I 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.
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.)
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: