Attack of the 20-Foot Lawyers

10 legal movies worth the rental

Published in 2009 Ohio Super Lawyers magazine

By Adam Wahlberg on December 22, 2008


Since the days of D.W. Griffith, courtrooms have been one of Hollywood’s favorite settings for drama. Think of it, all the elements of a good movie can be found there: heroic protagonists, scheming villains, intricate plot twists, surprise endings, sturdy bailiffs. For your viewing pleasure, the staff at Super Lawyers dimmed the lights, loaded up on Jujyfruits, and maxed out our Blockbuster membership cards to come up with this: our ranking of the 10 best legal movies of all time.

1. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) How many legal careers have been inspired by Gregory Peck’s timeless performance as noble country lawyer Atticus Finch? The riveting story supplied by novelist Harper Lee is only augmented by the elegant performances of Peck and the other leads (keep an eye out for Robert Duvall as Boo Radley). Cinematic perfection.

2. Witness for the Prosecution (1957) Billy Wilder co-wrote and directed this mystery based on an Agatha Christie play about an aging London barrister who’s preparing to retire when he takes the defense in the most challenging murder case of his career. Tyrone Power is the defendant, and Marlene Dietrich is the wife of the accused. The writing and acting are exquisite, and there are enough twists to keep even the most squirrelly of viewers mesmerized.

3. 12 Angry Men (1957) What a year 1957 was for legal movies. This Sidney Lumet film illustrates just how difficult it can be to get 12 people to agree on anything, much less the verdict in a murder trial. The brilliant cast features Henry Fonda, Jack Klugman, Lee Cobb and Jack Warden.

4. The Verdict (1982) Paul Newman delivers a virtuoso performance as an alcoholic attorney who changes his mind about settling a cut-and-dried medical malpractice case after meeting the victim. He takes the case to trial and wins back a measure of self-respect.

5. The Paper Chase (1973) Warning to students considering law school: Do not watch this movie. John Houseman is unforgettable as the Harvard law professor who instills fear and loathing into the hearts and minds of his students. A beauty of a performance and a movie.

6. Inherit the Wind (1960) A fictional version of the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” which pits Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution against creationism. Tremendous acting turns put in by Spencer Tracy and Fredric March.

7. A Few Good Men (1992) The U.S. military stands trial as Navy prosecutor Tom Cruise baits Colonel Nathan Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson, into admitting he ordered a “code red” of a young marine not performing up to snuff. The tension crackles between Cruise and Nicholson in the climactic courtroom scene. Adapted from the play by The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin.

8. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) A true story from the Nazi war crimes trials, dealing with several members of the German judiciary. Here the focus is on the judge who must render a final opinion and on a well-respected German scholar. Burt Lancaster is outstanding as the defendant. Directed by Stanley Kramer.

9. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep take their marital discord into family court, where they fight bitterly over custody of their young son. Fantastic performances by Hoffman and Streep, and also by Justin Henry as the child caught in the tug of war.

10. Double Indemnity (1944) Billy Wilder directs Fred MacMurray as a hapless insurance salesman who is duped into murdering the lovely Barbara Stanwyck’s husband. A movie that can be watched every day without boredom. The inspiration for Body Heat.

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