Monday, December 21, 2020

Posted by: Stephen Barton on Dec 21, 2020

If you're looking for some good movies to watch over the holidays, but are tired of all the standard Christmas fare, you may want to revisit some of these legal classics. Memphis lawyer Steve Barton gives you the "Top 5 Greatest Legal Dramas of All Time" to add to your favorites, if they are not already there. (We would caution you with a Spoiler Alert, but these movies are 38 to 60 years old, so if you're surprised by the endings, it's just not our fault.)


Number 5: Anatomy of a Murder

I think it’s fair to say that the subject matter of this movie is pretty racy for 1959, especially in a movie starring Jimmy Stewart. Laura Manion (Lee Remick) is allegedly sexually assaulted by local tough and bar owner, Barney Quill. This causes Laura’s jealous, hot headed husband, Lieutenant Fredrick Manion, to head over to Barney’s bar and plug him forthwith. But due to the dubious nature of the characters involved, it’s hard to say who did what to whom — and why.  

Lieutenant Manion is charged with first degree murder and ends up being defended by Paul Biegler (Jimmy Stewart), a former DA who knows his way around the courtroom and whose “aw shucks” manner belies a razor-sharp legal mind.  Biegler knows that too much time passed between the alleged crime and the murder to successfully assert a “heat of passion” defense, but finds an old Michigan case that holds that an “irresistible impulse” can be a defense to murder.  Basically, “I knew it was wrong, but I just couldn’t help myself" (jurisprudentially similar to “The Devil made me do it” and the “Twinkie Defense”).

A young George C. Scott plays intense, hard charging and (justifiably) skeptical prosecutor Claude Dancer. Dancer casts a jaundiced eye on Laura’s newfound courtroom fashion sense, including demure hats, frumpy suits, sensible shoes and eyeglasses. Neither does he buy that Manion, a Korean War combat veteran, was suddenly transported by an “irresistible impulse.” He figures Manion just got hacked off and blew Barney away. Murder one, pure and simple. 

Like in Wile E. Coyote and The Roadrunner, Dancer repeatedly goes in for the kill, but Biegler is always one step ahead. Dancer comes up with air every time. Manion is acquitted, but a cloud of ambiguity surrounds the entire case up until the very end of the movie. Then the smoke clears … sort of. 

There’s comic relief from the comments of trial judge Weaver.  (In a strange twist, Judge Weaver is played by Joseph Welch, who as chief counsel for the U.S. Army during the Army/McCarthy hearings, famously said to Senator Joseph McCarthy, “At long last sir, have you no sense of decency.”)  There’s also a soundtrack by jazz legend Duke Ellington, who makes a cameo appearance. A couple of interesting parts of the anatomy of this courtroom classic.


Number 4: Breaker Morant

This unheralded classic (1980) tells the true story of the court-martial of Lieutenants Harry “Breaker” Morant (Morant got his nickname based on his reputation as an expert horseman), George Witton and Peter Handcock during the Boer War in South Africa. The defendants are from Australia, having enlisted in the Bushveldt Carbineers. (A decision they all came to regret. As Morant states early in the movie, “I enlisted in the Bushveldt Carbineers on April 1, 1900 … April Fool’s Day.”) 

The three are accused of shooting Boer prisoners and a German missionary. The movie leaves no doubt that they committed the acts they are accused of, but their defense is that they were acting under exigent circumstances and orders that came from the top, Lord Kitchener himself. Kitchener had let it be known that “the gentleman’s war” was over.  Any Boer combatants caught wearing khaki (i.e. a British uniform) were to be shot. The defendants’ commander, Captain Hunt, was captured by the Boers and his body later found in a rather sorry state. When the defendants later capture a group of Boers, one of whom was wearing Captain Hunt’s uniform, they didn’t get bogged down in legal niceties. The same went for the missionary who they believed — probably correctly — was a spy. But by the time they went to trial the political winds had shifted. Now Kitchener was interested in a peace conference and “the hearts and minds” of the Boers. The Aussies were now expendable pawns in a bigger game.

The defendants knew they had an uphill battle from the start, especially when they meet their defense lawyer, Captain Thomas, for the first time on the opening day of trial. 

Morant:  As a matter of interest, how many court-martials have you done?

Major Thomas:  None.

Wittow:  None?

Handcock:  Jesus.  They’re playing with a double headed penny, aren’t they?

Major Thomas:  Would you rather conduct your own defense?

Wittow:  But you have handled a lot of court cases back home, sir?

Major Thomas:  No I was a country town solicitor.  I handled land conveyancing and wills. 

Handcock:  Wills … might come in handy.

But Thomas and the Aussies didn’t go down quietly. They gave as good as they got at trial. In one memorable scene, Morant is asked whether the judicial procedure and rules he relied on in giving his order to shoot the prisoners were similar to those in the court-martial proceedings. Morant didn’t think much of the comparison: 

“Like this? Oh, no, Sir, it wasn’t anything quite like this. Oh no, no, Sir, nothing quite so handsome as this. And as for rules, we didn’t carry military manuals around with us. We were out on the veldt, fighting the Boer, the way he fought us. I’ll tell you what “Rule” we applied, Sir – Rule 303 (referring to the caliber of his rifle). We caught them, and we shot them, under Rule 303.”

But in the end it was all for naught. Whether scapegoats for the Empire — as they believed — or not, all three were convicted. Morant and Handcock were sentenced to death by firing squad and Wittow a “lifetime of penal servitude."

Never should have left the Outback.


Number 3: A Man for All Seasons

"A Man for All Seasons" (1966) tells the story of Sir Thomas Moore (Paul Scofield). Most of the movie involves the palace intrigue and legal maneuvering necessitated by King Henry VIII’s (Robert Shaw) desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon so he can marry Anne Boleyn. The problem is he needs the Pope’s permission to do it, and the Pope ain’t budging. So in classic “If you can’t take Mohammad to the mountain, take the mountain to Mohammad” fashion, Henry comes up with an idea:  I’ll just create my own religion and let the Pope pound sand. 

Thomas has been made Lord Chancellor of England and is content to sit this one out. But the King wants everyone of any importance to take the “Oath,” certifying that they think that Henry’s plan is spot on. Thomas’ exquisitely refined conscience won’t allow him to take the Oath, but he seeks refuge in the legal maxim “Qui tacet consentiret,” which means “silence gives consent” (i.e. I won’t take the Oath, but you can assume that I couldn’t agree more! ). Thomas assumes this neat legal trick will allow him to save his soul and his head. 

The King isn’t buying it though. He considers a refusal to take the Oath to be an act of treason. The problem is the King knows that not only is Thomas an honest man, he’s known to be honest. So he wants Thomas on the record, or else. As a result, Thomas is forced to try to save himself with a remarkable display of legal and verbal tap dancing, which fills the movie with some great dialog, including the following classic lines:

William Roper: So, now you’d give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas Moore: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas Moore: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

This all ends up with Thomas being tried for treason, where he represents himself. Plenty of great lines here as well.  But probably the best is when he confronts Richard Rich, the backstabbing political climber whose perjury, in return for being appointed the Attorney General of Wales, ultimately sends Thomas to the chopping block. After Rich perjures himself, sealing Thomas’ fate, Thomas notices that Rich is wearing a medallion signifying his new office.  He then delivers this existential take down:

“Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to lose his soul for the whole world … (pause) … but for Wales?”

Great line, but Thomas lost the trial anyway, and shortly thereafter, his head. We aren’t told whether or not his refusal to take the Oath saved his soul. Hope so.   


Number 2: To Kill a Mockingbird

In my opinion, "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962) is probably the greatest movie of all time, period. However, as a pure legal/courtroom drama, I rank it as number 2. 

This movie about racial injustice in the deep south literally inspired many of its viewers to become lawyers. Everyone knows the story. Black sharecropper Tom Robinson is falsely accused of sexual assault by Mayella Ewell and her loathsome father, Bob Ewell. Robinson is represented by local attorney Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), a brave enough act at that time in rural Alabama. But Finch is not only brave, he’s also an excellent lawyer who proves beyond a doubt at the sham trial that Robinson is innocent. Nevertheless, Robinson is convicted by the all white jury and ends up killing himself. Even so, Ewell is so incensed at being exposed at trial as a liar and a racist lout (not that it mattered to the jury) that he goes after Atticus’s young children, Jem and Scout. In the end, Jem and Scout are saved and Ewell gets his just desserts, both at the hands of Boo Radley (Robert Duvall in his first movie role), the spooky but protective neighbor. 

Classic scenes include Atticus shooting the rabid dog; the “expectoration” scene with Ewell and Atticus (maybe the most powerful scene in the movie); Atticus attempting to toss Robinson a glass at trial, proving that Robinson could not have committed the crime because of a paralyzed left arm; an elderly black man telling Jem and Scout to “stand up” because their father is passing; and Scout, identifying Boo Radley, hiding behind the door, as the man that saved her and Jem. 

This true epic launched a thousand legal careers and made the name Atticus Finch synonymous with great legal skill, courage and simple decency.


Number 1: The Verdict

Paul Newman plays hard drinking, ambulance chasing plaintiff’s lawyer Frank Galvin in "The Verdict," (1982) this classic tale of redemption. At one time Galvin had been a rising star in a blue stocking Boston law firm but was falsely accused of jury tampering.  Afterwards, he hits the bottle and his life hit the skids.  Galvin spends most of the working hours drinking in a local pub, combing through obituaries and passing out his card in funeral parlors. 

Then, his friend and mentor, Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden) gives him what looks like a slam dunk case. A young woman, Debra Ann Kaye, was given the wrong anesthetic while giving birth at a Catholic hospital in Boston, leaving her in a coma. Her sister has sued the Diocese and the prominent physicians involved. The Diocese wants to settle the case to avoid any publicity. It looks like Galvin’s ship has come in. He visits Debra Ann in the hospital. While taking her picture for settlement negotiations he has an epiphany — he won’t be “bought off.” He’s going to try the case. As a result, he declines the generous settlement offer (without telling his client). He tells the Bishop, “I came here to take your money. I brought snapshots to show you so I could get your money. I can’t do it. I can’t take it.  Because if I take the money I’m lost.  I’ll just be a rich ambulance chaser.”

That’s when things really start to go down hill for Galvin. The fact that he is woefully unprepared for trial is the least of his problems.  The bigger problem is that the Diocese and doctors are represented by the superbly smug, haughty and vaguely sinister Ed Concannon (James Mason) who will do anything to win:

Galvin:   I’ll tell you something else, I can win it, I can win this case.

Mickey:  You won Frank. You won. When they give you the money that means you won. Now look – we don’t want to go to court, is this getting through to you?  Do you know who the attorney for the Archdiocese is? Ed Concannon. 

Galvin:   He’s a good man.

Mickey:  He’s a good man? He’s the prince of (…) darkness.  He’ll have people testifying that they saw her waterskiing in Marblehead last summer. 

Galvin’s expert witness mysteriously disappears a few days before trial, but the judge won’t give him a continuance.  Worse, Concannon hires the beautiful Laura Fisher to ingratiate herself with Galvin in order to keep tabs on his case.  (Laura gets a verdict of her own in the movie’s final scene.) When the case does go to trial, it’s not really David versus Goliath, it’s more like Lichtenstein versus The Third Reich. Even the judge has it in for Galvin, leading to a classic (if unrealistic) in-chambers confrontation during the middle of the trial:

Judge: I’m gonna write to the board of bar overseers about you today fella. You’re on your way out. They should have kicked you out in that Lillibridge case. Now, this is it today.

Galvin: I’m an attorney. On trial before the bar representing my client. My client. When you open your mouth you’re losing my case for me.

Judge: Now you listen to me - -

Galvin: No, you listen to me! All I wanted out of this trial was a fair shake. You push me into court five days early, I lose my star witness … and I can’t get a continuance and I don’t care. I’m going up there and I’m gonna try it and I’m gonna let the jury decide. You know they told me about you. Said you’re a hard (…) defendant’s judge, and I don’t care. I said the hell with it, the hell with it. 

Judge: Look Galvin, many years ago - -

Galvin: Don’t give me that (stuff) about you being a lawyer too, I know about you. You couldn’t hack it as a lawyer. You were a bagman for the boys downtown and you still are. I know about you ….

But a Galvin has a trump card up his sleeve in the form of a rebuttal witness – a nurse who knows what really happened in that delivery room. After the defense rests he calls her to the stand and she delivers her thunderbolt, blowing a gaping hole in the defense and sending shockwaves reverberating throughout the courtroom. But Concannon is remarkably quick on his feet. Through a brilliant feat of lawyering he’s able to plug the gap — or so he thinks. The jury always gets the last word — the verdict. 


STEVE BARTON is a shareholder in the Memphis office of Lewis Thomason. He has a wide practice in civil litigation and has successfully tried cases in state and federal courts. He has defended claims involving professional liability, construction, workers' compensation, premises liability, intellectual property and personal injury. He has also defended criminal cases in state and federal courts. He has argued cases before the Tennessee Court of Appeals and Supreme Court as well as the United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. This article first appeared in Lewis Thomason's firm newsletter.

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