazis.  Janning’s testimony tells us that sins of omission can be as damning as sins of commission.  When he reveals that he sentenced a man to death he knew to be innocent, we can only agree with his bleak assessment that he reduced his life to excrement.  Yet we have to respect Janning.  It is a rare man who can so publicly take responsibility for his own evil acts.

Yet even this  respect is taken away from Janning in the final scene of the film where he attempts to justify himself to Judge Haywood, superbly portrayed by Spencer Tracy, by saying that he never believed that it would all come to the millions of  dead in the concentration camps.  Judge Haywood delivers his verdict on this attempt by Janning to save some shred of self-respect:  “Herr Janning, it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”

5.         Amistad (1997)-The closing argument in the Amistad case by John Quincy Adams as represented in the movie Amistad.  This is a greatly condensed version of course, as Adams spoke for eight and a half hours, not unusual for legal proceedings of that day. 

The text of Adams’ argument may be read here.  The case involved the successful mutiny of slaves on board the Spanish ship Amistad.  The mutiny occurred on July 2, 1839.  The slaves killed the members of the crew except for two crewmen who were promised their lives if they would return the Africans to their home in Africa.  Instead, the crewmen steered the unsuspecting slaves to America, where they were taken into custody half a mile off eastern Long Island on March 26, 1839.

The case quickly became a cause celebre, with abolitionists filing a petition  in federal court in Connecticut to have the slaves freed and returned to Africa.  Pro-slavery forces in response rallied around the Spanish government which filed a petition for return of the slaves.  The abolitionists argued that Spain had signed a treaty with Great Britain in 1817 to abolish the Atlantic slave trade and that therefore the Africans could not be slaves, but were rather victims of kidnapping.  In January 1840, the District Court agreed. President Martin Van Buren, who did not want to anger slave holding sentiment in the Democrat party, ordered the US Attorney for Connecticut to appeal.  The District Court’s judgment was affirmed in April 1840.

The US Attorney appealed to the US Supreme Court.  Oral argument occurred between February 23, 1841- March 1, 1841.  On March 9, 1841 the Supreme Court, with one dissent, affirmed the opinion of the District Court that the Africans were victims of kidnap and ordered that they be freed immediately.

4.         Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)-Henry Fonda is mesmerizing as a young Lincoln taking on his first big case.  The court room scenes in the film were very true to the period.  Judges in Lincoln’s day did not wear black robes, a feature accurately depicted in the film, and common sense and quick wits were of much more use in court than an encyclopedic knowledge of the law. 

3.          To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)-Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, taking on with unforgettable ability the doomed defense of a black man accused of rape in  Depression Era Alabama.

 2.          Anatomy of a Murder (1959)-Jimmy Stewart and George C. Scott go head to head in this riveting murder trial.  One of the more accurate depictions of a trial on film.  The judge in the film was not a professional actor, but an attorney, Joseph Welch who became an early television star in the Army-McCarthy hearings.

1.            A Man for All Seasons (1966)-A saint and a brilliant attorney.  What an odd combination!  A Man for All Seasons reminds us that a brilliant mind is only of real use to humanity if it is guided by a moral heart.

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Published in: on July 12, 2010 at 5:47 am  Comments (2)  
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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for a real treasure trove.

    My favorite would have to be “Judgment at Nuremberg” esp. Maxamillian Schell’s role as the defense atty.

    Btw, Schell directed and starred a quite strange trial movie, “The Man in the Glass Booth”, not on a par with any you picked but worth seeing.

  2. I have long admired Schell’s work TC. In Nuremberg he is a highly skilled defense attorney who fails to understand, as his client, Herr Janning does, the magnitude of evil that occurred in Germany during the War. Ironically Schell played Janning in a 2000 revival of the play. His family emigrated from Austria to Switzerland in 1938, when Schell was eight, which indicates to me that his parents probably had no love for the Third Reich.


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