The Chicago Syndicate: Top 10 Courtroom Movies of All Time
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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Top 10 Courtroom Movies of All Time

Courtroom movies hold a special ability to provide mystery, suspense, and a good story that almost always reaches a neatly packaged conclusion, making this genre of movies appealing to a wide variety of audiences. Check out these movie recaps (including plot spoilers!) that span the entire 20th century, with black and white dramas, more modern dramas, and even a comedy and a documentary in the list. While it might not substitute for your training to become a court reporter, it certainly can’t hurt to spend some time watching these courtroom movies to understand the history and popular culture surrounding your chosen field of study.

  1. The Paradine Case (1947). Alfred Hitchcock directed this film that stars Gregory Peck as a barrister hired to defend Mrs. Paradine when she is accused of killing her wealthy, older husband. The barrister, happily married, begins to fall for the alluring Mrs. Paradine as he gets deeper into the case. The trial focuses on whether Mrs. Paradine or Mr. Paradine’s valet killed the man. During a particularly rough line of questioning by the barrister, the valet confesses to an affair with Mrs. Paradine. He leaves the courtroom and later kills himself. Upon learning of the death, Mrs. Paradine confesses to killing her husband, her love for the valet, and her hatred for the barrister, who she feels killed her lover. The barrister must then come to terms with how he handled the case and himself.
  2. 12 Angry Men (1957). A teenage boy is put on trial for killing his father. When the twelve men on the jury begin deliberation, what initially seemed an easy guilty verdict suddenly becomes much more complex when one juror (played by Henry Fonda) asks the other jurors to look closely at the facts of the trial. What results is a study in humanity as each of the jurors faces his own prejudices, emotions, and histories in a search for the truth.
  3. Witness for the Prosecution (1958). This stunning movie was adapted from a play written by the master mystery writer, Agatha Christie. Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich play Leonard and Christine Vole. Leonard is accused of killing a rich woman who left him a substantial amount of money. Leonard’s trial is full of twists and turns as his attorney fights to clear his name. When it appears that Christine has set Leonard up for murder and Leonard is cleared, the plot twists again.
  4. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). Based on a real trial that took place in 1947, this powerful movie stars Spencer Tracy as an American judge determined to understand the truth at the heart of the case that has four German judges accused of human atrocities under the Nazi regime. Tracy’s search for the truth reveals heartache and emotional blindness. Eventually the truth is revealed when one of the judges on trial describes the reasons he and so many others followed along with such horrific acts. When this movie was released in 1961, all four judges on whom the movie was based were already released from prison.
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Based on the novel by Harper Lee, Gregory Peck stars as an attorney in a small southern town who is selected to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. The story is told through the attorney’s young daughter, Scout. The trial and the events leading up to the trial depict both the rampant racism in the town as well as the beauty of humanity glimpsed between the other. While the trial does not end with justice being served, the movie ends with hope for the future as seen through Scout.
  6. The Verdict (1982). Paul Newman plays a lawyer who has turned to alcohol and shunned his career after his attempt to uphold justice was turned against him and he lost his partnership in a successful firm. A friend throws an easy medical malpractice case to him that is sure to settle out of court. When Newman’s character looks over the case, however, he feels it should go to trial. What follows is a study of the lawyer’s rebuilding his life and career in the face of both obstacles and infidelity as he wins the case for the family of a young mother left in a vegetative state.
  7. A Few Good Men (1992). Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, and Demi Moore star in this movie directed by Rob Reiner. Cruise plays an inexperienced lawyer for the Marines who defends two Marines accused of murdering a fellow Marine. The court case uncovers intense hazing that occurred under orders of the commanding officer and pits the green lawyer against a seasoned Colonel who verbally spar over what it means to have honor and to be a Marine. The lawyer wins the case, but the two he was defending are dishonorably discharged.
  8. My Cousin Vinny (1992). In a genre heavy with drama, this movie stands out as being both an excellent courtroom movie that is also a comedy. When two young men are accused of a murder they did not commit as they were passing through a small southern town, they hire the only lawyer they know and can afford–a cousin from Brooklyn who has only been a lawyer for a few weeks. The neophyte lawyer with his Brooklyn ways learns important lessons in courtroom etiquette as he bumbles his way through in a veteran judge’s well-oiled courtroom, culminating in the acquittal of the two young men.
  9. Philadelphia (1993). Based on a true story of the first AIDS discrimination case taken to court, Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington star in this movie that tells the story of an important lawyer at the largest law firm in Philadelphia who is fired from his position when it is discovered that he has AIDS. When the lawyer can find no one to represent him against the firm, he begins preparation to defend himself. A homophobic lawyer steps up to take the case and the two men take on and win the discrimination suit.
  10. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996). The only documentary in this list, this movie details the trial of three teenage boys in Arkansas who are accused of killing three 8 year-olds. With real courtroom footage and interviews with suspects and others involved in the case, this movie documents a trial that even after its conclusion left many wondering about the effectiveness of the judicial system.
Thanks to Court Reporter Schools

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