Matthew T. Mangino
December 22, 2017
If you’re looking for an interesting escape during the holiday season, check out my top-five courtroom noir movies. The golden age of film noir was the 1940s and 1950s, however there was a five-year stretch between 1957 and 1962 that produced some the most entertaining courtroom noir dramas of all time.
My top five movies starred some of the true heavyweights of cinema — Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy and Charles Laughton, not to mention academy award winner Maximilian Schell, Lee Remick, Burt Lancaster and Marlene Dietrich.
Let’s start with “Witness for the Prosecution,” released in 1957 and based on a play by Agatha Christie. The film adaptation starred Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich. Laughton plays Sir Wilfred Robarts, an aging barrister — white wig and all — in the Old Bailey, the British criminal court.
Robarts takes on Leonard Vole as a client, accused of murdering a rich widow who was smitten enough with him to make him a gift in her will.
Vole’s wife, played by Dietrich, is called as a witness for the prosecution. While a wife cannot be compelled to testify against her husband, her conscience forced her to tell the court Vole killed the old widow.
A mystery woman later emerges, Vole’s wife is recalled to the witness stand and another murder occurs in open court — I’ve already told you too much.
Also in 1957, “Twelve Angry Men” was released by Orion-Nova Productions. The movie starred Henry Fonda with and ensemble cast that included many familiar faces. The movie takes place almost exclusively in a jury deliberation room, while 12 men-that’s right, no women — deliberate the fate of a young man accused of stabbing his father to death.
Lee J. Cobb and Ed Begley are marvelous as each of the 12 men in a sweltering, smoke-filled room reveal their prejudices, biases and inner-demons. Director Sydney Lament did wonders with one room, 12 men and no props.
In 1959 Jimmy Stewart portrayed a former district attorney, turned country lawyer who takes on a murder case in “Anatomy of a Murder.” An army officer is accused of killing a man who raped his wife, played by Lee Remick. The hot-shot prosecutor called in from the attorney general’s office is played by George C. Scott.
The courtroom scenes are entertaining, but a bit unrealistic. Stewart’s argument about the underlying rape that invokes a metaphor of the “core of the apple” is worth rewinding and watching again. The movie’s judge is not an actor but rather a lawyer, Joseph N. Welch, who rose to fame challenging Senator McCarthy during his communist witch-hunt by bellowing, “Senator, have you no decency.”
“Judgement at Nuremberg” was released in 1961. The film was directed by Stanley Kramer, who teamed up with the film’s star Spencer Tracy in another courtroom drama, “Inherit the Wind.” Maximilian Schell won an Academy Award for portraying a defense attorney and Marlene Dietrich also appears — the only common actor in my top five — as the wife of an executed Nazi general.
The film centers on a phase of the Nuremberg war trials, dealing with the prosecution of German judges after World War II. The judges, the most prominent portrayed by Burt Lancaster, were accused of crimes against humanity for acquiescing to atrocities committed by Hitler and the Nazis.
Last, but certainly not least, is Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel adapted for the silver-screen — “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Gregory Peck won an Academy Award for portraying Atticus Finch. The novel and movie are set in 1930s Alabama. Finch is cajoled by the county judge into representing Tom Robinson, a black man, accused of raping a white woman, a capital crime in Alabama and much of the south at the time.
The movie is told through the eyes of Finch’s tomboyish daughter, Scout. The movie tells a compelling story of race and class in the early 20th-century South. Scout’s simple but poignant action to diffuse a racist mob outside the county jail — set on lynching Robinson — is as riveting today as it was more than 50 years ago.
Grab some popcorn and your favorite throw and slip away into the wonderfully suspenseful world of courtroom noir.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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