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100 years of law at the movies

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Movies

Illustration by Stephen Webster and Brenan Sharp; Getty Images

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the ABA Journal, so we’ve been exploring the legal and cultural history of the past century. For our annual pop culture issue, we looked for the best legal movies released in the decades since our launch in 1915. What follows is our list of the most important and influential legal movies for each decade, along with comments from some of the jurors who helped us with our picks.


1915-1924

1. The People vs. John Doe (1916), directed by Lois Weber, reflects high-profile murder cases in that era. It was described as “a terrific indictment of a system that permits a man to be convicted and sentenced to death on purely circumstantial evidence” by the New York Times.

“In a time that celebrated D.W. Griffith’s racist epic Birth of a Nation, director Lois Weber focused on a much smaller story about injustice and the death penalty. Based in part on the story of Charles Stielow, wrongly convicted in New York of murdering his neighbor, Weber dramatizes the helplessness of a slow-witted man before the ritualized milieu of the law.” —Allen Pusey

2. The Majesty of the Law (1915).

3. The Man Without a Country (1917).

100 Years of Law at the Movies

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1925-1934

1. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, chronicles the trial of Jeanne d’Arc on charges of heresy and the attempts to force her to recant.

“This is the masterpiece of this period; I’ve seen it at least three times, and I am mesmerized at every viewing. The images of Joan stay with me. The story is about a corruption of religion and true belief, and about the literalization (depiction) of the noble suffering of martyrdom. But it is also a movie that suggests possibilities of transcendence and redemption and grace. This film is about more than the elements of its plot; it suggests the power of images without spoken dialogue (the artistry of the imagery). For me, this is clearly one of the most important law films (and nonlaw films) of all time.” —Philip N. Meyer

2. The Scarlet Letter (1926).

3. Blackmail (1929).


1935-1944

1. Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), directed by Frank Lloyd, follows the exploits of Fletcher Christian, who leads a mutiny against the vengeful Captain Bligh on the HMS Bounty.

Mutiny on the Bounty is so compelling because it warns us about what can happen when the law and the power that attaches to it are abused by unfair and power-hungry people. It is brilliantly filmed and acted with particularly moving performances by Clark Gable and Charles Laughton (who always plays a great bad guy). —Bonnie Eskenazi

2. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939).

3. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).



1945-1954

1. Adam’s Rib (1949), directed by George Cukor, has husband and wife on opposing sides of a case in which a woman is accused of shooting her husband.

Adam’s Rib is one of my favorite movies of all time. Katharine Hepburn is so overwhelmingly brilliant as the accused wife’s lawyer, she almost single-handedly made it acceptable (or at least truly plausible) for women to practice law. Like Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, Hepburn is more competent than the men around her—including her husband (and we all know that even today women who practice law have to be twice as good as their male counterparts in order to be viewed as equally competent). She works harder and shows more determination to thoroughly represent her client than Spencer Tracy’s character, who—although clearly smart—takes for granted that he is going to win simply because he says so. The only thing that would have been better in this film is if Hepburn’s character had children—which I realize is an outrageous concept for that era.” —B.E.

2. The Caine Mutiny (1954).

3. Miracle on 34th Street (1947).


1955-1964

1. 12 Angry Men (1957), directed by Sidney Lumet, dramatizes jury deliberations in a murder trial when a dissenting juror works to convince his fellow jurors that the case is not so clear-cut.

12 Angry Men is such a landmark film for its depiction of jury deliberation, its great ensemble cast, its use of the resources of film to depict the claustrophobia of the jury room, etc. On a personal note, it’s probably the film that began my fascination with law and film as I still vividly remember watching it from the backseat of my parents’ car at a drive-in long after I probably should have been asleep.” —Diane Waldman

2. Anatomy of a Murder (1959).

3. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) [tie vote].


1965-1974 (Tie)

1. A Man for All Seasons (1966), directed by Fred Zinnemann, involves the story of Thomas More’s criticism of King Henry VIII on the topic of the Roman Catholic Church and the ability to divorce and remarry.

A Man for All Seasons focuses on the right of the individual to speak or to keep silent, even in the face of a demand from his government that he speak. Today, such a film speaks very directly to us. People in any number of countries are going to prison or dying for speaking, and others are keeping silent because they fear that fate.” —Christine A. Corcos

1. The Paper Chase (1973), directed by James Bridges, tells the story of a 1L at Harvard Law School as he struggles to balance his studies with his personal life.

“I put The Paper Chase at the top of my list for this period. It may not be the best of the movies on the list: In Cold Blood is darkly powerful; Lenny is a compelling story about the often violent opposition of art and law; A Man for All Seasons has, probably, the strongest screenplay. But The Paper Chase, for my money, has the most lawyer clout and influence. It embodies a lawyer’s mythology of what law school is about and how a law school (Harvard Law School) works. It captured what a law school class looked like—and sounded like too—in the late 1960s—and how a traditional law school clashed with the cultural values of that much different time. The Paper Chase also provides a pop-cultural baseline for our current crop of aging law professors and, perhaps, for our law students too. Kingsfield is still Kingsfield; John Houseman’s performance remains alive today, and law professors are still compared with and contrasted to him.” —P.N.M.

2. In Cold Blood (1967).

3. Lenny (1974).


1975-1984

1. The Verdict (1982), directed by Sidney Lumet, follows Frank Galvin’s attempt at salvaging his career and self-respect by refusing to settle a med-mal case.

“I choose three great, yet dissimilar, movies from this period for the top of my list: The Verdict, Kramer vs. Kramer and Breaker Morant. I probably rate The Verdict and Kramer vs. Kramer higher than some other lawyer-viewers do. Here’s why: Paul Newman as Frank Galvin in The Verdict is, for me, the archetype of the lost lawyer—the soul captured and embodied as a plaintiffs personal injury attorney in the greedy 1980s. His turnaround story of redemption is masterfully written (adapted) by David Mamet. Mamet also nails a particular cultural vision of our corrupted legal system and the abuses of power by the actors within it, at a particular time and in a particular place.” —P.N.M.

2. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979).

3. Breaker Morant (1980).


1985-1994

1. The Accused (1988), directed by Jonathan Kaplan, is a drama involving the gang rape of Sarah Tobias and a district attorney intent on bringing the perpetrators to justice.

“Lots of legal thrillers in this decade, but my highest ratings go to The Accused and Death and the Maiden. After all the films of previous decades where the focus seems to be achieving justice for the male accused of rape or the male killer of his wife or daughter’s rapist, finally a focus on the rape victim herself with an unforgettable performance by Jodie Foster. The film also raises questions about the relevance/irrelevance of the victim’s sexuality and of bystander responsibility/culpability. Death and the Maiden’s compelling narrative raises profound questions about the ability of the law to provide justice for victims of torture and human rights abuses.” —D.W.

2. A Few Good Men (1992).

3. Presumed Innocent (1990).


1995-2004

1. Dead Man Walking (1995), directed by Tim Robbins, is the powerful portrayal of Sister Helen Prejean as she ministers to a man on death row, Matthew Poncelet, through his final appeals.

“My top choices: A Civil Action, Dead Man Walking and The Sweet Hereafter. Why? A Civil Action is, in its way, an analogue to The Verdict. It is a lawyer redemption story set in a different time. It is also a powerful parable about lawyer hubris. And it is a classic ‘commercial’ lawyer melodrama. The villain is now the soulless corporation. The Sweet Hereafter is not commercial. It is a different type of story: dark and depressing. It is about how sadly disempowered we all are and about how there are mysterious places where the law can simply not go—an exploration of what is beyond the law. Dead Man Walking falls somewhere between these two: In its way, it is also a redemption story (about the convicted Poncelet) and about the redemptive power of love. In a curious Hollywood way, it is also a story about what can never be resolved or understood. Of course, Dead Man Walking purports to explore the death penalty; although it is probably the best Hollywood movie ever made on this subject, Tim Robbins’ adaptation completely loses Sister Helen Prejean’s abolitionist edge somewhere along the way.” —P.N.M.

2. A Civil Action (1998).

3. The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996).


2005-2014

1. The Social Network (2010), directed by David Fincher, dramatizes a young Mark Zuckerberg as he embarks on creating and launching Facebook, as well as the challenge he encountered from two brothers who say the revolutionary idea was theirs.

“So few films depict the deposition process in any meaningful way that The Social Network is a gem. Although it certainly has its flaws, it is a gripping tale of business innovation and the inevitable litigation that stems from such efforts.” —James M. Dedman IV

2. North Country (2005).

3. Fracture (2007).

Sidebar

The following lawyers and film buffs voted on a ballot of 94 movies produced between 1915 and 2014, covering the first 100 years the ABA Journal has been publishing. A shorter version of the ballot, with 32 of the jury’s top picks, is available at ABAJournal.com so you can vote on the past century’s most important legal movies.

Taunya Lovell Banks is a law professor at the University of Maryland, where she teaches courses on constitutional law and torts, as well as seminars on law in popular culture, citizenship and critical race theory. She writes about lawyers and legal issues in film and on TV and is a contributing co-editor of Screening Justice—The Cinema of Law: Significant Films of Law, Order and Social Justice.

Richard Brust, a veteran legal journalist with a law degree from Temple University, is an assistant managing editor at the ABA Journal. A longtime film and legal history buff, he steered the magazine’s enduring law and pop culture feature from 2008, “The 25 Greatest Legal Movies.” Brust earned his MA from the University of Chicago in 2014 and is leaving the Journal in August after 18 years to pursue his PhD in history at the University of Florida.

Christine Corcos is a law professor at Louisiana State University Law Center, where her courses cover legal issues related to entertainment, the European Union, gender, the Internet, media and torts. She researches and writes in the areas of First Amendment law, the law and popular culture, and legal history. She helped determine the criteria for this year’s movies list and advised on the creation of the ballot.

James M. Dedman IV is a partner in the Charlotte, North Carolina, office of Gallivan, White & Boyd. Before earning his law degree at Baylor University, Dedman earned a degree in radio, television and film from the University of Texas at Austin. He is the writer and producer of the independent film Pleadings, about lawyers and their trials. He’s also the editor of the blog Abnormal Use.

Bonnie Eskenazi is a partner in the Los Angeles office of Greenberg Glusker. An entertainment litigator, Eskenazi was named by the Hollywood Reporter to its list of “Power Lawyers.” She is a lecturer at Stanford and Harvard law schools.

Daniel M. Kimmel is editor of the Jewish Advocate, based in Boston. A former practicing lawyer, Kimmel is now a writer, editor and film critic. He is the author of several books, including The Fourth Network: How Fox Broke the Rules and Reinvented Television and I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies.

Philip N. Meyer is a law professor at Vermont Law School, where he teaches doctrinal subjects and film courses. A longtime movie lover, Meyer received an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He writes often about law and popular culture, law and film, and narrative jurisprudence, and he is a regular contributor to the ABA Journal. His most recent book is Storytelling for Lawyers.

David Ray Papke is a law professor at Marquette University Law School, where his courses include law and popular culture. He is the author of Law and Popular Culture—International Perspectives.

Allen Pusey, the editor and publisher of the ABA Journal, has long had an interest in the intersection of law and popular culture. He writes our regular legal history column, Precedents.

Thane Rosenbaum is a distinguished fellow and director of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society at New York University School of Law, which hosts the annual FOLCS film festival. He is a regular adviser and contributor on law in popular culture for the ABA Journal. He helped assemble this panel of judges and fine-tune the movie ballot for this issue.

Diane Waldman is an associate professor in the Department of Media, Film and Journalism Studies at the University of Denver, where she teaches film studies and documentary production. She is a former liberal arts fellow at Harvard Law School and has written about the representation of law in film.

10 Decades of the Most Important Legal Films

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