Movie lawyers come in all shapes, sizes and styles.
You have your young lawyers and old lawyers, your slick lawyers and slob lawyers, your cool lawyers and your not-so cool lawyers.
Then you have your trustworthy lawyers—think Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, voted the greatest screen hero in movie history in an American Film Institute poll.
On the opposite side of the Atticus Finches of the world, there are the opportunists, the underhanded, the do-anything-for-the-almighty dollar attorneys. You know—the shysters.
Richard Jenkins, the great character actor of The Cabin in the Woods, The Visitor and HBO’s Six Feet Under, plays a mob lawyer in Killing Them Softly. The film, directed by Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), showcases Brad Pitt as a hit-man enlisted by Jenkins to bring order to the struggling Mafia economy after a brazen holdup of a mob-sponsored poker game. The cynical, violent film, which moves the action of its source novel (by The Friends of Eddie Coyle author George V. Higgins) from ‘70s Boston to desolate post-Katrina New Orleans during the 2008 Presidential election, offers a parade of scuzzy types—the drug-addled robbers (Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn); the heist mastermind (Vincent Curatola), who is in the dry cleaning business; the highly combustive card game arranger (Ray Liotta); and the dangerous, booze-swilling senior trigger man from New York (James Gandolfini). Then there’s Jenkins’ unnamed attorney, a low-key but quietly sinister sort with an aversion to cigarette smoke, who views his dealings with Pitt as strictly business.
One glance at Jenkins—out of place, with his sports jacket and tie and bookish looks and sad sack demeanor—and you think: “the Bob Newhart of mob lawyers.”
Jenkins’ expertise at smooth wheeling and dealing got us thinking about other slightly ornery or more boisterous legal experts of the movies. Are there any other unscrupulous cinematic barristers that are worth cross-examining? Let us know.
Walter Matthau as Willie Gingrich in The Fortune Cookie (1966): After being injured on the sidelines by a Cleveland Browns player while filming the game, cameraman Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) is persuaded to fake injury by his sleazoid lawyer and brother-in-law “Whiplash” Willie (Matthau, in an Oscar-winning performance). Billy Wilder directs from the characteristically cynical script he co-wrote with I.A.L. Diamond.
The counsel’s summation: “What about Mrs. Cunningham vs. Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Ohio, number eighty-nine twenty-seven. Mrs. Cunningham, en route to Cincinnati to visit dying uncle, gets trapped in the toilet on account of a faulty lock. The car is hitched to another train. Mrs. Cunningham winds up in San Bernardino, California. By this time, the uncle is dead and she’s cut out of the will, so she sues the railroad for damages. Does this ring a bell?”
Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen in The Godfather (1972): Working quietly behind the scenes of the Corleone family business, Hagen, the mild-mannered consigliere of German-Irish heritage, takes care of fixing things behind the scenes—like getting a prized horse’s head in the bed of a Hollywood studio chief—in certain situations.
The counsel’s summation: “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
William Hurt as Ned Racine in Body Heat (1981): Lawrence Kasdan’s salute to film noir and Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is dripping with atmosphere, risqué double entendres, sexual encounters and perspiration. Maddy (Kathleen Turner) is the gorgeous wife of an older millionaire who sets Racine’s hormones aflutter, eventually suckering him into killing her hubby so they can live happily ever after with her inherited cash.
The counsel’s summation: “Sometimes the s–t comes down so heavy I feel like I should wear a hat.”
Paul Newman as Frank Galvin in The Verdict (1982): Desperate, alcoholic Boston ambulance chaser Galvin sees a chance at redemption when he’s given a shot to go to court in a medical malpractice case in which he has to battle a formidable defense attorney (James Mason) for the archdiocese who own the hospital where the incident took place. Newman shines in a film that should have won him his first Academy Award.
The counsel’s summation: “You know, so much of the time we’re just lost. We say, ‘Please, God, tell us what is right; tell us what is true.’ And there is no justice: the rich win, the poor are powerless. We become tired of hearing people lie. And after a time, we become dead… a little dead. We think of ourselves as victims… and we become victims. We become… we become weak. We doubt ourselves, we doubt our beliefs. We doubt our institutions. And we doubt the law. But today you are the law. You ARE the law. Not some book… not the lawyers… not the, a marble statue… or the trappings of the court. See those are just symbols of our desire to be just. They are… they are, in fact, a prayer: a fervent and a frightened prayer. In my religion, they say, ‘Act as if ye had faith… and faith will be given to you.’ IF… if we are to have faith in justice, we need only to believe in ourselves. And ACT with justice. See, I believe there is justice in our hearts.”
Sean Penn as Dave Kleinfeld in Carlito’s Way (1993): With a permed, balding pate that suggests legendary attorney Alan Dershowitz, Penn plays a lawyer who’s even scummier than his client, 1970s drug dealer Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino), hoping to go straight after a five-year prison stint. Kleinfeld, swigging booze and snorting Coke, has no problem stealing large sums of money from the mob, sleeping with a gangster’s girlfriend, helping a con in a prison break and committing murder.
The counsel’s summation: “F**k you and your self-righteous code of the god***n streets. Did it pull you out of a 30 year stint in only 5 years? No, it didn’t, I did. Did it get you acquitted 4 f***ing times? No, it didn’t, I did, so f**k you, f**k the streets, your whole god**** world is this big, and there’s only one rule– you save your own ass!”
Denzel Washington as Joe Miller in Philadelphia (1993): In Jonathan Demme’s groundbreaking drama, Miller is a homophobic, low-flying Philly attorney who takes on a case in which closeted, AIDS-afflicted lawyer Andrew Becket (Oscar-winning Tom Hanks) faces off against his high-powered, conservative firm in a discrimination lawsuit.
The counsel’s summation: “Some of these people make me sick. But a law’s been broken here. You do remember the law, don’t you?”
Al Pacino as John Milton in The Devil’s Advocate (1997): Keanu Reeves is a hotshot Florida defense attorney enlisted to work for a big Manhattan firm run by Milton, a powerful and charismatic legal eagle with devilish characteristics.
The counsel’s summation: “Let me give you a little inside information about God. God likes to watch. He’s a prankster. Think about it. He gives man instincts. He gives you this extraordinary gift, and then what does He do, I swear for His own amusement, his own private, cosmic gag reel, He sets the rules in opposition. It’s the goof of all time. Look but don’t touch. Touch, but don’t taste. Taste, don’t swallow. Ahaha. And while you’re jumpin’ from one foot to the next, what is he doing? He’s laughin’ His sick, f***in’ ass off! He’s a tight-ass! He’s a SADIST! He’s an absentee landlord! Worship that? NEVER!”
Danny De Vito as Deck Shiffler in The Rainmaker (1997): Francis Coppola’s handling of John Grisham’s legal thriller showcases Matt Damon as Rudy Baylor, a once-idealistic attorney who joins forces with Shiffler, a veteran ambulance chaser who flunked the bar exam six times. Their first major suit? Taking on a powerful insurance company that denied a claim by a leukemia patient, and that’s defended by the ominous, high-powered counsel Leo Drummond (Jon Voight).
The counsel’s summation: “You know what a Rainmaker is, kid? The bucks are gonna be falling from the sky.”
Bill Murray as Ken Bowden in Wild Things (1998): When two sexy Florida high school students (Denise Richards, Neve Campbell) accuse hunky guidance counselor Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon) of raping them, two detectives (Kevin Bacon and Daphne Rubin-Vega) are on the case. Shyster attorney Bowden, wearing a neck brace because he’s being looked at by insurance adjusters, takes Lombardo’s case in this overheated erotic thriller from helmer John MacNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer).
The counsel’s summation: “Did you enjoy being a guest of the state?”
Tony Shalhoub as Freddie Reidenscheider in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001): Fast-talking Sacramento defense attorney Reidenscheider is called in to defend Doris Crane (Frances McDormand), accused of killing her lover, department store mogul “Big” Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini). It turns out that Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), the quiet, small-town barber hubby of Doris, is really the person behind the murder. Shalhoub’s mile-a-minute banter and need for first-class accommodations make for some funny stuff in the Coen Brothers’ dark and off-handedly humorous black-and-white noir.
The counsel’s summation: “They got this guy, in Germany. Fritz Something-or-other. Or is it? Maybe it’s Werner. Anyway, he’s got this theory, you wanna test something, you know, scientifically – how the planets go round the sun, what sunspots are made of, why the water comes out of the tap – well, you gotta look at it. But sometimes you look at it, your looking changes it. Ya can’t know the reality of what happened, or what would’ve happened if you hadn’t-a stuck in your own goddamn schnozz. So there is no “what happened”? Not in any sense that we can grasp, with our puny minds. Because our minds… our minds get in the way. Looking at something changes it. They call it the ‘Uncertainty Principle’. Sure, it sounds screwy, but even Einstein says the guy’s on to something.”
Richard Gere as Billy Flynn in Chicago (2002): Gere is surprisingly fine as the slick, manipulative attorney in the Windy City of the Roaring 20s who represents showgirl Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), accused of killing her husband and her sister, after she discovered they were having an affair. Billy decides to take the case of Velma’s jail mate Roxie Hart (Renee Zelwegger), a married aspiring entertainer imprisoned for killing her lover.
The counsel’s summation: “This trial… the whole world… it’s all… show business.”
John Cusack as Charlie August in The Ice Harvest (2005): On the night before Christmas in Wichita, Kansas, the unethical attorney August and his pal Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) decide to take off with millions from money owed to a mobster (Randy Quaid). Harold Ramis directs this darkly humorous wintry crime saga.
The counsel’s summation: “Christmas Eve. Ho ho f****ing ho!