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Lawyers in the Movies

B [Category A]

Before and After
Billy Budd
Bleak House
Body Heat
Bonfire of the Vanities
Breaker Morant
The Burden of Proof
The Burning Bed

Before and After (1996)

This film deals with the effects on a family when their teenage son is accused of murdering his girlfriend. Directed by Barbet Schroeder, it features strong performances by Liam Neeson as the father and Meryl Streep as the mother. While some parts of the movie are exaggerated - would a neighborhood turn against a family so quickly? - it does show the murkiness of affixing blame after a death: the boy had been fighting with his girlfriend, who falls and is killed. (In many murder prosecutions, alcohol is also involved, which makes things trickier). Under stress, maybe people do lie and flee from the truth as much as these people do, but it was hard for me to relate to them as they invented a story to fool the police, their friends, the town, and themselves. The film has stayed with me, though, in part because of the beautiful scenes of New England in the snow, and in part because you wonder what families you know would do under similar circumstances.

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Billy Budd (1962)

There are many movie versions of this Herman Melville novel, but the classic film is the 1962 version directed by Peter Ustinov, according to John M. Perkins, reference service librarian at Mercer University School of Law. (And without whom this list would be a lot thinner). This film is perhaps strong because it is also based on a play, by Louis O. Coxe. I generally find that movies based on stage plays are stronger, in terms of character and dialogue, than those that are taken directly from a novel.

For those who were not forced to read Melville in English class, Billy Budd is a naive, handsome seaman in the British navy in the 18th century. There is a murder on board ship, and Billy is wrongly accused and tried. Though there are no lawyers, this is a good movie for defense lawyers to see, since it is filled with legal process and Billy, wonderfully played by Terence Stamp, is an ideal client. Robert Ryan is the the master-at-arms, director Ustinov is the post captain, and Melvyn Douglas is the sailmaker. Every aspiring lawyer should read Melville's short story, Bartleby the Scrivener to know what life as an associate is like. There's a version online at www.bartleby.com/129.

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Bleak House (2005)

There are of course many film and TV versions of this Charles Dickens novel, which focuses on the injustices of the 19-century English legal system and outdated inheritance laws in an endless dispute over a will. But now, in mid-2005, rumors are that a version currently in production, directed by Justin Chadwick with a script by Susanna White, might be the best effort to put this sprawling novel, with its numerous subplots, on film. (This rumor comes from a reliable source, John M. Perkins, reference service librarian at Mercer University School of Law). The 16-part miniseries will star some of my favorite actors: Gillian Anderson, of the X-Files, and Nathaniel Parker, who stars in Inspector Lindley. No idea when the series will air in the United States, but like the case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, which is the focus of Bleak House, you must be patient.

Dickens had been a court reporter before turning to fiction, so presumably many of the details of his account of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce are drawn from his observations. The central character is a woman, Esther Summerson, who is the illegitimate daughter of no one will tell her, and is being raised by an aunt and uncle with truly Dickensian/Harry Potter cruelty. Her suitor is a lawyer involved in the estate (chancery) case, which, after 16 years, has taken on a life of its own. There is also a meddling family solicitor. There are so many estate cases where families squander the entire inheritance fighting over whatever is left of the inheritance that I think psychiatrists would be more useful than lawyers after someone dies, but sadly there were few psychiatrists around for Dickens to skewer. Dickens squarely attacks the court system, the class system, inspectors at Scotland Yard and greedy lawyers, in a novel that is a favorite of lawyers and social reformers everywhere.

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Body Heat (1981)

Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, this thriller involves a woman (Kathleen Turner) who convinces her lover, a rather dim lawyer (William Hurt), to murder her rich husband. Yes, the plot sounds stale, (Double Indemnity is a much better movie, but that belongs on the "Insurance Salesmen" movie list), but the sex is steamy, the acting is solid, and there are some clever lines. Ted Danson, of Cheers fame, plays prosecutor Peter Lowenstein with great aplomb. If you watch this with knowledgeable lawyers, they can point out all the legal fallacies that the populate the film, which was supposed to take place in New Jersey, but moved to Florida because of a Teamsters' strike. They changed the weather but not the laws - spot the differences in New York and Florida laws with those studying for the bar exam in either state!

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Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)

Based on Tom Wolfe's terrific novel, the movie got so messed up that there is even a book written on what went wrong with the adaptation: Devil's Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood. The film, directed by Brian De Palma, does not have the New York feel or fast-moving action of the book. The plot involves a financial powerhouse (played by Tom Hanks, who is a good actor but can't pull off a "Master of the Universe" of Wall Street) who confronts another, grittier New York when his mistress (Melanie Griffith), driving his car, takes a wrong turn into a black neighborhood. In her eagerness to escape, she hits a young black boy with the car and speeds off, not waiting to see if the boy is hurt, dead or alive. Sensational journalism, an ambitious prosecutor and a religious demagogue do the rest to destroy the master's life. Morgan Freeman plays the judge. The book riveted me. The movie bored me.

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Breaker Morant (1980)

Directed by Bruce Beresford, this powerful film focuses on the court martial of three Australian lieutenants (Edward Woodward, Bryan Brown, and Lewis Fitzgerald) for shooting prisoners during the Boer War. The trial exposes many of the horrors of that (or any) war. The film has become a classic, joining Judgment at Nuremberg in asking the question, "When dealing with crimes during wartime, do you punish those you can, usually those on the lower rungs of the military hierarchy? When war crimes abound, usually ordered by those far from any killing, does prosecuting a handful of men make sense? Or are those who issued the orders the only guilty ones?" Watch this film with A Few Good Men to get an idea of how military justice has evolved over time.

Breaker Morant features a stellar Australian cast: Edward Woodward as Lt. Harry "Breaker" Morant of the Bushveldt Carbineers; Jack Thompson for the defense; Rod Mullinar as the prosecutor; Bryan Brown; Chris Haywood; Lewis Fitzgerald; Charles ("Bud") Tingwell, who presides over the court martial; Alan Cassell as Lord Horatio Kitchener; John Waters; Terence Donovan; Ray Meagher, and Vincent Ball as Lord Kitchener's aide assisting the prosecution.

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The Burden of Proof (1992) (made for TV)

Based on Scott Turow's novel of the same name, this film, directed by Mike Robe, follows the fortunes of Sandy Stern, the lawyer-hero of Scott Turow's first blockbuster book, Presumed Innocent. Sandy comes home to find that his wife of 30 years has apparently committed suicide. The investigation illustrates what we are taught to think about the legal process --- it's a search for truth. At first, Sandy just wants to know what drove his wife to take her own life, and to get to know his family, but the most powerful parts of the book deal with his introspection. But then (this is Scott Turow, after all, a master plotter) there's a federal investigation into a client's slimy finances.

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The Burning Bed (1984) (made for TV)

Based on the true story of Francine Hughes (well played by Farrah Fawcett), a housewife in Michigan who, after suffering years of violent abuse at the hands of her husband, set him on fire as he slept. This film was among the first to deal with the "self defense" issue in the context of domestic abuse. It painfully shows the attitude of the police at that time (late seventies), which, in many parts of the country, seemed to be that a man could do what he wanted with his wife. The movie is hard to watch, then as well as today, even though Fawcett does a good job at showing how helpless many women, particularly those with children, feel in these situations, particularly when her mother takes the husband's side. You ask, "Why didn't she get help?" (There was little help available then); "Why didn't the police remove the husband, who was on parole?" (That was not the way the rule book said to handle domestic situations). This movie had a real impact, and has stood the test of time.

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