The courtroom drama has long been a staple film genre. In this season we present six of the best examples of the form, all from Hollywood and the period 1957-67, variously based on novels, plays or real-world cases. The films will be introduced by Guild member Jillian Martin-Brown, who will give her perspective as a lawyer on how accurately or otherwise the films reflect the courtroom situation. Jillian will also lead a post-film discussion.
12 Angry Men
Sidney Lumet | USA | 1957 | 96 minutes
The defense and the prosecution have rested and the jury is filing into the jury room to decide if a young Spanish-American is guilty or innocent of murdering his father. What begins as an open and shut case of murder soon becomes a mini-drama of each of the jurors’ prejudices and preconceptions about the trial, the accused, and each other. Based on the play, all of the action takes place on the stage of the jury room.
Richard Fleischer | USA | 1959 | 103 minutes
Obviously inspired by the Leopold and Loeb case, with the perpetrators’ names changed. In 1924 Chicago, Artie Strauss (Bradford Dilman) and Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell) are friends and fellow law students who both come from wealthy backgrounds. They have few true friends as they believe all their contemporaries are intellectually inferior. Within their relationship, Artie is the dominant and Judd the submissive who says he will do whatever Artie tells him. Although Judd acts intellectually arrogant to others, he also shows signs of weakness and reticence most evident to Artie. Part of their goal in life is to experience how it feels to do everything. As such, they plot to commit what they consider the perfect crime – a kidnapping and murder – not only so that they can experience the sense of killing for killing’s sake, but also taunt the law with the knowledge of it and their superiority after the fact. They believe their crime is above the law. Their murder of young Paulie Kessler is not so perfect, with evidence at the scene uncovered by one of their law school colleagues…
Anatomy of a Murder
Otto Preminger | USA | 1959 | 160 minutes
Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), a lieutenant in the army, is arrested for the murder of a bartender, Barney Quill. He claims, in his defense, that the victim had raped and beaten up his wife Laura (Lee Remick). Although Laura supports her husband’s story, the police surgeon can find no evidence that she has been raped. Manion is defended by Paul Biegler (James Stewart), a rather humble small-town lawyer. During the course of interviews, Biegler discovers that Manion is violently possessive and jealous, and also that his wife has a reputation for giving her favors to other men. Biegler realizes that the prosecution will try to make the court believe that Laura was the lover of the bartender and than Manion killed him and beat her up when he discovered them together. Manion pleads “not guilty” and Biegler, who knows that his case is weak, sets his assistants to try to find a witness who will save Manion.
Inherit the Wind
Stanley Kramer | USA | 1960 | 128 minutes
Teacher B.T. Cates (Dick York) is arrested for teaching Darwin’s theories. Famous lawyer Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) defends him; fundamentalist politician Matthew Brady (Fredric March) prosecutes. This is a very thinly disguised rendition of the 1925 Scopes monkey trial, with debates between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan taken largely from the transcripts.
Incredible to think that over half a century on from this film several US states seeming to be regressing, in the rise of so-called ‘creation science’ and attempts to have it presented as an equally valid theory as evolution.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Robert Mulligan | USA | 1962 | 129 minutes
Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is a lawyer in a racially divided Alabama town in the 1930s. He agrees to defend a young black man who is accused of raping a white woman. Many of the townspeople try to get Atticus to pull out of the trial, but he decides to go ahead. How will the trial turn out – and will it change any of the racial tension in the town? Based on Harper Lee’s 1961 Pulitzer Prize winner.
In Cold Blood
Richard Brooks | USA | 1967 | 143 minutes
Two young men (Robert Blake and Scott Wilson) are ineffectual individually, but when together become violent criminals. They break into a wealthy farmer’s home only to find that there is nearly no money at the home and murder the entire family to avoid identification. The first part of the film details the search for them, the second, their trial and execution. Taken from the actual events, as chronicled by Truman Capote in his book of the same name.