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Lawyers in the Movies

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Films Where a Lawyer or a Legal Process Is Incidental to the Plot [Category B]

A Christmas Carol
Absence of Malice
All of Me
All the President's Men
And the Band Played On
Anne of the Thousand Days
Bridget Jones's Diary
Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason
Captain Blood
Carlito's Way
Les Choristes (The Chorus,
or The Choir)
Cry, the Beloved Country
Eight Men Out
Enchanted April
Flight of the Intruder
Great Expectations

Green Card
Jesus Christ Superstar
Jurassic Park
Lemony Snicket's A Series of
Unfortunate Events
Lord Jim
The Merchant of Venice
The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc
Miracle on 34th Street
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
O Lucky Man
The Scarlet Letter
Shall We Dance
Something to Talk About
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

A Christmas Carol (1951) (plus remakes and pirated copies so numerous that even Charles Dickens complained about it not long after his story was first published in 1843. He needed all the royalties, since he wrote this tale to get out of debt)

I always assumed that Ebenezer Scrooge was a lawyer, of the London firm of Scrooge and Marley. Scrooge was cheap and wanted his associates to work on Christmas --- so of course he had to be a lawyer! But a careful reading of the text does not support this decisively. During a conversation at a law office about this question - on Christmas Day, appropriately enough - I learned that in England, the name of a law firm cannot bear the name of a deceased person, and the name of Scrooge's firm was Scrooge and Marley. As Marley was dead as a doornail - we learn this early on - perhaps Scrooge was just a generic miserly businessman. Well, Scrooge was Marley's "sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner," which is enough law to include the film in this section. I think some of the miserly aspects of Scrooge's establishment are echoed in many law firms today, though they are better heated. I have been in elevators where people boasted about working on major holidays, to show how important they were, or to manifest their loyalty to the firm (or lack of time management). Almost any Dickens work contains fascinating insights on lawyers and the law.

Most people in the English-speaking world have seen A Christmas Carol on screen every which way but upside down, but the film is best known to Americans through the 1951 version, starring Alastair Sim, who is a magnificent actor playing a very believable Scrooge. Michael Caine is also a great Scrooge in the The Muppet Christmas Carol, and Patrick Stewart starred in a 1999 version. The musical versions get better and better. Many legal-themed pieces have been inspired by A Christmas Carol, including a Scrooge on trial, defended by Tiny Tim. Estate lawyers have a field day imagining Scrooge's will. A Christmas Carol is a gift that keeps on giving.

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Absence of Malice (1981)

This is another movie about the intersection of law and the media --- in this case, a reporter and a prosecutor's investigation of a murder. Frustrated by lack of progress in a case, a prosecutor leaks false information to a reporter (Sally Field), telling her that the main suspect in the investigation is a small businessman (Paul Newman), who is the son of a Mafia boss. Newman opens the newspaper and sees his life ruined. There is no way to clear his name ­-- he has no information for the prosecutor with which to bargain. The reporter is in the clear because she can hide under the "I didn't mean any harm" defense, or the Absence of Malice rule, that governs libel cases.

According to the Internet Movie Database, the protagonist of this film was based on the son of a reputed gangster in Detroit, and an article by newspaperman Kurt Leudtke. The alleged gangster was tried and convicted. At his retrial, potential jurors were asked if they had seen this movie to determine if they would be prejudiced in their evaluation of the evidence. They convicted. Paul Newman told Rolling Stone Magazine in 1983 that the film concerned an irresponsible journalist and was an attack on the New York Post, a tabloid. "I could have sued the Post, but it's awfully hard to sue a garbage can," Newman said. To this day, apparently, Paul Newman is never mentioned in the New York Post, so this is, I bet, a powerful movie that accomplished what Newman intended.

However, the interesting aspect of this and similar films is the focus on the role that responsible journalists can play in searching out the truth. Many law schools teach library research skills, but few teach how to combine those skills with investigative know-how that can be useful in clearing a client.

Actually, students, freed from the pressures of the billable hour, frequently do more to exonerate the innocent than lawyers do. "Those outside the justice system have accounted for the vast majority of the 85 death row inmates exonerated nationally since 1974, with students increasingly involved in those actions," according to Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, in an interview with the online magazine Salon, at http://archive.salon.com/books/it/2000/03/01/deathpenalty.

ADDENDUM: I just rented Absence of Malice because I thought anything starring Paul Newman and Sally Field, and directed by Sydney Pollack, had to be worthwhile. I was disappointed. The plot hinges on a newspaper publishing a private medical fact which no newspaper would do absent explicit, probably written, consent of the individual involved. The closest we've come is when the New York Times published the name of the woman who accused a member of the Kennedy family of raping her. The Times was severely criticized for violating its own policy of not naming rape victims. In the movie, no one seemed to question the newspaper's judgment --- you don't even see the editors discussing the issue. The lawyer for the paper is a turd. I couldn't believe this aspect of the plot, and the ending of the movie left me unsatisfied as well.  

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All of Me (1984)

I have not seen this movie. The Internet Movie Database reports that it involves a dying millionaire who requests that her soul be transferred into a younger woman. "But something goes wrong, and she finds herself in her lawyer's body --- together with the lawyer." Ah, yes, I think this happened to me, which is why I no longer practice law. Directed by Carl Reiner, the film stars Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin.

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All the President's Men (1976)

This movie, based of course on the Watergate scandal that culminated in Richard Nixon's resignation, began with an ordinary court case: the arraignment of the men who broke into the Democratic Party national headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. The film traces how two Washington Post reporters track the criminals back to the head criminal in the White House. Among the many things this film does well is to show how frightened people can be to tell the truth, when they know that the truth can be damaging to those higher up, and when they know that speaking out, even anonymously, could cost them their jobs. It makes you admire not the reporters so much (though the Washington Post has been resting on these laurels for decades), but on the decent, ordinary people who spoke to the reporters. The hero of the story in real life was the White House counsel, John Dean.

Directed by Alan J. Pakula, based on the book of the same name by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the screenplay was skillfully written by William Goldman. In addition to Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, who play Bernstein and Woodward, respectively, Hal Holbrook is wonderful as Deep Throat, as is Jason Robards, playing editor Ben Bradlee.

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And the Band Played On (1993) (TV)

Based on the book of the same name by Randy Shilts, this movie recounts the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Most of the film focuses on the political infighting of the scientific community, which hampered some of the early efforts to fight the disease, but there are many lawyers and apparently an administrative rules review hearing, according to John Perkins, Reference Services Librarian at the Mercer University School of Law who shows a clip of the film to his Advanced Legal Research class. (He says he also shows a subsequent scene where it takes a big money torts suit to get the blood banks to co-operate with the Center for Disease Control. Good. Might as well give the students a dose of reality in the ivory tower). Directed by Roger Spottiswoode, it is important to see a film like this to remember what it was like when politicians, including President Ronald Reagan, refused to say the word, "AIDS," and how many people, especially lawyers, it took to get insurance companies, hospitals, blood banks and others to confront the disease responsibly. An impressive cast includes Matthew Modine, Alan Alda, Nathalie Baye, Phil Collins, Richard Gere, Ian McKellen, B.D. Wong, Lily Tomlin and Angelica Huston. Memorable line, spoken by a patient, Roger Lyon: "I came here today in the hope that my epitaph would not read that I died of red tape."

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Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)

Directed by Charles Jarrott, based on the play by Maxwell Anderson, this film delves first into the love, but then into the legal dilemma of King Henry VIII (Richard Burton) and Anne Boleyn (Geneviève Bujold), who wish to marry in a place and at a time when divorce was forbidden. The appearance of Queen Katherine (Irene Papas) during the divorce proceedings defines "dramatic," as does Anne's fight with Cardinal Wolsey (Anthony Quayle) over power and succession to the throne. This film is a masterpiece that earned ten Oscar nominations.

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Antigone (1974 and 1984) (TV)

Don't sue. I know there are no lawyers in Antigone. But you could say that Antigone argues pro se to defend her right to bury her brother, Polynices. King Creon decrees that Polynices, a traitor, is not to be buried. Antigone defies the order, despite the advice of her younger sister, Ismene. The plot revolves entirely on what the law is --- what the king says it is, or what Antigone knows is right?

Antigone is caught performing burial rites. Creon imprisons both Antigone and her sister Ismene, as her accomplice, declaring that they shall be buried alive. The confrontation between Creon and Antigone is a kind of direct examination. Antigone feels sure that what she did was right, but, like many passionate defendants, cannot articulate her reasons, and is easily out-argued by a powerful man with verbal gifts. Creon asks Antigone for whom she disobeyed the law. "For nobody," she replies. "For myself. For me."

Two movies of Antigone are readily available: A 1974 made-for-TV version, directed by Gerald Freedman, is an adaptation of a Jean Anouilh play, with a liberal translation by Lewis Galantiere. A 1984 British film, also made for TV, directed by Don Taylor with Juliet Stevenson as Antigone, is more traditional.

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Antitrust (2001)

Despite its legal title, this film really doesn't deal with antitrust issues, alas. Directed by Peter Howitt, the film focuses on a computer programmer who realizes his boss (Tim Robbins) is a ruthless man. Sadly, the film seems to demonize technology, as if there were no privacy violations or nasty bosses before computers.

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Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)
Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004) (Sequel)

The object of Bridget's affection is a human rights lawyer. He (Colin Firth) is presented as an ideal man, albeit one who has to attend stuffy Law Society dinners. Bridget, wonderfully played by Renee Zellweger, goes around saying that her boyfriend is a human rights lawyer, which makes her feel good. I thoroughly enjoyed both Bridget Jones movies, and they do show that a relationship between journalists (who have an idealistic streak) and lawyers (ditto) can be a happy one. Or at least be fodder for funny movies. How nice to see a lawyer as the hero, in Bridget's eyes, at least, in both movies.

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Captain Blood (1935)

Directed by Michael Curtiz, based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini. This film, beloved by Errol Flynn fans everywhere, follows an English doctor in the 17th century who is wrongly convicted of treason for tending to the wounds of someone plotting against the king. The doctor is spared from his death sentence but is sold into slavery and, of course, following that well-trodden medical career path, becomes a pirate. With Olivia de Havilland and Basil Rathbone.

I have not seen this film, but couldn't help think of the trial of Dr. Samuel Mudd in 1865, who treated John Wilkes Booth for a broken leg after Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. There have been several films about the case of Dr. Mudd.

A 1935 film, The Prisoner of Shark Island, starred Warner Baxter as an innocent Mudd, framed by the government and thrown into a horrible prison. Television movies released in 1980 and 1995 are also sympathetic to Mudd. Other accounts say that Dr. Mudd was a member of Booth's conspiracy and a virulent racist. Dr. Mudd was eventually released from jail, but never formally exonerated. As a result, his descendants - who include journalist Roger Mudd - regularly urge politicians to clear his name.

Webmaster Barbara Leff writes: Captain Blood is my all-time favorite movie. While most people do not think of courts or law when it comes to this film, there is in fact an excellent courtroom scene involving the conviction of Dr. (later Captain) Blood and men who actually were rebels against the king. While the others plead guilty, Blood pleads not guilty and tries to defend himself by saying that he is a doctor and not involved in the rebellion. When the judge refuses to believe him, Blood proves his point by diagnosing the judge with a fatal disease. Alas, that is not enough to save Blood, who is convicted anyway because he treated a rebel. Blood's ending is considerably happier than Dr. Samuel Mudd's: Blood ultimately stops being a pirate, gets a full pardon, becomes governor of Jamaica, and marries Olivia de Havilland. Real life at its best.

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Carlito's Way (1993)

A sleazy lawyer helps his client, a heroin dealer, to get out of prison after serving five years of a much longer sentence. The dealer, Carlito, decides to go straight. He tries to avoid his former drug-dealing ways, gets a job running a night club, and tries to save enough money to escape New York. Of course, all is fruitless, in part because of the machinations of his lawyer, who just needs a few favors. (Apparently the lawyer in this movie is one of the worst scumbag lawyers in any movie. There is a lot of competition for this distinction, alas.) I have not seen this movie, but it sounds like a strong illustration of the difficulties convicts face when they are released back into the same violent neighborhoods from which they came. Directed by Brian De Palma, based on novels by Edwin Torres, the film stars Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller, and John Leguizamo.

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Les Choristes (The Chorus, or The Choir) (2004)

Themes of crime and punishment permeate this lovely French film about the formation of a choir at a boys' boarding school in 1948 France. At the end of the movie, there is a reference to a trial, or some kind of legal proceeding, where the boys are able to testify about the conditions at the school. The message is clear: justice will prevail, it will be public, and the weak shall triumph over the strong in a court of law.

Co-written and directed by Christophe Barratier, the film focuses on justice from its opening minutes. I wonder to what extent the collective punishment that is a hallmark of the school, and the arbitrary punishments that are meted out (within minutes of arrival, the new teacher must choose a boy's name out of a book to receive punishment), were intended to echo the "justice" during the occupation of France during World War II. The war is hinted at by the presence of orphans at the school, and brief references to the deaths of their parents. One boy, auditioning for the choir, gives a rousing rendition of the fascist fight song of the Vichy regime (the fascists are always able to exploit the power of music well).

Oh, and the music is gorgeous. The title of the film is in the plural - I guess "the choristers" or "the members of the choir" would be a more literal English translation - to emphasize the individuals that must come together to form a whole. (Think of the difference between a movie called The Jurors versus one called The Jury.) Some have criticized this movie as being overly sentimental. If you want reality, you can watch the evening news on TV. If you want a sweet, idealistic movie about a more just world, see Les Choristes.

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Crash (2004)

Written and directed by Paul Haggis, this disturbing, funny, troubling and uplifting movie follows a series of people of different races, creeds and backgrounds in Los Angeles today, who connect only when they crash into each other. A subplot involves a district attorney, well played by the harassed Brendan Fraser, who wants to control crime, but most of all, needs to get re-elected. The tremendous cast includes Sandra Bullock as the d.a.'s wife, Don Cheadle as a police investigator, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, Terrence Dashon Howard, Ludacris, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe, Larenz Tate, Tony Danza, Keith David, Shaun Toub, Loretta Devine.

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Cry, the Beloved Country (1995)

No film could be as beautiful as the novel by Alan Paton. But this movie, directed by Darrell Roodt, was filmed in South Africa and each church, landscape and home evokes some of the tone, language and mood of the book. (I put on the subtitles in the DVD version, to catch every word of the local language). The plot is not complicated, though you could read the book many, many times and each time unearth a new layer of history, racial and human relations. The Reverend Stephen Kumalo (James Earl Jones) goes to Johannesburg to search for members of his family who have left the beautiful countryside to seek their fortunes in the city. He finds his sister working as a prostitute, and his son in jail, accused of murdering the son of James Jarvis (Richard Harris), a racist farmer who happens to be the Reverend's neighbor. The trial of the son is movingly presented in this film, with all our human weaknesses honestly exposed. The film, like the book, is a plea for reconciliation, while acknowledging the unbearable crimes people have committed against each other.

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Eight Men Out (1988)

Directed by John Sayles, based on the book by Eliot Asinof, this film recounts the "Black Sox" scandal, when the Chicago White Sox baseball team accepted bribes to deliberately lose the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. A grand jury proceeding and scenes from a trial are shown, and of course the entire saga is an ethics lesson for all eternity (or at least until the White Sox win the World Series again, which they have not done since 1917). The film might be useful to discuss conspiracies, and the difficulties in determining degrees of guilt among different members of a conspiracy.

The film illustrates how easily gamblers and mobsters took advantage of the ill will between the underpaid baseball players and their all-powerful, penny-pinching team owner, Charlie Comiskey. (The team was called the Black Sox not because of the scandal, but because Comiskey billed the players for laundry expenses, and so they did not wash their dirty uniforms for weeks.)

The players were one of the best teams in the country, but were paid less than virtually any other team. But salary issues and other grievances never reached the papers, because Comiskey wined and dined the press. According to this movie, he also paid off the gamblers to keep their association with him private. He basically paid everyone but his players.

The legal issues are not presented in the movie as clearly as the power struggles, however, and if you use this movie in a law course, make sure your class is acquainted with the facts up front. (It doesn't help, either, that it's a bit hard in this film to keep all the players straight unless you're familiar with the story). The players were acquitted by the jury --- there was no law in Illinois prohibiting what they had done. But the day after they were acquitted, the new baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, suspended all eight players for life, saying,

...any player that throws a game, no player that entertains propositions or promises to throw a game, no player who sits in on a conference with a bunch of gamblers in which ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.

The last statement was directed at Buck Weaver, who attended some of the meetings but received no money, and played well during the series. On six subsequent occasions, Weaver asked for reinstatement. He was turned down each time.

The most difficult role is that of an honest man surrounded by corruption. (See Serpico.) I thought the torment of "Shoeless Joe" Jackson, who knew about the conspiracy and was forced to sign a confession, was well presented. None of the players had legal representation when they signed their confessions, and several testified that they were promised reinstatement if they confessed. Asked whether he had read the document he signed before offering his statement, Joe Jackson replied: "No. They'd given me their promise. I'd've signed my death warrant if they asked me to."

Comiskey did pay for defense counsel at trial, as convictions would hurt his business.

Douglas Linder describes the trial at his site, Famous American Trials, at www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/blacksox/blacksox.html.

According to someone on the Internet Movie Database, who says he's seen "all the baseball movies out there," this film is very authentic when it comes portraying on-field action. A small exception: second baseman Eddie Collins batted left-handed, not right-handed as in the movie, but he is portrayed by the great Bill Irwin, a wonderful clown, versatile athlete, and fellow graduate of Oberlin College, so we must overlook this.

Ironically, if the men had just won the World Series, as most people expected them to, as they were a far stronger team than the Cincinnati Reds, the White Sox players would have received more money than they were promised by the gamblers to lose the series. The gamblers didn't even pay the men all the money that they'd promised. There is a lesson in this, somewhere.

The cast includes: Jace Alexander as Dickie Kerr (starting pitcher); John Cusack as Buck Weaver (third baseman); Gordon Clapp as Ray Schalk (catcher); Don Harvey as Swede Risberg (shortstop); Bill Irwin as Eddie Collins (second baseman); Perry Lang as Fred McMullin (utility infielder); John Mahoney as William "Kid" Gleason (thesympathetic manager); James Read as Claude "Lefty" Williams (starting pitcher); Michael Rooker as Chick Gandil (first baseman); Charlie Sheen as Oscar "Happy" Felsch (outfielder); David Strathairn as Eddie Cicotte (pitcher) and D.B. Sweeny as Shoeless Joe Jackson (left fielder).

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Enchanted April (1992)

In this lovely film, directed by Mike Newell, based on the novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, the husband of one of the protagonists is identified as a solicitor. He is presented as a business-obsessed man who makes his wife write down every expense, including pennies donated to a beggar wounded in the First World War. But, as wonderfully portrayed by Alfred Molina, the lawyer blossoms on vacation in Italy. In one scene, he suggests an equitable arrangement for the houseguests to share expenses. The film ends up showing that lawyers can be useful, and even likeable, so long as the sun is shining. To paraphrase one reviewer: "This film proves there are no bad people, only people in need of better weather." The magnificent cast includes Josie Lawrence, Miranda Richardson, Alfred Molina, Jim Broadbent, the handsome Michael Kitchen, Joan Plowright, and Polly Walker.

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Flight of the Intruder (1991)

Directed by John Milius, based on the novel by Stephen Coonts, the plot centers on Navy bombing missions during the Vietnam War. After his co-pilot is killed, Jake Grafton, a carrier-based Intruder pilot, questions the purpose of these missions. There is a brief scene of a court martial, whose proceedings are overturned by an intervening change in the Nixon administration's bombing policy. Apparently the script is weak, but the cast and direction are strong, the issues are important, and the scene of an air battle is one of the best ever filmed, according to people on the Internet Movie Database who know about these things. Much of the movie was shot on board the USS Independence. The film features David Schwimmer, of Friends fame, in his first appearance in a movie. A stellar cast includes Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe, Brad Johnson, Rosanna Arquette, Tom Sizemore, and Ving Rhames.

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Great Expectations (1946)

There are many versions of this influential Charles Dickens novel, but the 1946 version, directed by David Lean, is the finest. The story follows a young boy, Philip Pirrip (known as "Pip") through his life and loves. Pip works to become a gentleman to win the hand of the woman he loves, and, after receiving a windfall of cash from a mysterious benefactor, he is sent to London to work with a lawyer, Jaggers, played by Francis L. Sullivan. (The law as the road to respectability! How refreshing, particularly for Dickens). This black and white film version by the director of Lawrence of Arabia features a stellar cast: John Mills as Pip, Finlay Currie as the escaped convict, Valerie Hobson, Marita Hunt, and Alec Guinness in his first major role. The film won two Oscars.

A modern, American adaptation made in 1998 and directed by Alfonso Cuaron, based on a screenplay by Mitch Glazer, is surprisingly good. It is set in Florida and New York and beautifully filmed. Its strong cast includes Ethan Hawke as Pip (called "Finn" in this version), Gwyneth Paltrow as the haughty, recalcitrant love object, Hank Azaria, Robert de Niro, and a star turn by Anne Bancroft as Miss Havisham, playing the old Dickens dowager a bit like "Mrs. Robinson." I do not remember if a lawyer or law firm figures prominently in this update - I think not, alas - but the film is worth seeing for its artistic direction and acting alone.

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Green Card (1990)

A very enjoyable, funny, and unusual love story about a Frenchman (Gerard Depardieu le Magnifique) who needs a permit which allows the owner to live and work in the US. (The card hasn't been green for years, but is still called a green card.) It used to be that marriage to an American was an easy way to get the card, and this film was made when the immigration services were starting to crack down on marital scams. A New Yorker (Andie MacDowell) thinks, probably rightly, that getting married will help her win approval for an apartment in an exclusive building run by snobby, prejudiced coop boards, and she agrees to a marriage on paper to the Frenchman. This is quite realistic: a single female friend of mine, a wealthy professional, was turned down for an exclusive apartment because the board was not sure whom she might marry.

Written and directed by Peter Weir, with star turns by Bebe Neuwirth as The Best Friend who has designs on the Frenchman, and Robert Prosky as the lawyer. (Prosky is a native of Washington, D.C., and is much missed here on our stages; I think he left for movies to put his kids through college. Come home to D.C. theater, Mr. Prosky! No green card needed. Your kids should be supporting you by now, unless they took up acting.)

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Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

Written and directed by Norman Jewison, based on the musical stage play by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, this movie is a vivid musical (OK, rock opera) presentation of the last few weeks of the life of Jesus Christ, largely as seen by Judas Iscariot. The trial of Jesus is explained in detail, including the jurisdictional issues (Pilate: "Since you come from Galilee, So you need not come to me. You're Herod's race. You're Herod's case.") Herod refuses to try Jesus (Josh Mostel - yes, the son of Zero Mostel -plays King Herod). I thought this movie, for all the distracting anachronisms, was as faithful a rendering of the Gnostic Gospels as any other film, and quite watchable besides (and hummable, too). Those familiar with Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, which is also a Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice collaboration, will recognize how faithful this rendering is to the text.

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Jurassic Park (1993)

Directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the novel by Michael Crichton, who also wrote the screenplay, this movie takes us and a few others (including Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and two kids) to a Dinosaur Theme Park, run by Richard Attenborough. Security breaks down and releases the creatures to wreak havoc. Among the most famous scenes is one in which a lawyer using the toilet is eaten by a T-Rex. This scene was greeted with great applause and laughter in the theater where I saw the film. Martin Ferrero played the lawyer. Webmaster Barbara Leff points out the moral of the film for lawyers: avoid dinosaur parks.

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Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)

Directed by Brad Silberling, based on a series of books by Daniel Handler, this wonderfully spooky children's movie contains one scene of true horror: a courtroom where the fate of three orphaned children is determined by two words: "Custody granted." After the gavel descends, three children whose parents were killed in a fire are sent to live with the evil Count Olaf (Jim Carrey). Throughout this story of the children's odyssey, both legal and social services are seen through the eyes of the children.

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Lord Jim (1965)

Written and directed by Richard Brooks, based on the novel by Joseph Conrad, this story of justice, cowardice and bravery at sea, written in 1900, retains tremendous power over a century after it was written. (I have not seen the film.) Jim is an idealistic young man aboard the ship Patna, with romantic notions of the sea. The Patna starts to sink, and the crew abandons the vessel and the passengers. Jim does not wish to act in a way that he knows is wrong, but he wants to save himself. He acts as a coward in the terror of the moment. The ship does not sink, and there is a trial. Jim seeks anonymity as he travels the world. The narrator, Marlow, takes pity on him, and arranges for Jim to go to Patusan, a remote region. [Note that the name of the region varies from the ship's name by only two letters, and those letters spell "us."] Jim proves himself a courageous man there, helping to defend the natives from their enemies. He becomes a leader, earning the title of "Tuan Jim," or Lord Jim. But the arrival of an English pirate, Gentleman Brown, shakes the peaceful world Jim has created and his values are again called into question before a tragic ending.

There is a lawyer aboard ship, and an accountant, but the narrator, Marlow, has no particular profession. Jim meets Marlow during the legal inquiry into the sinking of the Patna. Peter O'Toole plays Lord Jim; Jack Hawkins is Marlow.

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The Merchant of Venice (2004)

This magnificent, beautiful film, based on a difficult Shakespeare play that I've always loathed, is the first version of the play that I've ever been able to watch without agony at the central character, Shylock, a greedy, bitter Jewish moneylender. Its climactic trial scene is one of the finest examples of justice as revenge in English literature, and illustrates as well the crying need for mercy in any legal system. Directed by Michael Radford, who also wrote the screenplay, this film version squarely addresses the anti-Semitism that permeated Venice in the 16th century and the effect that hatred created in Shylock. I have seen terrible productions of The Merchant of Venice, and I am so grateful to this film for rehabilitating the play for me.

The plot in a nutshell: Antonio, whose money is invested in merchant ships at sea, wants to lend his friend, Bassanio, 3,000 ducats. Antonio must turn to a Jewish moneylender that he despises and has publicly humiliated. Shylock offers a three-month loan at no interest, but if not repaid on time, Shylock will take a pound of Antonio's flesh. The contract is agreed upon, and when Antonio's ships are wrecked at sea and he cannot repay the loan, Shylock brings him to court, demanding his pound of flesh (his life). A minor - or not so minor- point is that the brilliant lawyers who defend Antonio, and attempt to void the contract, are women disguised as men. I wonder if Shakespeare is making a larger point about the equality of the sexes - Shakespeare's women in this play are quite wise and in control of their own fate - even as he confronts religious prejudice.

I do not believe that Shakespeare was anti-Semitic, or he could not have written,

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

As magnificently played by Al Pacino, Shylock is a reflection of many of the pathologies of the society around him, and that makes the Christians hate him all the more. (Shylock: "If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.")

This play brings out much more of the humanity in all of its characters, including Shylock's daughter, Jessica, who elopes with a Christian, and steals her father's money. In all the versions of the play that I have seen, Shylock's cries, "My daughter! My ducats! My daughter! My ducats!" are played for laughs --- what does he miss more, his daughter or his money? This film is more subtle. I will always be grateful to it. The perfect cast stars Al Pacino as Shylock, Jeremy Irons as Antonio, Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio, Lynn Collins as Portia, and Zuleikha Robinson as Jessica.

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The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999)

Written and directed by Luc Besson, the film is a fascinating biography of the young girl, Jeanne d'Arc, of 15th-century France who led the French army to victory during the Hundred Years' War with England. While most of the film is of course devoted to the military battles and the diplomatic and political intrigues of the time, once Joan is accused of witchcraft and forced to confess her religious visions, the film becomes the story of a criminal insanity trial. Dustin Hoffman is listed as "The Conscience," but he's a superb prosecutor, showing Joan, played by Milla Jovovich, all of her doubts, all of the holes in her story. With John Malkovich as Charles VII, this movie is worth seeing to show how a witness can be used to testify against herself. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake when she was 19 years old.

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Miracle on 34th Street (1947) (1994)

Lawyer comes to the rescue of Christmas, the family, and childhood fantasy! A nice old man with a real white beard claims to be Santa Claus, so of course people think he's insane, and he loses his job as a department store Santa. The climax of the movie is his insanity trial. The movie has a lot to say about commerce, child rearing, and love of all kinds. The original, classic movie stars Maureen O'Hara as a practical divorced businesswoman with no illusions, and Natalie Wood is her daughter. John Payne is the lawyer. Edmund Gwenn is Kris Kringle, Gene Lockhart is the judge, and Jerome Cowan is the kindest district attorney I've ever seen, on screen or off. Directed by George Seaton.

The 1994 remake is surprisingly watchable --- updated seamlessly from the original, which by now is a sacred part of TV Christmas movies, the remake doesn't detract from, or betray the spirit of, the original. Richard Attenborough is Kris Kringle, Elizabeth Perkins is the mother, Dylan McDermott is a great lawyer, Mara Wilson is a wonderful daughter, and Robert Prosky (DC misses you, phone home) is the judge.

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Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)

Cary Grant and Myrna Loy play the Blandings, who, fed up with cramped quarters in New York City, decide to build a dream house in the country. Melvyn Douglas, who is identified only as a "Family Friend" Bill Cole, points out all the problems with the contracts they've signed, tells them everything that can and will go wrong, is the family confidant, and is indispensable to the project, even though he never seems to do much work. He must be a lawyer. I enjoyed him, and this film, very much. Interestingly, Melvyn Douglas was a leading man for many years - he was the guy who made Garbo laugh in Ninotchka - but he was recognized by the Motion Picture Academy as a supporting actor, winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Paul Newman's father in Hud (1963). Thank you for this bit of movie trivia, Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies!

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Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

A simple, small-town tuba player named Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) inherits a fortune and is convinced to move to New York City, where he becomes easy prey for everyone from an aggressive journalist at a sensationalist newspaper (Jean Arthur) to the equally rapacious opera committee. (The movie was adapted from a short story called Opera Hat, by Clarence Buddington Kelland.) Deeds decides to give away his money to the needy. Of course, this causes his lawyer (Douglas Dumbrille) to try to have him declared insane. His sanity hearing is the climax of the film, though I'm not sure how closely it follows commitment hearing procedures. For example, at the end of such hearings, the judge doesn't usually exclaim, "Not only are you sane, but you're the sanest man who ever walked in this courtroom!"

Hal Erickson, in the All Movie Guide, writes: "A joyously unadulterated hunk of Frank Capra-corn…. In addition to the pleasure of watching the country bumpkin outwit city slickers, the movie is a film buff's dream, boasting one of the best character-actor casts ever assembled for a single film. Nominated for four Academy Awards, the film won Frank Capra his second Oscar (out of three) as Best Director."

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O Lucky Man (1973)

This timeless, satirical musical skewers all professions, with songs by Alan Price. The legal song's lyrics include: "We all want justice, but you have to have the money to buy it." Directed by Lindsay Anderson, written by David Sherwin, the film follows a coffee salesman (Malcolm McDowell) on his travels through capitalism. Some on the Internet Movie Database say that this movie is dated, but if anything it's even more relevant to our times than ever before. The superb actors, who play many roles, include Ralph Richardson, Rachel Roberts, Arthur Lowe, Helen Mirren, Philip Stone and Mona Washbourne.

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Pleasantville (1998)

Written and directed by Gary Ross, this thoughtful, funny film about two modern teenagers who suddenly find themselves in Pleasantville, a 1950's Leave it To Beaver-type television show, is a wonderful commentary on social change. As the characters in Pleasantville begin their metamorphoses, they are literally transformed from black and white characters to colored people --- that is, people living in, um, living color. There is one scene in a segregated courtroom where the "colored" people must sit in an upstairs galley, while the black and white people take seats on the main floor. (The entire town is white, as in virtually all of the TV programs from the 50's, but the people allowed to sit on the ground floor have not yet become technicolored). The implied reference to racial segregation and "colorblind justice" cannot be ignored. That scene made me think of the radical social changes occurring in race relations in the 50's, especially as veterans returned from the war and people of all races and colors started taking a harder look at how we see each other. What rules should be accepted and which no longer accepted? What happens when one law falls? What holds us together when the rules change?

This is a gentle, sometimes slow, movie about challenging our world and our laws, as teenagers and artists always do, and whether the "good old days" were really so good. The perfect cast includes Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, William H. Macy, Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels, and Jane Kaczmarek as a mother struggling to integrate her desires for "the perfect house, the perfect family" into an imperfect world.

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The Scarlet Letter (1995)

Directed by Roland Joffé, based on the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, I had nightmares about this story, after being forced to read it in school. In 1666 in Massachusetts Bay colony, a strong-willed woman, Hester Prynne (well played by Demi Moore) arrives from England and sets up her own household, ahead of her elderly husband. Word comes that her husband's ship has been lost at sea. Hester has an affair with the handsome village pastor (Gary Oldman). She bears a child out of wedlock, must bear a scarlet letter "A" for adultery, and is jailed for refusing to name the father. A terrifying story of community punishment and communal judgment. Then her husband (Robert Duvall) shows up, having lived with the Indians for a year, and he seeks his justice. You wonder how the human race has survived all these years.

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Shall We Dance (2004)

This beautiful film, adapted from a Japanese film of the same name, stars Richard Gere as a bored trusts and estates lawyer. Directed by Peter Chelsom, the film hints at the office politics and conformist atmosphere of a large law firm very well. Fortunately, ballroom dancing exists to bring romance into the life of any lawyer! Though Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez are the dazzling stars, fans of Susan Sarandon and Stanley Tucci will be well-rewarded.

The 1997 Japanese movie portrays the daily grind very well, showing a man who is weighed down by the responsibilities of his life, but I missed the communication between husband and wife that exists in American movies (if not in American life). Both films are wonderful and should do wonders for the ballroom dance industry.

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Something to Talk About (1995)

Directed by Lasse Hallström, this film follows a married couple after the husband (Dennis Quaid) has an affair. There is one scene that I enjoyed very much. A lawyer (Charles During) discusses divorce with the husband over lunch. This five-minute conversation about the realities of divorce says a lot about honest lawyer-client communication, and what clients don't want to hear.

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Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

When you take away the explosions and space suits, this Star Trek movie - the last of the series, sob - is one good murder mystery. Captain James T. Kirk and Dr. Leonard McCoy are wrongly convicted of the murder of a Klingon ambassador, Chancellor Gorkon, who had been visiting their starship, ostensibly seeking peace. Kirk's antipathy to the Klingons, who murdered his son on the planet Genesis, is well-known, and after the assassination, suspicion naturally falls upon him. Dr. McCoy had tried to revive the chancellor, but failed, and is held responsible for the death. They are jointly tried in a Klingon courtoom. It was interesting to see that they had an excellent Klingon lawyer, but apparently (and not surprisingly) there is no defense in Klingon procedure, only a prosecution and sentence. The judge exercises mercy, sparing their lives, much to the outrage of the spectators. (Klingon trials are public, hmm. This is an impressive advance. The guarantee of a public trial is supposed to help the defense, but rarely does, on any planet).

Kirk and McCoy are sent to a gulag-like hard labor camp, Rura Penthe, guarded by vicious beasts (the list of credits includes "special alien dog make-up"). While the captain and the doctor plan their escape, the crew aboard the Starship Enterprise must uncover who the real murderers are. You've never seen such a disorganized investigation of any crime in your life! Miss Marple and Mr. Magoo would have stumbled on the evidence before these guys did!

Star Trek at times is one big discussion of legal themes: should criminals be extradited to stand trial in a despotic country? Can there ever be peace, security and democracy among warring nations? Sadly, these discussions are cut short by photon torpedo blasts that throw the crew out of their seats. There are no seat belts on space ships, because, as creator Gene Rodenberry once explained, if there were seat belts, the actors couldn't fall out of their seats. So I guess space needs a few plaintiffs' lawyers, as well as a team of crack detectives to organize the evidence search.

Well directed by Nicholas Meyer, based on a story by Leonard Nimoy and characters created by Gene Roddenberry, this movie is a worthy addition to the Star Trek legacy. Christopher Plummer is particularly fine as Klingon General Chang.

Cast (as if you didn't know this by heart):

William Shatner ... Captain James T. Kirk
Leonard Nimoy ... Captain Spock
DeForest Kelley ... Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy
James Doohan ... Capt. Montgomery "Scotty" Scott
Walter Koenig ... Cmdr. Pavel Chekov
Nichelle Nichols ... Cmdr. Uhura
George Takei ... Capt. Hikaru Sulu
Kim Cattrall [wonderful Vulcan, pre-Sex and the City] ... Lt. Valeris
Mark Lenard ... Ambassador Sarek
Grace Lee Whitney ... Cmdr. Janice Rand
Brock Peters ... Admiral Cartwright
Christopher Plummer ... Gen. Chang

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Unforgiven (1992)

This film could be called "Unrehabilitated." The story revolves around a retired old gunman, played by Clint Eastwood, who also directed the film. The man has gone straight, raising crops and two children in peace. Then a prostitute in town is attacked, and the people are not satisfied with the justice doled out by the sheriff, wonderfully played by Gene Hackman. So they put a rich bounty on the criminals, and the money attracts the old gunman, who was a bit bored with farming anyway. He returns with his old friend (Morgan Freeman) to his familiar, violent ways. With Richard Harris as "English Bob," another man attracted by the prize money, this film is far from a traditional Western (which is probably why I liked it). No one is a stereotype. Kudos to Clint Eastwood, who's made his share of violent, spaghetti westerns, for making an unconventional cowboy film that raises tough issues of the romance and appeal of violence in our society.

It is difficult for a former killer to live, permanently, as a peaceful man. Though this film doesn't dwell on the boredom, hard work, and routine of an honest farmer raising two children, how tempting is it to saddle up again and join a posse, if the community regards you as one pursuing justice and rightful revenge? In modern times, I imagine that the pay is better on the dark side, too, and the temptation to "saddle up" for "just one last time" - one more drug deal, one last robbery, so you'll never need money again - is palpable, as this film shows.

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Uranus (1990)

Directed by Claude Berri, based on a book written soon after the end of World War II by Marcel Ayme, this powerful film raises issues of community justice and the forces that desire revenge. It takes place in a French village in 1945, controlled by the Communist Party, which is trying to locate and punish those who collaborated with the Nazis under the Vichy French regime. This intriguing film stars Gérard Depardieu as a tavern owner who just wants to be left alone.

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Wilde (1997)

There are many histories of the life and times of Oscar Wilde, and more are welcome. As Wilde wrote, "The only duty we owe history is to rewrite it."

There is a superb play by Moises Kaufman called Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, which focuses on the legal proceedings Wilde faced - he was in court three times - and that is the work lawyers should see, since it is Wilde in the witness box, defending his life and views. What more do we need? I do hope that someone makes a movie out of the play someday. The play brilliantly illuminates Wilde's focus on British society and the persecution (and prosecution) of homosexuals, among many people persecuted who challenged the rigid class and social structure of the time. (And, tragically, our time as well.)

The film Wilde is an ambitious attempt to present the entirety of Oscar Wilde's adult life, from his private loves through his dramatic works to his social philosophy, poetry and children's fables. Wilde was a prolific genius who lived large and fell far. I am a devoted Oscar Wilde fan, so I will find any film lacking -- why didn't they include more of his plays and essays? Couldn't we have seen more of the trials? But there was a moving narrative of one his children's stories that hinted at the beauty of Wilde's words and works.

This emotional, sensual film of Wilde's passionate life is a fine tribute to the man, albeit a bit too sexually explicit for my taste. (Well, he was a passionate man who had a full family life - his wife is sensitively played by Jennifer Ehle - and he discovered his homosexuality as an adult.) In 1891, Wilde began an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, called Bosie, son of the Marquess of Queensberry. (A scene of two men attempting to bribe Wilde with love letters he wrote to Douglas was well-handled.) When the Marquess calls Wilde a sodomite, it is the son, Bosie, who encourages Wilde to sue for libel to bring his father down. One of my favorite scenes was one that legal films rarely show -- the discussion surrounding whether or not to bring suit, and what the lawsuit would achieve.

Wilde does sue, for a mixture of motives, with disastrous results. The Crown then prosecutes Wilde, twice, for "gross indecency" (homosexuality). He was convicted and sentenced to two years' hard labor, which is movingly shown. He wrote a magnificent work in confinement, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, but this film only mentions his apology, De Profundis, written from the depths of his soul. Wilde was released from jail in 1897, but never recovered his health or his finances. The film does not show him as bitter, which perhaps is an accurate portrayal of a man who wrote, "Always forgive your enemies -- nothing annoys them so much."

The movie was directed by Brian Gilbert, based on the book by Richard Ellman. Stephen Fry is superb as Wilde. Fry not only looks like Wilde, but brings out a bit of Wilde's Irishness, including his relationship with his mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave ("All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his," Wilde wrote). Jude Law is excellent as Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, playing him as a complicated, selfish, tormented, young, beautiful man. You can learn a lot from this film, even remembering Wilde's adage that, "Education is a wonderful thing, provided you always remember that nothing worth knowing can ever be taught."

This was a strong film, if slow at times, and I hope it spawns other examinations of Wilde's life, even flawed ones. As Wilde said, "A poet can survive everything but a misprint."

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