I’ll make my case for some of filmdom’s best courtroom scenes — here’s the evidence

With the U.S. Supreme Court ready to start its new term on Monday, it seems a perfect time for a non-juried review of some of filmdom’s best courtroom scenes and judicial movies.

I ask a unanimous verdict — and maybe a round of applause — for the likes of some very powerful films (plus several “misdemeanor” examples of comic relief):

Three Spencer Tracy classics
Mr. Tracy is at ease in everything from romantic comedy to high drama:

“Adam’s Rib,” a charming romantic comedy with, of course, Katharine Hepburn. Exhibit A.

“Judgment at Nuremberg,” the famed war-crimes drama. Exhibit B.

“Inherit the Wind,” Tracy’s fictionalized take on Clarence Darrow at the Scopes “monkey trial” features an emotional battle over the teaching of evolution. A masterpiece worthy of two film clips. Exhibit C-1.

And the even-more-powerful Exhibit C-2.

Three powerful military courts-martial
In order, by the film’s release date, we have:

“The Caine Mutiny,” one of many Humphrey Bogart tours de force — with another fine performance by Fred MacMurray as a classic film “cad.” Exhibit D.

“Breaker Morant,”  a Boer War tale of three Australian lieutenants made scapegoats to protect their superiors. Exhibit E.

“A Few Good Men,” the famed Jack Nicholson-Tom Cruise showdown. Exhibit F.

Three lighter courtroom confrontations

“What’s Up, Doc?” a throwback “screwball comedy” with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal and one very eccentric judge. Exhibit G.

“My Cousin Vinny,”  the captivating story of an inexperienced lawyer who “helps out” a family member in big legal trouble. (I had forgotten how much fun this film is.) Exhibit H.

“First Monday in October,” the 1981 Walter Matthau-Jill Clayburgh comedic look at the high court’s chemistry when the first woman joins the U.S. Supreme Court. Exhibit I.

Six more courtroom cases

“Anatomy of a Murder,” the racy (for its time) Jimmy Stewart drama with the role of the judge played by famed attorney Joseph N. Welch of the Army-McCarthy hearings known for his famous “Have you no sense of decency” speech. Exhibit J.

“The Fountainhead,” Gary Cooper’s intense embodiment of Ayn Rand’s philosophy highlighted in his courtroom speech. Exhibit K.

“Miracle on 34th Street,” the Christmas classic with John Payne defending a very unusual client, Santa Claus. The movie’s unique 5-minute trailer is Exhibit L.

“To Kill a Mockingbird,” just about everybody’s favorite and rated No. 1 on the American Film Institute’s list of Top 10 Courtroom Dramas. Exhibit M.

“The Verdict,” a Paul Newman triumph. Exhibit N.

“Witness for the Prosecution,” director Billy Wilder’s take on the surprise-filled Agatha Christie tale, with an equally intriguing film trailer (Exhibit O).

Closing arguments: two ‘non-courtroom’ classics

“12 Angry Men,” featuring Henry Fonda and a remarkable ensemble cast outside the courtroom in a two-hour battle of wills in a claustrophobic jury room. Exhibit P.

“Scent of a Woman,” Al Pacino’s 1992 Oscar-winning role and his impassioned defense of a student who won’t “snitch” or compromise his values. Exhibit Q.

I rest my case.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Norman Larson on 10/01/2010 - 12:06 pm.

    Don, did you take Fr. Whalen’s Critical Writing class? He liked “12 Angry Man” and every year showed it to the students for them to write a review.

  2. Submitted by Hal Sanders on 10/01/2010 - 12:11 pm.

    I really enjoyed this piece. I found myself agreeing with most of the choices. “12 Angry Men” would be at or near the top of my all-time favorite films.

  3. Submitted by William Levin on 10/01/2010 - 02:27 pm.

    I like the list and the fact that you have referred to “12 Angry Men” by its original name. I thought it was very humorous politically correct revisionism that led a White Bear Lake neighborhood theater group to present a production of it last year under the sanitized name “12 Angry Jurors.”

  4. Submitted by Jane Cracraft on 10/01/2010 - 11:41 pm.

    Oh, well, if you are going to include outside the courtroom, I really enjoyed Michael Clayton.

  5. Submitted by Peter Nickitas on 10/03/2010 - 10:16 pm.


    You forgot Al Pacino in “And Justice for All” — “This court is out of order!”

    You should also include The Three Stooges in “Disorder in the Court” — especially the scene with the bailiff trying to swear in Curly.

    And if you are including non-court tribunals, you should include the Senate hearing room scene from “Godfather Part II”.

  6. Submitted by Don Effenberger on 10/06/2010 - 12:53 pm.

    (1) Yes, I did take Father Whalen’s Critical Writing course many years ago. He also introduced us to the great Olivia de Havilland-Montgomery Clift movie “The Heiress.”

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