Many years ago, in time for the Oscars, I gave my list of the top ten legal films. And then, a few years later, a second ten. And later, a third. And now I can’t stop.
Of course, the Oscars aren’t what they used to be. The pandemic means no one has seen the inside of a movie theater in two years, and last year’s ceremony, one of the lowest-rated ever, was held in what looked like a train station.
Oh wait – it took place at a train station.
Anyway, here are 10 more legal-themed movies. Countdown :
10. The Rack (1956). A little-known role makes Paul Newman a Korean War veteran, court-martialed for collaborating with the enemy. Newman’s character has as much trouble with his stiff military father (Walter Pidgeon) as he does with the court. The script strongly echoes its origins as a Rod Serling teleplay, originally written for television.
9. The Marcus-Nelson Murders (1973). Almost forgotten, this film was the “pilot” for the popular 1970s TV crime drama, starring longtime villain Telly Savalas as tough cop Theo Kojak. Here, a young black man is accused of murdering two “career girls” (as they were nicknamed); when he refuses to confess, other officers “persuade” him until he does. Kojak insists on reopening the case – in real life, he was among those cited by the Supreme Court in its famous Miranda decision.
8. Based on Gender (2018). With a title likely calculated to entice viewers who are deciding which movie to watch while waiting in line, this is actually a compelling biography of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It shows both his early struggles against a misogynistic legal culture and his early legal triumphs as a lawyer.
7. Michael Clayton (2007). Outstanding legal thriller, focusing as much on law firms and how they work as anything else. George Clooney is appointed to oversee unstable attorney Tom Wilkinson, who has become too personally involved in a massive personal injury case. In the meantime, the company’s internal lawyer, Tilda Swinton, is ready to do anything to hide the truth.
6. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). Newspaper publisher Sidney Blackmer convinces his friend, novelist Dana Andrews, to file evidence suggesting that Andrews committed murder, in order to show that the local district attorney relies too much on circumstantial evidence. But before Blackmer could exonerate Andrews for his “Gotcha!” new stories . . . well, unexpected twists ensue.
5. Gideon Trumpet (1980). Film made for television telling the true story of Clarence Earl Gideon, accused in 1961 of burglary of a pool hall in Florida. Florida did not appoint a public defense attorney except in capital cases, so Gideon was duly convicted. But then he filed a handwritten petition with the United States Supreme Court that changed legal history.
4. Witness for the Prosecution (1957). An Agatha Christie mystery and character study, disguised as a murder trial. The film shifted the focus of Christie’s play from the accused, Tyrone Power (miscast, in his final role) to his lawyer, the great Charles Laughton. Meanwhile, Powers’ wife, played by Marlene Dietrich, doesn’t seem to care that he’s being tried for his life. Laughton fights both the chases and the restrictions imposed by his nurse (his real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester), as he squeezes in both cigars and brandy.
3. The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020). Written and directed by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, it tells the story of the notorious 1969 political prosecution of seven defendants for instigating a riot at the 1968 Democratic convention. In true Sorkin fashion, it alternates between the dissensions within the defense camp; the outrageous antics of the defendants in court; and the equally outrageous antics of ossified trial judge Julius Hoffman.
2.M (1931). The first film of the great Peter Lorre, who marked him for life as a diabolical presence. Here, he’s a compulsive child murderer, and his crimes are so horrific – and the police dragnet he causes so suffocating – that he’s soon being pursued by both the police and the underworld. The faces of the criminals on the “jury” that “judges” Lorre at the end reflect the harsh life in Germany just before the Nazi era.
1. Stranger on the Third Floor (1940). Speaking of Peter Lorre, it’s generally considered the first film noir. A reporter is the only witness to a murder, but soon comes to doubt that the accused (Elisha Cook, Jr.) is truly guilty. And who is this strange bug-eyed man hanging around his apartment building? Lorre doesn’t say a word until the film’s final 10 minutes, but his very presence screams “sinister.”
And then, twenty-five years later, Cook would memorably play an old-fashioned lawyer in a Star Trek episode, “Court-Martial.”
Frank Zotter, Jr. is a Ukiah attorney.