I’m a movie-nerd. At the age of fifteen I was given the first print edition of Halliwell’s “Film Guide”, and soon afterwards I started marking with a pen every movie I had seen. Soon it was obvious that it would be quicker – and easier on the eye – if I were to mark only those movies I had not yet seen. It was still a very healthy number. Thus began a lifetime’s obsession with the moving image.
If every tale is a hero’s journey (as the author Chris Vogler believes), then every journey must feature turning-points along the way: the crossroads at which our hero must choose a direction in which to proceed, or else face the consequences of having that choice forced upon him.
Last time I made a list of my top five Courtroom Dramas, movies in which the story is revealed through the unfolding events of a trial. This time around I’d like to introduce you to my top five Court Scenes – really a collection of top-class movies in which the momentous turning-points in the hero’s journey take place in a courtroom.
So – in reverse order…
(5): How to Murder Your Wife (1965) – w. George Axelrod, d. Richard Quine
A successful newspaper cartoonist (a suave Jack Lemmon) has set up the perfect bachelor lifestyle for himself; but after getting married to a beautiful Italian (the luminous Virna Lisi) while blind drunk, his cartoon fantasies of murder are used against him when his new wife suddenly disappears.
Faced with his attorney’s determination to enter a plea-bargain, our hero is forced to defend himself before the (all-male) Jury; and stakes everything on the appeal of the “married man’s magic button”.
Culturally this cute comedy is thoroughly out of date and often astonishingly sexist; but it is still full of perfectly respectable giggles and character-driven belly laughs. Personally I think the performance of Terry Thomas as the hero’s faithful Valet is a revelation.
(4): The Reader (2008) – w. David Hare, d. Stephen Daldry
Nearly a decade after his affair with an older woman came to a mysterious end, law student Michael Berg (David Cross) re-encounters his former lover Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) as she struggles to defend herself against an allegation of Genocide.
An extraordinary love story told in flashback; about the innocence of a generation of young Germans crushed and confronted by the realities of recent evil. The trial scenes represent the key turning-point in the young hero’s journey; my favourite being the moment when it seems that Hanna would rather admit to her participation in genocide, than allow her unmasking as an illiterate.
(3): Paths of Glory (1957) – w. & d. Stanley Kubrick
When a battalion of Great War soldiers in the French army make a tactical retreat from a suicidal assault on the enemy trenches, their commanding officer decides to select three soldiers at random and have them shot for cowardice. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) is the tough old soldier who can see this injustice for what it is, and still tries to prevent the generals from having their way.
The genius of this anti-war classic lies in Kubrick’s careful juxtaposition of brutal muddy warfare and the petty tyranny of the generals living comfortably behind the lines. It is arguably the best movie about the futility of trench warfare at a personal level; and the court-martial arrives with doom-laden inevitability.
(2): Goodfellas (1990) – w. Nicholas Pileggi, d. Martin Scorsese
The rise, rise, and spectacular fall of a small-time gangster with big plans; and the fragile loyalties and fierce violence of his so-called friends.
There are top-and-tail court scenes in this superb gangster movie, each one representing a turning-point in the crime-ridden journey of our anti-hero, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta in the role of a lifetime). Each is a mirror-image of the other, marking the start and the collapse of Henry’s childish dream: “As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster seemed better than being the President of the United States”.
As a teenager Henry gets prosecuted for the first time, selling cigarettes from the back of a stolen lorry. After the surprise intervention of an attorney provided by the local mafia boss (a largely taciturn Paul Sorvino), Henry escapes with a modest fine; only to be met by his role-model Jimmy Conway (Robert de Niro) who tells him “the two greatest things in life” – advice which will return to haunt our hero with a vengeance: “Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.”
As Henry’s life of crime reaches its dizzying conclusion – the brilliant “last business day” montage-and-monologue, featuring Henry as he juggles the secrecy of his drug deals and the petty mendacities of the mafia thug – Henry finds himself faced with a miserable choice between giving State’s evidence or spending the rest of his life in prison. The final court scene is a cynical reminder of the naivety of his teenage self.
Those of you expecting a hotlink to the wonderful last three minutes of the movie (and Johnny Rotten snarling “My Way” over the end-credits) will have to forgive its absence, for the sake of those lucky few who have not yet had the pleasure of watching one of the greatest contemporary movies of any generation.
And my number-one Movie Courtroom Scene?
(1) J.F.K. (1991): w. & d. Oliver Stone –
Not so much a scene as an hour of brilliant footage. Two-thirds of this long but endlessly fascinating fantasy (sorry, Oliver) is concerned with the torturously difficult and often frustrated course of the investigation carried out by real-life maverick Louisiana District Attorney, Earling “Jim” Garrison (Kevin Costner in finest role) into the assassination of President Kennedy. But the final third of the movie takes place within a New Orleans courtroom, as Garrison explains to the Jury and recreates the key details of the plot and its conspirators; the timeline of the assassination; and the ugly political aftermath.
Suspend your disbelief, and put aside your reasonable doubts about the alleged conspiracy sketched out by Oliver Stone’s screenplay (doubts which are supported by ample independent historical research, sorry again Oliver): this movie is a thrilling journey, the climax of which builds throughout the setting of the courtroom scenes. The almost visceral tension derives from Stone’s mastery of jump-cut editing and the award-winning use of sound.
WARNING: the following clip includes actual footage taken of the assassination by Abraham Zapruder from his position next to the grassy knoll. Not for the faint of heart…
Costner’s final speech – his last look straight into camera – is a genuine heart-felt plea from a betrayed generation; written by someone whose hopes began with flowers in his hair and ended in the jungles of Vietnam. Stone is convinced that Kennedy was going to take his country out of Vietnam by 1964; and so you will feel the same sense of tragedy, of a life snatched away all too soon.
This was my personal choice, and no doubt you have different views. And I need to make an admission: I specifically excluded the following movies from consideration, namely –
- A Man For All Seasons (1966) – because technically this is a film of a stage play;
- A Fish Called Wanda (1988) – because the courtroom scene constitutes little more than an extended gag; and
- Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) – because the climactic court-scene – in which Joanne Kramer (Meryl Streep) illogically withdraws her application for custody of her son Billy – is just the sort of deus ex machina that gives clients the wrong idea about what the Law can realistically achieve.
Another list waits for you, next time around. Meanwhile, how do you feel about my very short list of Courtroom Scenes? What have I missed? Email us and let us know.
Tell me which is your number one movie courtroom scene, and why.