13 June 2009

I'll Be the Judge of That: Ten Film Lawyers Who Can Represent Me Anytime

God forbid I should ever need legal representative in a courtroom trial. But if I do I've got the movies from which I can draw any number of outstanding barristers to plead my case. (Whattaya mean that don't work?)

In various films over the past 75 years these able attorneys have displayed passion, wisdom and an often encyclopedic knowledge of the law. I doubt any "real life" lawyer could best them mano y mano. So these the gentleman from whom I'd chose. Anyone playing on suing me is thus forewarned.

Paul Newman as Frank Galvin in The Verdict (1982). A stumble bum drunken has been for most of the film, he pulls himself together, defies the odds and gives one of filmdom's most stirring courtroom speeches. Wow! It was one of the most unforgettable performances I've ever seen. On top of that he had Jack Warden working with him. My first choice.

Denzel Washington as Joe Miller in Philadelphia (1993). It was Tom Hanks who won the Best Actor Oscar (well deserved at that) for his performance as lawyer dying of AIDS, but Joe Miller argued his illegal dismissal case in court. And what a job he did! Miller was a homophobic ambulance chaser at the movie's start but by the final reel he was a compassionate man and savvy lawyer. His sudden question of a witnesses sexuality was so outrageous and so effective that it helped turn the case around.

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962). An obvious choice but an unavoidable one. To most the quintessential trial lawyer of film. Eloquent, persuasive and not incidentally in the right. A man of strong moral character and a great father to boot. An iconic film role by one of our greatest actors.

Spencer Tracy Henry Drummond as in Inherit the Wind (1960). This was actually Tracy as Drummond who was the legendary Clarence Darrow in disguise. The man he was ripping a new one was Frederic March as Matthew Harrison Brady who was William Jennings Bryant in disguise. But there was no disguising the power of the performances particularly Tracy's. He veritably turned Brady upside down on the witness stand. I doubt Darrow could have done better.

John Barrymore as George Simon in Counsellor at Law (1933). Imagine John Barrymore walking into a courtroom, profile and all. How can you lose? Barrymore's George Simon was a super successful counsellor, despite a crumbling marriage and past indiscretions that nearly drove him over the edge. Winning cases under that kind of pressure? Sign me up.

Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfrid Robarts In Witness for the Prosecution (1957). He's knighted for crying out loud. How do you beat a knight? Plus he's willing to defy doctors, come back from a heart attack and take your case. Sure he likes to take a nip or twelve despite those same doctor's orders, but the spirits are part of his persona which happens to be a very successful one. So successful -- and forgive me if I'm repeating myself -- he's been knighted.

Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison in JFK (1991). Boy he sure tore the single bullet theory to shreds. In fact he convincingly proved that John F. Kennedy was assassinated as the result of a conspiracy. Then he looked at the camera (that is, us in the audience) and said "it's up to you" to find the truth. Of course he was unable to pin anything on Clay Shaw, but at least the movie version of Garrison was damn convincing.

Al Pacino as Arthur Kirkland in ...And Justice for All (1979). Talk about bringing passion to your job! If he were a coach players would run through walls for him. If he were a General his troops would charge machine guns unarmed for him. As it is he's a lawyer and he'll take your case and anyone else's and give the proverbial if non-existent 110% for you. And you don't even have to leave your seat, let alone charge anything.

Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams in Amistad (1997). One of the great and most overlooked courtroom summations in film was given by Hopkins in the vastly underrated, Amistad. I never met John Quincy Adams (no, I'm not that old) but its hard to imagine that Hopkins' portrayal was very far off. And check out a mere part of his eloquent address to the highest court in the land in defense of the Amistad Africans: This man is black. We can all see that. But, can we also see as easily, that which is equally true? That he is the only true hero in this room. Now, if he were white, he wouldn't be standing before this court fighting for his life. If he were white and his enslavers were British, he wouldn't be standing, so heavy the weight of the medals and honors we would bestow upon him. Songs would be written about him. The great authors of our times would fill books about him. His story would be told and retold, in our classrooms. Our children, because we would make sure of it, would know his name as well as they know Patrick Henry's. Yet, if the South is right, what are we to do with that embarrassing, annoying document, The Declaration of Independence? What of its conceits? "All men created equal," "inalienable rights," "life, liberty," and so on and so forth? What on Earth are we to do with this? I have a modest suggestion.
[tears papers in half] .

Groucho Marx as J Cheever Loophole in At the Circus (1939). The name alone inspires confidence. The man himself is of impeccable character and brings an unmatched wit to go along with the requisite dose of wisdom. You ever see Groucho take second to anyone in any film? True, we don't see his courtroom skills on display in this film, but with that impeccable sense of style and given the brothers who assist him, I'd feel in good (not to mention hilarious) hands.


Jess said...

I was thinking I'd like Henry Fonda as my lawyer and then remembered he was the juror. I'd also take Katherine Hepburn from Adam's Rib. Way ahead of her time.

Jonboy said...


Thanks for your wonderful blog. I agree with you list with one glaring exception. How can you omit James Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder? The film accurately portrays the tactics, emotion and drama of a murder trial. Plus, unlike most other courtroom dramas, this film closely follows real legal procedure.

Stewart gives, in my opinion, his finest post WWII performance. Arthur O'Connell, George C. Scott, Lee Remick and Eve Arden are all marvelous.