The courtroom movie really came into prominence in the late 1950s and early 1960s, during the death-throes of monochrome film. Movies like Inherit The Wind, Anatomy of a Murder, 12 Angry Men, Witness For The Prosecution and Judgment at Nuremberg starred great actors like Spencer Tracy, Frederic March, Henry Fonda, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton and James Stewart in many of their most memorable roles. Tackling subjects like Evolution vs Creationism and the Nazi Holocaust, these were deliberately important films; earnest yet gripping.
The courts were an ideal location for television too – each week a new trial and a different story, but the same leading characters. Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason arrived in 1957, and soon begat The Defenders, Matlock, LA Law, Boston Legal, Shark and now, celebrating the arrival of its second season on DVD from the 28th of April, Franklin & Bash.
To mark this auspicious occasion, here are six of the most momentous movie courtroom scenes for you to deliberate upon, before making your final statements.
“What kind of a man are you?” asks Bob Ewell of Atticus Finch, once Finch has proved that Tom Robinson could not have beaten and raped his daughter and simultaneously implicated Ewell in the crime. He meant it as an insult, but it could just as well have been incomprehension. Was ever a man as inherently, implacably good as Atticus Finch? The American Film Institute didn’t think so. In 2003, the AFI named Oscar-winning Gregory Peck’s character as the greatest movie hero of the twentieth century.
Based upon Harper Lee’s masterpiece set in Depression-era Alabama, about a black farm-hand who is accused of raping a poor white girl, To Kill a Mockingbird is a yardstick that courtroom dramas have measured themselves by ever since. Peck’s performance – the trademark slow pacing of the courtroom and his unnerving pauses and silences – crystallised everything that every lawyer aspired to be from that moment on.
Having been threatened and ostracised by his bigoted townsfolk, and seen his children Scout and Jem suffer the same treatment, his anger finally reveals itself in his closing argument. “In our courts, all men are created equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system. That’s no ideal to me; that is a living, working reality. Now, I am confident that you gentlemen will review, without passion, the evidence that you have heard, come to a decision and restore this man to his family. In the name of God, do your duty!” Despite losing the case, as in his heart, Finch always knew he would, his heroism is summed up in perhaps one of the greatest lines ever spoken.
As Finch, leaves the courtroom for the last time, up in the balcony, his ally Revered Sykes says to Scout, “Stand up. Your father’s passing.”