Cross-examining Classic Courtroom Dramas

Search for "classic courtroom dramas" and the movie topping most lists would probably be To Kill a Mockingbird. And rightly so, for that film may well be the quintessential example of the genre, with its dramatic courthouse scenes, quest for justice, great acting, and a surprise twist or two.

Also high on the list in this category is 12 Angry Men. Even though the drama takes place in the jury room instead of the courtroom, it's still drama in a judicial setting with an unfolding case, interesting evidence, and a thought-provoking look at the prejudices brought into a supposedly impartial system.

Whether it's our inherent longing to see justice done or the curiosity that keeps us hooked as the mysteries of a case are revealed, the interest in courtroom dramas continues today. (Just look at the long-standing success of the Law & Order franchise.) There have been several good movies in the genre done in more recent years, but I'd like to take a moment to make a case (sorry, I couldn't help myself) for revisiting classic movies in this category.

So, like Rod Serling standing in front of your jury box, I present for your consideration exhibits A, B, and C: three movies worthy of a look for lovers of courtroom drama everywhere.

Boomerang! (Ah, my old friend exclamation point in title appears again!)

When a beloved priest is killed in a small town, the growing public outrage and political concerns put a lot of pressure on the authorities to make an arrest. This leads to the police throwing the idea of motive out the window and instead chasing down every man wearing a dark coat and light hat (the hazy description of the murderer). Will circumstantial evidence and a forced confession be the downfall of an innocent man?

Based on a true story, this Elia Kazan movie is very interested in authenticity. We are told at the beginning that all the interior and exterior scenes were filmed in the original locales, and as many actual characters as possible were used. As I watched some of the townspeople act, I was ready to believe that they were the authentic originals, too. Which is not to say that all the acting in the movie is bad; on the contrary, the movie includes some great actors: Lee J. Cobb, a young Karl Malden, and the always lovable Dana Andrews, who is especially sweet and believable in the scenes with his onscreen wife.

There's another great bit with Dana, who plays the state's attorney. In the middle of a conversation with the frustrated chief of police, he picks up a little puzzle from the chief's desk, calmly solving it in seconds. It's only a brief moment, but it's reminiscent of Dana's character in Laura playing with a similar small puzzle. The message conveyed is much the same; here's a man patient and intelligent enough to untangle the mess and solve the case.

The movie's authenticity breaks down a bit in the courtroom scenes (I can't see a case progressing in court the way this one did) but any shortcuts taken are forgivable in view of the high drama created, particularly in one tense scene involving a loaded gun.

The Verdict: This movie is best for all those idealists who care about seeing justice done. And Dana Andrews fans.

Witness for the Prosecution

Charles Laughton plays a barrister whose ill health won't prevent him from taking on a case (or smoking, or drinking). His client, played by Tyrone Power, is a man accused of murder. Although his wife (Marlene Dietrich) gives him an alibi, in one of many twists in the film, she ends up testifying as the titular witness for the prosecution.

Laughton is great, sparring with his nurse and using his monocle as an interrogation tool. Dietrich is pretty intense, which is especially interesting in the flashback scene of how she met her husband while singing in a club in Germany. Somehow she manages to make the lyric "I may never go home anymore" sound like more of a threat than a come on, even if she is promising kisses and kisses galore.

With Billy Wilder directing these stars and Agatha Christie writing the play the movie was based on, it seems impossible to go wrong with this one. Although I've always preferred Ellery Queen to Agatha Christie, (I like having all the information and trying to guess the ending for myself instead of being surprised by shocking revelations and unforeseen events) the twists here really make the movie. I can't say much more about it without giving anything away, and the movie itself has asked me not to divulge the secret of the ending for the greater entertainment of my friends. I leave it to you to see for yourself.

The Verdict: Great for those who enjoy a liberal helping of mystery in their courtroom dramas, with nice bits of light comedy and twists a-plenty to spice things up.

Anatomy of a Murder

In this movie, there is no question of whether the accused is innocent or guilty. We know from the start that Lt. Manion killed the man he accuses of raping his wife. The questions at hand are if he was justified in his actions, and if he will go free or be convicted of his crime.

Jimmy Stewart is wonderful as always, although he's playing a slightly different role here as a lawyer with some questionable ethics. The beautiful Lee Remick is completely believable as the alluring wife of the lieutenant. George C. Scott enters late in the game and steals the limelight as one slick prosecutor. Eve Arden also has a small part as a secretary whose wit is similar to her well-known radio character, Miss Brooks.

Another nice touch in the movie is the jazzy score by Duke Ellington throughout. (One of my pet peeves is otherwise excellent movies with terrible music, like the ones that force the title into a theme song to open things. Can you imagine a song called "Anatomy of a Murder"? Yikes.)

There's also an interesting bit with some discussion over what to call a woman's undergarment. While probably shocking at the time, this whole case would now be pretty tame by Law & Order standards.

The Verdict: This fascinating look at the limits and loopholes of the justice system (with wonderful acting and music) is a real winner.

Addendum: I'm a little late in posting this as Boomerang! was just shown on TCM this morning. When I started writing this post, the movie was available on Hulu, but it seems to have been removed since. (It is available at Classicflix.)

Anatomy of a Murder and Witness for the Prosecution will both be showing on TCM this Wednesday, February 18th. Watch them back to back and examine the evidence for yourself before passing judgment on these classic courtroom dramas.


David Bishop said...

I don't know that it counts, but I've always enjoyed the courtroom segments in Miracle on 34th Street (both versions).

R. D. Finch said...

Wendy, three great picks for courtroom movies that deserve another look. I found "Boomerang" a bit dated and unsubtle, but you certainly covered its strengths. I was also impressed by the always-reliable Arthur Kennedy as the accused man and especially Cara Williams as his tawdry girlfriend. Her insolence on the witness stand was quite unforgettable.

"Anatomy" is a great movie--maybe my favorite of all courtroom movies--and my favorite of all James Stewart's many great performances. I also think that Arthur O'Connell as his fishing buddy/investigator is worth mentioning, as is the great location atmosphere of Marquette, MI, where it was filmed.

I wonder if anyone saw the TV version of "Witness" a number of years ago. It had a memorable cast: Ralph Richardson, Deborah Kerr (in the Elsa Lanchester role), and Diana Rigg (in the Marlene Dietrich role). But the movie was clearly better, and I can't help thinking it was due to Wilder. People usually don't think of Wilder as a director of film versions of plays, but he seems to have gone through a period in the mid-50"s when he did several good ones, including "The Seven-Year Itch," "Sabrina," and this one.

Vanessa said...

So, I've just written a post about the Ally McBeal series...lots of courtrooms there... ;)

I was quite moved by the Payton Place courtroom scene (although since I read the book as well, I am not really sure if it is as moving in the film). But the whole story is sort of like a courtroom situation. The entire village is constantly being judged.

Livius said...

Good choices. I also have a fondness for Compulsion (the final speech by Welles is tremendous stuff), Town Without Pity, and Judgement at Nuremberg.

Wendymoon said...

Thanks all for adding to the list!

I also love the courtroom scenes in Adam's Rib, but that is definitely comedy and not drama.

Anagramsci said...

hard to argue with these (although I'm not sure that I'll ever be able to get the saccharine tones of "Anatomy of a Murder" by Pat Boone out of my head, thanks a lot!)

my three picks would be more obscure (although all do show on TCM--and can easily be tracked down on ebay or in avi form)

They Won't Forget (1937) -- one of the most scathing indictments of purely political prosecution ever filmed... I really don't know why it's not on DVD

They Won't Believe Me (1947) -- a pitch-black noir with a truly shocking courtroom climax

Three Strangers (1946) -- another amazing noirish melodrama--this one doesn't have many scenes in the courtroom, but it does feature a truly remarkable cross-examination scene, conducted by Arthur Shields...

oh! and then of course there's Ida Lupino on the stand in They Drive By Night (1940)!


Clara Mathews said...

I love To Kill A Mockingbird. It started my life long love of Gregory Peck. He was the perfect Atticus Finch.

John said...

just found your site. here's a couple of others that can be added.

Inherit the Wind - Tracy vs March
Adam's Rib - Tracy vs Hepburn

As for my favorites I would go with To Kill A Mockingbird and Anatomy of a Murder.

Rahul B said...

Another very nice courtroom drama movie is "A few good men"..which is characterized by nice arguments in court and very good acting and dialogues..Out of the movies that you have mentioned, i have seen "To kill a mocking bird", "12 Angry Men", "Witness for the Prosecution", "Anatomy of a great murder".., 12 Angry men definitely topping that list, followed by "Witness for the Prosecution" and "A few good men"..

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