The Five Best Courtroom Films

 

Anatomy of a MurderI love a good courtroom drama. There’s so much natural tension in a trial…they just seem tailor-made for the cinema. The list below focuses on the best classic films with courtroom centerpieces, so My Cousin Vinny and A Few Good Men (which would probably have made the honorable mention list) are not included.

1) Anatomy of a Murder (1959) - Otto Preminger’s enthralling courtroom drama requires multiple viewings to be fully appreciated. When I first saw it, I focused on the riveting story, which treats the viewer much like the jury. We listen to testimonies, watch the lawyers try to manipulate our emotions, and struggle to make sense of the evidence. When I saw it a second time, I knew the case’s outcome and was able to concentrate on the splendid performances. James Stewart, Arthur O’Connell, and George C. Scott earned Oscar nominations, but the rest of the cast is also exceptionally strong. In subsequent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate the film’s well-preserved details, from the small town upper-Michigan atmosphere to Preminger’s brilliant direction (e.g., in one shot, as Scott cross-examines a witness in close-up, Stewart—the defending lawyer—is framed between them in the background).

2) Inherit the Wind (1960) – The “Scopes Monkey Trial” of the 1920s–in which a Tennessee teacher was tried for teaching evolution–gets first-class treatment in Stanley Kramer’s gripping adaptation of the stage play. Spencer Tracy and Fredric March are magnificent as fictionalized versions of Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. But equally good is the behind-the-scenes look at the trial: the tribulations of family members, the media coverage, and the impact on the town itself.

3) 12 Angry Men (1957) – Well, it doesn’t take place in a courtroom, but has any film done a better job of getting into the minds of the most important members of a trial? The ensemble cast is nearly flawless, but the film’s premise relies heavily on the dialogue, the believablity of the characters, and the direction. So cheers to screenwriter Reginald Rose and director Sidney Lumet! I chuckle when I read the frequent film critic’s complaint that a director didn’t “open up” an adaptation of a stage play. 12 Angry Men virtually takes place on one set, but it never fails to excite and entertain.

Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton (1957)

4) Witness for the Prosecution (1957) – For all its cleverness, the most entertaining aspect of Billy Wilder’s adaptation of the Agatha Christie story is its unexpected humor. Much of it is derived from the relationship between the cantankerous Sir Wilfrid (Charles Laughton) and his fastidious nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester). One of their best scenes contains no dialogue and takes places during the heat of the trial. Miss Plimsoll sits in the gallery and watches closely over Sir Wilfrid, looking for any signs of his failing health. Turning to face her, Sir Wilfrid smiles as he takes a sip of “lukewarm cocoa” from a thermos filled by Miss Plimsoll…only the devious barrister has swapped thermoses so that he’s actually drinking brandy.

5) To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) – I know…this isn’t a courtroom drama. But Tom Robinson’s case forms the centerpiece of the film and reveals much about Atticus Finch, his children, and the town where they live. Like many other fans of this film, my favorite scene is when Atticus leaves the courtroom to a standing ovation from the gallery. (Its ranking here is solely in the context of courtroom dramas.)

Honorable Mentions: Conduct Unbecoming, Adam’s Rib, Judgment at Nuremberg, Breaker Morant, The Caine Mutiny, Fury, and Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys.

Now if you have any doubts how much fun a good courtroom drama can be, check out the theatrical trailer for Anatomy of a Murder:

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Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!

 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=713983697 Gordon S. Jackson

    I would definitely replace the more sensationalist (and occasionally over-wrought) INHERIT THE WIND, good though it at times is, with JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG, Stanley Kramer’s multi-layered absorbing analysis of the who, what, where, when and why of Germany’s disasterous flirtation with National Socialism.

  • arguellogomez

    My favorite is Agatha Christie’s “Witness for the Prosecution”, followed by “They Won’t Believe Me” (a wow of an ending!), “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “Anatomy of a Murder” and Alfred Hitchcock’s underrated, “The Paradine Case”.

  • Vinny C.

    Great choices, Rick.
    My top five courtroom dramas are:
    1- 12 Angry Men (includes some of the best character actors of the 20th century)
    2- The Verdict (great movie about a shot at redemption. Paul Newman is excellent.)
    3- Inherit the Wind (still relevant today – science vs. religion)
    4- A Few Good Men (suspenseful court scenes and excellent character study)
    5- Judgment at Nuremberg (Everyone adds to the drama – from Max. Schell, Spencer Tracy, Burt
    Lancaster, Judy Garland, Mont. Clift, Marlene Dietreich – incredibly moving ending)

    To Kill A Mockingbird is a great movie. I just don’t classify it as a courtroom drama.

    • R.B. Armstrong

      Vinny, if I had expanded my list beyond classic films, I may have included A FEW GOOD MEN. Of course, court-martial films could comprise their own list.

  • Nick Z

    I wouldn’t put To Kill A Mockingbird in this list either. It’s a family drama with courtroom sequences, not a courtroom drama – and brilliant, powerful and emotionally satisfying in its own right. I’ll second Judgment at Nuremberg and A Few Good Men and also toss my vote in for Inherit the Wind. I still think Anatomy of a Murder is the greatest courtroom drama ever made.

  • Wayne P.

    While not a strictly courtroom drama I would still have to submit for consideration based on the brilliance of its courtroom scenes “A Free Soul”. The film is a wonderful classic from 1931 starring Lionel Barrymore, Leslie Howard, the sexy Norma Shearer and Clark Gable, in an early role that put him on the fast track to stardom along with his many fine performances with Joan Crawford. Its about lawyer Barrymores character trying to get Clark off of a murder rap while Gable trys to make it with Norma Shearer, who is the daughter to Barrymore. A fine cracker-jack plot from the pre-code era with all its barely hidden but still sensuous seaminess. This movie earned the great LB his only acting Oscar…and his superb closing argument in court at the ending is really to die for, in more ways than one!
    Another superb dramatic piece with just partial courtroom scenes from that era is 1934′s “Manhattan Melodrama” which again displayed Gable to full advantage; this time, he was accompanied by the capably lovely Myrna Loy and the always stellar William Powell as the attorney having to put away childhood friend gone astray CG. In some ways the story reminds me of Pat O’Brien and Jimmy Cagney…two other childhood friends in “Angels with Dirty Faces”..but only this time, Cagney went off on the wrong track and became a criminal while O’Brien became a priest, not a lawyer. It too has a dramatic court scene where Cagney was sentenced and acts like it doesnt faze him but has to be convinced by PB to be ‘scared’ so as to help the Dead End Kids not follow his self-destructive path.
    Finally, “Evelyn Prentice” 1934 has some truly good courtroom drama in it. William Powell again is the lawyer defending wife Myrna Loy of a murder she didnt really commit while trying to extricate himself from bad behavior in their failing marriage after having an affair with Rosalind Russell…more juicy pre-code stuff!

  • dwayne.thomas5816@att.net

    12 Angry Men.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brescio1 Mario Brescio

    All the films mentioned here are great, however if you are
    going to list “To Kill A Mockingbird “as a courtroom drama than “The Accused”
    (1988) and “Philadelphia” (1993) should also be mentioned.

  • Phil

    I agree…. But another good one not mentioned… UGH…. forgot the name, Gene Hackman is in it, and he buys Jurys ..excellent flick and lots of court room drama !

    • http://www.facebook.com/jpw3415 James Ward

      The name you are looking for is “Runaway Jury” with John Cusack, Rachel Weisz and Dustin Hoffman.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Carolyn-Ferrante/100000671220210 Carolyn Ferrante

    I recently purchased “The Bramble Bush” at a local discount VHS warehouse-type store. There was a courtroom scene near the end of this movie that was riveting…and I do not enjoy courtroom scenes. Either Jack Carson or James Dunn was the prosecuting attorney. Give me the vintage movies any day of the week!

  • Jay Lamm

    Paul Newman’s Verdict is better than most of your top five. The acting is definitely better.

  • Joe Saggione

    12 Angry Men. Period. No discussion.

    • tlynette

      Granted, my stint as a juror a few years ago didn’t remotely resemble this classic, I thoroughly enjoyed the interaction between the disagreeing jurors, and their voyage to the resolution. All the actors were fabulous!

  • Bob M.

    I’ve watched “The Verdict” and “Twelve Angry Men” many times. Great acting in both films
    (Jack Warden in both of them). Can’t choose between the 2, so they would be my co-favorite courtroom dramas.

  • JRHawk

    All good movies, but no one mentioned “…And Justice for All” with Al Pacino. Good film with a very unexpected ending in the courtroom.

    • Bonnie Colvert

      Agree!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000043913489 Tom Hall

    I would add the 2007 Russian movie “12″ – an excellent remake of “12 Angry Men,” with a purely Russian twist to the ending.

  • pcpeterson

    A good list and I strongly agree with “Anatomy of a Murder” as No. 1. However, “The Onion Field” needs to be somewhere on this list.

  • TR6

    I would add “Breaker Morant” to the list. Great coutroom scenes.

  • Jay

    I would definitely put BREAKER MORANT at Number 1 in this list, and would add a British film made in the early 1950s of an adaptation of the author Josephine Tey’s novel THE FRANCHISE AFFAIR. Great entertainment.

  • Rufnek43

    As a newspaper reporter, I spent years covering courts from justice of the peace to federal districts, so I pick up on the unreality of movie trial scenes. For instance, jurors are supposed to consider only the evidence presented in court. Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Me pointing out the
    indentations on the nose of a witness as indications she wore eyeglasses is one thing since the witness testified in court (although he must have the eyes of an eagle to see it from the jury box). But when he flings down the look-alike switchblade he bought during lunch break, that was grounds for a mistrial because the look-alike wasn’t part of the evidence permitted by the judge. I
    also gotta wonder what bailiff would allow a juror to wander off on his own when he escorted them out for lunch. Great drama, but poor courtroom procedure.
    Often in movie trials, lawyers for the prosecution and the defense often make arguments to jurors when by law they should be questioning witnesses. In real life, attorneys address jurors directly only during the selection of jurors and their final arguments. In real courts, the state makes its argument first, followed by the defense. Then the state gets to address the jurors again in rebuttal of the points raised in the defense attorney’s argument. You almost never see this sequence in movie courtrooms. But the one thing that drives me up the wall in virtually every movie courtroom is when a prosecutor or a defense lawyer finishes questioning a witness and then tells him, “You can step down.” Only the judge can dismiss a juror from the stand because the opposing attorney has the right to question or even re-question the witness. Testimony isn’t over until the judge says it is.

    I enjoy movies like Witness for the Prosecution, 12 Angry Men, Inherit the Wind, and Anatomy of a Murder, The Postman Always Rings Twice, or Orson Welles’s version of Clarence Darrow in
    Compulsion. They’re great drama, but don’t mistake the courtroom scenes for real jurisprudence.

    On the other hand, the court martial procedure in The Caine Mutiny better depicted, since military trial procedure differs greatly from civilian justice.

    • Wayne P.

      While just a small part of the picture near the end, Captain Blood, has a fascinating courtroom scene during basically the star-chamber like proceeding scene that typified the colonial period…it was just another fine example of Errol Flynns must underestimated “serious side”!

    • http://www.facebook.com/rick.armstrong.9638 Rick Armstrong

      Orson Welles’ final plea in COMPULSION is nothing short of brilliant.

  • KarenG958

    Three wonderful movies – Witness for the Prosecution, Judgement at Nuremburg, & To Kill a Mockingbird.

  • Tom S

    I would throw The Caine Mutiny into the mix, although most of the movie happens outside the courtroom.

    • tlynette

      Love a good court-martial, don’t you? ;-P

  • Eric Lee

    I would also have to go with The Verdict.

  • http://twitter.com/horrordirector1 Scott Barker

    “The Young Savages,” with Burt Lancaster taking apart some street punks on the witness stand, and revealing a lot not only about them (and their crime), but his own humanity.

  • Gordy

    Great choices! But Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY is high on my list. After the early battlefield disaster, the rest of the film is focused on the trial and its tragic aftermath.

    • Wayne P.

      Hear, hear! Always love a good SK mention and as he could put almost anything to celluloid and entertain us well with it, regardless of the subject matter, its no surprise really is it?

  • Steve Rothstein

    Also, the Paradine Case by Hitchcock. With Gregory Peck, Charles Laughton, Alida Valli, Ethel Barrymore and Ann Todd.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jpw3415 James Ward

    Another good film was “The Purple Heart” A Japanese version of ” The Nuremberg Trial” based on the April 18th, 1942 trial of 8 airmen that were part of the Doolittle Raid on Japan. It has an excellent twist on Japanese justice. Dana Andrews and Farley Granger star.

  • Lulu

    I love courtroom scenes. I just have to mention The Rainmaker. It is not a classic and does not qualify, however I always enjoy watching it.

  • retired cop in arizona

    Choose as you wish of many others, but A Few Good Men needs to be sent to the trash can. It was over done with typical hollywood (lala-land) theatrics itnended to demean the military in general. In the role of Tom Cruise as an ensen od Lt. JG, there is no way he would have been allowed to behave so flipantly to his superiors (even out of the courtroom) let alone to show so much disrespect to a superior officer who gave testimony. AFGM is probably the worst movie about court room drama ever filmed. I’m surprised that the military approved of how they were portrayed, unless there was no advisors present.

    • Robin

      A Few Good Men is a rip-off of The Man In The Middle, a much better film starring Robert Mitchum.

  • thepiv

    Judgement at Nuremberg. The examination of the witnesses is exceptional – especially of the mentally impaired Rudolph Peterson (Montgomery Clift) by the marvelous Maximilian Schell, More importantly, the dialogue between Tracy and Lancaster in Janning’s cell on the rule of law is brilliant and a great civics lesson. Not a bad soundtrack either.

    • Vinny C.

      Great analysis! Everyone was great, but the final scene with Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster was perfect. Plus, Max. Schell was brilliant as the defense attorney.

  • Elizabeth Barrett

    Let us not forget Paul Newman, Jack Warden, James Mason, and Charlotte Ramping in THE VERDICT

  • johnfburton

    The ones on this list of great courtroom dramas, are all, inarguably truly great expenditures of celluloid (and any of them I would gladly watch right now). But I think any list like this has to include “The Verdict.” Directed by Sidney Lumet, with a remarkable acting turn by Paul Newman, in what might be his best performance (though that would certainly elicit debates among cinephiles), and a tough as leather David Mamet screenplay, this is truly one to remember and savior. Anyone truly interested in screen acting should watch Newman; a remarkable performance, which is aided by a really super supporting cast (especially James Mason and Jack Warden).

    • Laura

      The Verdict is mesmerizing, Paul Newman should have gotten the Oscar
      for that one. I never miss it when it’s on (uncut, of course) Outstanding
      supporting cast, screenplay, direction, the wonderful late Sidney Lumet.

    • http://www.facebook.com/gerard.kennelly Gerard Kennelly

      newman was scary
      in that scene where he asks rampling ”why won’t you understand”

  • garykevinware

    Frankly, none of the ‘courtroom dramas’ are that great. I’d rather watch an episode of my all-time favorite TV show, the original Perry Mason.

    • http://www.facebook.com/rick.armstrong.9638 Rick Armstrong

      If we go down the TV path, how are THE DEFENDERS?

  • Phil

    Breaker Morant should be in the top five, it’s gripping. More people should see it!

    • http://www.facebook.com/rick.armstrong.9638 Rick Armstrong

      If the topic was court-martial pics, it’d be there.

    • http://www.facebook.com/gerard.kennelly Gerard Kennelly

      russell crowe stole the poem from Breaker Morant after he attacked the BAFTA producer

  • JoAnne McMaster

    The Young Philadelphians with Paul Newman. I love that movie…..

    • http://www.facebook.com/rick.armstrong.9638 Rick Armstrong

      Robert Vaughan in very good in it and was Oscar nominated!

      • JoAnne McMaster

        I know. I think he was wonderful. My favorite courtroom film ever…..

  • R.B. Armstrong

    Thanks for all the great comments and additions. Just want to add that, per my opening paragraph, my choices were limited to classic film (e.g., pre-1980s). That’s the reason for some of the omissions.

  • Mary Lou

    To Kill a Mockingbird was my first choice. I had forgotten all about Breaker Morant. It has been so long since I saw that movie. Thanks for reminding me of it. I think it’s time I watched it again!
    My problem with Inherit the Wind is that it did not truly reflect the real event. It always makes me angry when Hollywood re-writes history to suit its own purposes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Coachchip Chip Thomas

    12 angry men is the best courtroom movie. I use it in student training about leadership, communication, listening skills, and non verbal communication. However if you want a little laugh, but yet serious one, check out From the Hip. Judd Nelson and John Hurt.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-T-Bolten/1751640491 Brian T. Bolten

    An excellent list!! I personally would have juggled the order a bit with 12 Angry Men going first, but it’s an excellent five choices. Some of the suggestions such as “Paths of Glory” are excellent too. What would you put on your modern courtroom drama list? “A Few Good Men” which you mentioned would be a good one. But my all-time FAV modern court-room drama is “Presumed Innocent” with FABULOUS performances by ALL of the principals… Harrison Ford, Raul Julia, Bonnie Bedelia, Greta Schacchi, and ESPECIALLY Paul Winfield!!

    • http://www.facebook.com/rick.armstrong.9638 Rick Armstrong

      Among movies made in the 1980s or later, I’d include A FEW GOOD MEN and MY COUSIN VINNY (love Fred Gwynn as the judge). Court-martial pics could be a separate category. Among them, I’m surprised no one has mentioned the underrated CONDUCT UNBECOMING with Michael York.

  • cj

    Although I fully agree with most of the choices, I also rank TOWN WITHOUT PITY very high. Just as 12 ANGRY MEN (my top choice) highlights jury nulification, TOWN is a great example of putting the defendant on trial. Love courtroom dramas!

    • http://www.facebook.com/rick.armstrong.9638 Rick Armstrong

      TOWN WITHOUT PITY is a nice addition!

  • Chicagogary

    You had my two favorites – Witness for the Prosecution and 12 Angry Men.

  • Chuck

    All great choices. I might include “Verdict” and maybe “Caine Mutiny” (if you wanted military Courtmartial).

  • Nick

    I would add “Judgment at Nuremberg.”

  • Bill Tometich

    Caine Mutiny

  • slb

    Hello!!!!!! What about The Caine Mutiny? Bogart deserved an Oscar for his Captain Queeg!!!

    • http://www.facebook.com/rick.armstrong.9638 Rick Armstrong

      It’s in the honorable mentions….

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1440427014 Ron Gardner

    How does “A Few Good Men” not qualify exactly? It can’t be the ‘courtroom centerpiece’ criterion you mentioned, because you’ve included “12 Angry Men”. Excellent film, but it has only one brief scene inside a courtroom, at the very beginning. Is it simply too recent a film for you to deem it a classic?

    • Guest

      Yes, A FEW GOOD MEN just turned 20 years ago. In movie years, it’s still a pup!

    • http://www.facebook.com/rick.armstrong.9638 Rick Armstrong

      Yes, A FEW GOOD MEN just turned 20 years old. In movie years, it’s still a pup!

  • http://www.facebook.com/rick.armstrong.9638 Rick Armstrong

    I’m in the minority, I know, but I’m not a huge fan of THE VERDICT.

  • talaktochoba

    there was a movie Kirk Douglas did early in his career about a French officer falsely accused of coward ness by his inept and corrupt commanders;

    is it me, or did you totally overlook “The Caine Mutiny” and “Court marshal of Billy Mitchell”?

    • http://www.facebook.com/gerard.kennelly Gerard Kennelly

      i think that kirk douglas one was called PATHS TO GLORY

  • Cara

    I saw Anatomy of a Murder a year or two ago after seeing it as a child. It’s an incredible court room drama, and James Stewart gave one of the best performances of his career. The dark and light in him were like the shadows on his porch, the night held back by a feeble porch light. It’s a movie that can be watched over and over, and each watching gives the viewer something else to chew on, another great performance to savor. I love 12 Angry Men, but I think Witness was probably Preminger’s best film.

  • long overdue

    . . . i must agree with the mention of “the verdict”, although there is another paul newman drama with fascinating courtroom scenes . . . . i’m speaking of “the young philadelphians” in which paul newman defends best friend robert vaughan against a murder charge . . . his cross-examination of the butler (who didn’t do it, incidently) is a great piece of film . . . .

  • JEF2

    I am glad someone finally mentioned “Philadelphia”. Tom Hanks won the Best Actor Oscar and gave the best acceptance speech ever. Denzel Washington again takes a thankless role as a character we don’t quite like (plaintiff’s lawyer). Depicts the problems of presenting the case of a client who’s story we don’t really want to hear.

  • Bruce Reber

    I’ve seen all of Rick29′s picks and honorable mentions (with the exception of Conduct Unbecoming). “Adam’s Rib” wasn’t a courtroom drama, but a Tracy/Hepburn romantic comedy with some very funny courtroom scenes. How about “And Justice For All” with Al Pacino? Although it was a 1976 TV miniseries, I would also consider “Helter Skelter”, adapted from Vincent Bugliosi’s book about the 1969 Tate/LaBianca murders by Charles Manson and his “family”, another powerful courtroom drama.