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Lawyers in the Movies

C [Category A]

The Caine Mutiny
Call Northside 777
Cape Fear
A Civil Action
Class Action
The Client
Counsellor at Law
The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell
The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson
The Crucible
A Cry in the Dark

The Caine Mutiny (1954)

Directed by Edward Dmytryk, from the novel by Herman Wouk, this film is another great legal movie based on a military court martial.

Fred MacMurray plays a first officer aboard a minesweeper in World War II, the U.S.S. Caine. There is a mutiny during a typhoon when the ship's new captain shows signs of mental instability. Humphrey Bogart is unforgettable as Captain Queeg, especially during the climactic courtroom scene. Jose Ferrer plays a military defense lawyer. (Thanks to Professor Pedro A. Malavet, of the University of Florida, for correcting my plot errors and for reminding me to cross-reference this under the Minority Lawyers list!)

In 1988, Robert Altman directed a TV film, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, based only on the final chapters of Herman Wouk's novel, the court martial scenes. Originally staged as a play, this is the movie to see if you're interested in the legalities.

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Call Northside 777 (1948)

I'm unfamiliar with this film. The Internet Movie Database states: "Directed by Henry Hathaway. Featuring James Stewart, Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb, Helen Walker. This documentary-style drama is based on a true story of a newspaper reporter who is assigned to investigate a murder case. He uncovers evidence indicating that the convicted man is innocent and convinces the governor to hold a hearing."

Again, reporters do what lawyers sometimes do not: investigate the facts, rather than look for legal technicalities.

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Cape Fear (1962) (1991)

Based on a novel by John D. MacDonald, this is a film of justice delayed, justice denied, and the undying need for revenge. A recently-released convict terrorizes the attorney who defended him, allegedly because the lawyer hid evidence of innocence. I haven't seen this movie (hey, I worked as a public defender - you think I'd ever see this movie?) The 1962 version starred Gregory Peck as the lawyer (he turned down the part of the convict) and Robert Mitchum as the convict; the latter plays a lieutenant in the 1991 Martin Scorsese remake, which stars Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange.

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Chicago (2002)

Directed by Rob Marshall, this dark, magnificent musical, set in Chicago in the 1920s, shows the underside of the law and of the press, and the ease with which attractive, unscrupulous women can exploit these weaknesses to triumph. I saw the stage show in New York, and actually prefer the movie, which is livelier and boldly acted. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger star as two women who murdered their husbands, and who expertly manipulate the press and the law to win the public's sympathy. Richard Gere is a superb, hardened defense attorney, and he does all his own singing and dancing --- he took tap dancing lessons for three months. The role was offered several times to John Travolta, but Gere is wonderful.

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Class Action (1990)

This is a solid legal drama that features a young attorney, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, facing off against her father, played by Gene Hackman. It deals with their ideological differences (she's a conservative corporate lawyer; he's a liberal idealist) as well as their family strains. It's an enjoyable film loosely based on the Ford Pinto case. Good for teaching mass tort actions, and discovery problems (a hidden memo, or in these times, e-mail, conveniently lays out the entire case). Directed by Michael Apted, the strong cast includes Gene Hackman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Colin Friels, Joanna Merlin, and Laurence Fishburne.

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The Client (1994)

Directed by Joel Schumacher, this movie, based on the best-selling novel by John Grisham, features a stellar cast and a weak script. The story focuses on a young boy who seeks legal assistance after witnessing the suicide of a lawyer, who discloses the location of the corpse of a dead senator. The FBI comes after the young boy, trying to find out what he knows, and we're supposed to believe that somehow hiding the information from the FBI is a good, or debatable, thing to do. The cast, featuring Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones, Mary-Louise Parker, Anthony LaPaglia, and Anthony Edwards, is always worth watching, but they've all appeared in better films.

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Compulsion (1959)

Based on the gruesome, true story of the notorious 1924 Leopold-Loeb murder case, the film focuses on the trial of two law students who murder a boy, just to see if they can get away with it. Their defense lawyer, (Clarence Darrow in real life, played here by Orson Welles) puts capital punishment on trial to try to save his clients from a death sentence. Directed by Richard Fleischer, based on the novel and play by Meyer Levin, the second half of the movie is based largely on Darrow's actual courtroom arguments.

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Counsellor at Law (1933)

This movie, directed by William Wyler and based on a play by Elmer Rice, is the story of a powerful Jewish lawyer, played by John Barrymore, who steals from wealthy clients to help struggling clients who come from his own, lower-class background. He eventually faces disbarment proceedings. I haven't seen this film, which sounds excellent, especially since the legal secretary is critical to trying to save her boss's reputation. How wonderful that there's a film giving legal secretaries their due!

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The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955)

Directed by Otto Preminger, this is the true story of General Billy Mitchell, who spoke out against the poor equipment and lack of funding of the nascent air force after the first World War. (Despite their performance in the war, airplanes were regarded as little more than expensive carnival attractions). General Mitchell (played by Gary Cooper) was court-martialed after questioning the loyalty of his superiors for allowing the air corps to deteriorate. I have not seen this film, but it sounds wonderful, as so many military justice movies are, since it focuses on the need for people to speak up, even when they will be punished for doing so, and the difficulty of our hierarchical institutions to change. Apparently the trial brought many issues to light that needed some sunlight. The strong cast includes Charles Bickford, Ralph Bellamy, Rod Steiger, and Elizabeth Montgomery.

(Note to fellow Gary Cooper fans: remember our guy is playing a man who is up against fierce, zealous prosecutors who believe they are defending the rules without which the military cannot function. It's OK if the prosecutor blows Cooper off the screen, dramatically speaking, as Rod Steiger reportedly does, since that's probably what the director wanted.)

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The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson (1990) (TV)

Directed by Larry Peerce, this made-for-TV movie focuses on a little-known, true incident in the life of Jackie Robinson, known to most Americans as the great black player who integrated baseball and transformed many Americans' attitudes towards race in the process. I have not seen this movie, but a review at the Internet Movie Database states, "While a four-sport star at UCLA (baseball, football, basketball, and track), Robinson was drafted into the U.S. Army to serve during WWII. ...With the help of an influential fellow soldier, Joe Louis, Robinson became an officer over the objections of the white power structure at Camp Riley (now Ft. Riley), Kansas. He then fought to get equal PX privileges for black soldiers. Branded a troublemaker and sent to Camp Hood (now Ft. Hood), Texas, he was court-martialed on trumped-up charges of insubordination after refusing the order of a civilian bus driver to sit at the back of an Army bus." Starring Andre Braugher as Jackie Robinson, Ruby Dee as Jackie's mother, Stan Shaw as Joe Louis, Kasi Lemmons as Jackie's future wife, Rachel, and featuring Daniel Stern, Bruce Dern as a bigoted baseball scout, J. A. Preston as the narrator and sportswriter Wendell Smith, and Steven Williams as Satchel Paige.

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The Crucible (1996)

Arthur Miller's drama of the 17th century Salem witch trials is so indestructible that it is regularly performed by high schools, where students who are all the wrong ages for the parts speak olde English and art transformed in the process. On one level, after all, the play deals with the difficulty of one person standing against the crowd, and watching love turn to betrayal and pain, and if anyone understands that, it's high school students. I was dreading the film, but perhaps because Miller himself wrote the screenplay, it is faithful to the play and quite worth seeing. The witch trials, which many say evoke the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, show how a legal system can reward those who lie when the prosecution knows what it wants to hear. (Many of those who accept plea bargains in exchange for their false testimony provide evidence of this even today.) But, more encouragingly, the story shows that people, ordinary people, can stand up to a court, and eventually challenge its authority and overthrow it. Since our courts ultimately rest on the idea that their investigations are honest and their prosecutions conducted to protect and benefit the public, the witch trials must be studied (Miller went back to the court transcripts) to see what really tipped public opinion. When the public's faith in the court's justice crumbles, so does the court. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, the perfect cast includes Daniel Day-Lewis as John Proctor, Winona Ryder as Abigail Williams, Paul Scofield as Judge Danforth, Joan Allen as Elizabeth Proctor, and Bruce Davison as Reverend Parris.

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