Four Great Courtroom Dramas

In honor of the upcoming release of “Marshall”, the writers of CineNation picked some of their favorite courtroom dramas that you should watch.

Oct 13, 2017 · 8 min read

For over two decades, courtroom dramas have been a mainstay on television. From Dick Wolf’s Law and Order franchise to Ryan Murphy’s recent hit miniseries The People vs. O.J. Simpson, courtroom dramas have been a favorite of television audiences. Nowadays, however, we don’t see that many courtroom dramas receive the big screen treatment. The most recent that comes to mind is The Judge starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall in 2014, which received a mix response from both critics and audiences alike.

This weekend, however, the courtroom drama genre will return to the big screen. Marshall tells the story of Thurgood Marshall (played by Chadwick Boseman from 42 and the upcoming Black Panther), the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. Instead of being a straight biopic of the legendary man, the film focuses on one of Marshall’s first cases in the courtroom when he defends Joseph Spell (played by the great Sterling K. Brown ), a black man who is accused of rape and attempted murder.

In honor of the upcoming release of Marshall, our writers picked a few of their favorite courtroom dramas that they feel you should check out.

Witness for the Prosecution

By Thomas Horton

There truly aren’t enough good things one can say about Billy Wilder. Very rarely has cinema ever had a storyteller with such a firm grasp of both comedy and drama. It isn’t just enough that Wilder wrote and directed one of film’s most famous dramas (Sunset Boulevard) and one of its most beloved comedies (Some Like It Hot), then he went and combined the genres and delivered one of the all-time greatest dramedies (The Apartment).

Wilder’s level of genre-bending was unheard of in his era of Hollywood, and it created so many incredible films that are undeniably Wilder. One of his best but often overlooked films is Witness for the Prosecution, an adaptation of an Agatha Christie’s short story by the same name. With Christie’s dark murder mystery, Wilder is able to craft a dark and twisting courtroom mystery, while never passing up a few dry laughs.

I don’t want to give too much away in my description; the film touted its famous twist as part of its publicity campaign. While Hitchcock may have famously blocked late patrons from attending Psycho in 1960, Witness for the Prosecution was already warning its viewers not to be late for fear of missing the twist in 1957.

The film unites an all-star cast for its era, with Charles Laughton as a beleaguered attorney who agrees to defend an accused murderer (Tyrone Power). While mounting his case for the defendant, he interviews the defendant’s wife, played by Marlene Dietrich. She has an alibi for her husband, and agrees to testify on his behalf. On the day of the trial, however, she takes the stand for the prosecution and provides a damning confession from her husband. As the attorney’s case begins to spiral out of control, he starts to realize this trial isn’t as open and shut as he believes.

As with almost all of Wilder’s movies, the black and white visuals and classic Hollywood cast might lure you into thinking you’re watching a cut-and-dry Hollywood studio film, but his script and directing will undoubtedly surprise you. We’ll see if the same can be said for Ben Affleck’s upcoming remake

Runaway Jury

By Sean Randall

I am not even going to remotely pretend that Runaway Jury is the best courtroom drama on this list, or on any other list. Hell, it’s probably not even actually my own favorite based on the acting, the writing, or the impressive cast. After all, there’s A Few Good Men and A Time to Kill to consider. But Runaway Jury might be the one that I find the most comfortably entertaining, the popcorn flick of pure, delightful enjoyment.

It’s one of the approximately 4,000 John Grisham-based courtroom dramas, but instead of taking Big Tobacco to task as is done in the book, the film takes on the gun industry (though somehow the NRA never makes a named appearance). It stars John Cusack (always delightful), Rachel Weisz (see: John Cusack), Bruce McGill (an underappreciated and underutilized actor), the late Bill Nunn (see: Bruce McGill), and the former roommates Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman in literally their ONLY film together.

And, frankly, that makes this movie absolutely worth it. There are some really ridiculously cheesy shots and lines, some heavy-handed and incredibly implausible moves on the parts of the villains, and a reveal that is perhaps a little telegraphed… but the scene where the plucky Southern lawyer Dustin Hoffman comes face-to-face with Mr. “I Rig Juries For Money” Gene Hackman in the bathroom is frankly cinematic history. Is it as iconic as, say, the diner scene in Heat? Obviously not. But even Pacino and De Niro have shared a couple other movies. This is two of acting’s greatest talents in their only on-screen performance together. Maybe they deserved better, but what we’ve got is not half bad. An easy, enjoyable film — with perhaps some current political poignance — that is worth giving at least one watch to remind yourself why Hoffman and Hackman are two of the best there have been.

12 Angry Men

By Dan LeVine

I was first shown 12 Angry Men when I was in 4th or 5th grade and getting to watch a movie instead of having to listen to a lecture at that age was always exciting. But, one could feel the enthusiasm in the room immediately fade once the picture came up in fuzzy black and white. And my fellow 4th grades, you know what this means: boring movie ahead.

But the title 12 Angry Men intrigued me, and I didn’t have much other choice, so I decided to give it a few minutes. And…wow. Just, wow.

I was blown away.

Never in my life had I seen a movie like this — so smart, so tense, so exciting. And it was all words! Hardly any action at all! And yet, I felt such support for Henry Fonda’s character and such hatred for Lee J. Cobb’s. I was on the edge of my seat — er — desk. Could one man really change the minds of the eleven others? Could they save this kid?

Another thing that struck me about the movie was the fact that they stayed in that single location for (nearly) the entire film. Upon a more recent rewatch, I realized that director Sidney Lumet cleverly keeps you, the viewer, stuck in the room for an hour and change, just like the jurors. It helps increase the tension in the film by creating a sense of claustrophobia.

It has now been many years since that first viewing, but 12 Angry Men still remains one of my favorite movies, and is, in my opinion, one of the best pieces of cinema ever made. 12 Angry Men is the story of how one person can truly make a difference in the world. Even though it was released in 1957, it will never be dated, for its lesson will forever be relevant and invaluable.

To Kill a Mockingbird

By Brandon Sparks

I’ve been an avid fan of courtroom dramas for a while. I thought about throwing a curveball here by picking a lesser talked courtroom drama like Primal Fear or …And Justice For All. I’ll do a separate article to talk about that possibly. But, it’s very hard to talk about courtroom dramas and not talk about To Kill a Mockingbird.

Being from Alabama, anything that deals with To Kill a Mockingbird holds a special place in my heart. The main event of the film revolves around the trial of Tom Robinson, but the film is not really a straight courtroom drama. To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming-of-age film disguised as a courtroom drama. The trial of Tom Robinson is what shows Scout that the world that she knows isn’t that clean cut. The good guys don’t always win and there is injustice in the world.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the greatest film adaptations of a book in the history of cinema. The film’s screenwriter, Horton Foote, was able to actually capture the essence of Harper Lee’s beautiful language that is present in the book for the screenplay. There isn’t really a weak spot in the film to me. Like in most of his films, Robert Mulligan’s direction is spot on with the material. The production design is amazing, being is they made the film on the backlot at Universal Studios and not a small town in Alabama. The courtroom is actually an exact replica of the Monroeville courthouse that Lee’s father tried cases at in Alabama. The score of the film might also be Elmer Bernstein’s best.

But, I also have to talk about the performances in the film, which might be the film’s greatest strength. From Mary Badham as Scout to William Walker as Reverend Sykes, every actor embodies the role they are playing. And then there is Gregory Peck at Atticus Finch. Peck’s performance as the legendary Finch is one of the greatest performances of all time in my opinion ,and easily the greatest film lawyer of all time. His closing argument is a masterclass in acting (and filmmaking). Like almost everything in the film, it is perfect.

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