Saturday, January 03, 2004

So Reb Says to Me . . . .

"Hey SAM, in your spare time would you mind posting a permanent list of recommended movies?"

Now, as Reb knows, I am always eager to give her more of something other than what she's asked for. Herewith the first installment of a partial list of recommended movies. They're not all famous, and most of them will no doubt be very eccentric and screwy recommendations, but here they are. They're the "must haves" of my DVD collection, movies which I can watch three or four times a year without tiring of them. I'd like to provide more commentary, but then I'd be spoiling the endings and I absolutely hate it when people do that!

Category: Courtroom Dramas

Billy Budd (Peter Ustinov, 1962). Adapted from the Herman Melville story. A very young Terence Stamp (Wall Street, Red Planet) plays Billy Budd, an innocent sailor pressed to join the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Budd is relentlessly goaded by Claggart, the evil master-at-arms fightningly played by Robert Ryan (The Longest Day, The Wild Bunch) until Budd triggers a heartbreaking confrontation between the demands of justice and the need for order. Peter Ustinov (Quo Vadis, Death on the Nile) directs and plays the ship's captain.

Twelve Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957). OK, OK, it's a classic and you've probably heard of it. Still, it's got a magnificent cast (Henry Fonda, Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman, E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden) in this presentation of the American justice system's fundamental mythos that ordinary men can be extraordinarily wise once they abandon their prejudices and use their reason. The movie's most wonderful moment, however, occurs as Henry Fonda's Mr. Davis leaves the courthouse; populist supremacy isn't about parades and free beer, and Davis doesn't even expect it to be. The ending underscores something else -- the fundamental mythos might work tolerably well in a society full of 1957 Davises, but that model's not in stock anymore.

Judgment at Nuremburg (Stanley Kramer, 1961). A sprawling drama packed with great performances that make the Alec-Baldwin-plagued Nuremburg look like the stupid, puny and two-dimensional film it really is. Spencer Tracy stars as a retired American judge sent to Nuremburg to preside over the trials of "small fry." The "small fry" happen to be German judges, among whom is Ernst Janning. Janning is a brilliant legal scholar, a drafter of the Weimar constitution, an international symbol of the rule of law. Is he also a criminal? If he is, then what law could he have broken? Interesting parallels are suggested, but never explored, between the political pressure put on German defendants by the Nazis and the pressures put on Allied judges by their governments during the trial process. Riveting performances by Maximilian Shell as Janning's defense attorney, and Montgomery Clift as a man sterilized under Nazi eugenics laws. William Shatner also appears (with merciful brevity) to give us the clearest view of the effeminacy that lies just under the surface of his every performance. Unfortunately, the film dodges the central issue -- where does the law come from -- in favor of empty pieties about decency and responsibility. But the movie still lays the question right out in front of you like a dead cat on the coffee table, so it's hard to avoid thinking about it when the film's over. Cui custodiet custodies: In a world where Holocausts happen, should men ever be their own guardians?

The Verdict (Sidney Lumet, 1982). Paul Newman plays Frank Gavin, a broken, alcoholic lawyer who's been handed the biggest case of his life by an old friend. Incompetent physicians at a prestigious Catholic hosptial have destroyed a woman's life, leaving her permanently brain-damaged. (The film features lots of cassocked villainy on the part of the Diocese, which tends to be offensive until one replaces the film's situation with pedophilia, thereby making it uncomfortably hard to complain about the portrayal). Through a combination of fear, drink, and incompetence Gavin foregoes a settlement offer and forces the case to go to trial without his star expert witness. James Mason, playing the attorney who represents the hospital and the negligent doctors, proves once again that he was born to play evil characters. The movie's explosive ending is preceded by Gavin delivering what is, IMHO, the greatest on-screen jury argument in the history of film. Essentially, showing the film is a wonderful way to begin meetings of Slothaholics Anonymous -- don't ever be afraid of hard scary things, because hard scary things will generally make you closer to the man God wants you to be.

QBVII. (Tom Gries, 1974). A television miniseries based on the Leon Uris novel of the same title. Anthony Hopkins plays Adam Kelno, a Polish physician who leads a life of dedicated humanitarian service until Abraham Cady (Ben Gazzara) publishes a book about the Holocaust that accuses Kelno of committing medical atrocities. Kelno sues for slander, and the case is heard in Queen's Bench VII. The evidence shows why we're not to judge the objective state of another's soul, and the jury's verdict is surprisingly Solomonic.

Witness for the Prosecution (Billy Wilder, 1957). From an Agatha Christie play, Charles Laughton portrays Sir Wilfrid Robarts, a brilliant but eccentric barrister who's constantly attended and fretted over by his nursemaid, Miss Plimsoll. He has to sneak his cigars and brandy, which adds some loveableness to his leonine demeanor. Robarts is called to defend the witless Tyrone Power, who's been accused of seducing and then murdering a rich widow. Power's German war-bride is played by the magnificent Marlene Deitrich, who starts out as a devoted alibi witness and then starts putting more holes in Robart's case than the 3ID put into Iraqi tanks. Memorable line from Laughton: "My Lord, may I also remind my learned friend that his witness, by her own admission, has already violated so many oaths that I am surprised that the Testament did not leap from her hand when she was sworn here today!" Oh, I wish lawyers could speak that way in court today!

Compulsion (Richard Fleischer, 1959). A practically-teenaged Dean Stockwell (Quantum Leap) and Bradford Dillman play characters based on Leopold and Loeb, two famous murderers of the interwar years who killed a small boy just to prove they could get away with it. They couldn't, and their trial became a national sensation with Clarence Darrow appearing for the defense. Of course, a Clarence-Darrow-like character defends the two boys on screen in the person of Orson Wells. Wells' character (Jonathan Wilk) has a hopeless case in a courtroom packed with men eager to see his clients hang. But Wilk still tries to work a courtroom miraclem through sheer force of personality and eloquent appeals to philosophical wisdom. The movie is a standing rebuke to every "package and plead ‘em" defense attorney. It's worth watching as a reminder that the reason we're so disgusted at what criminals do is that they're our brothers and sisters who deserve better and owe the world more than the lives they've lived.

Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959). James Stewart plays a small-town lawyer (Hip hip hooray!) hired to defend a man (played by Ben Gazzara) accused of murder. George C. Scott plays the big city prosecutor (Boooo!). The trial turns around whether the dead man raped Lee Remick, Gazzara's wife. Good depictions of cross-examination, although the attorneys' wit (or attempts at wit) would land them both in jail in today's super-serious, excruciatingly-efficient, "international-beef-processors" courtroom environment. It also shows the attorneys engaging in some, uh, "sharp practice" on occasion: among other scenes we get to see James Stewart "woodsheding" a witness (an old slang term from the days when lawyers used to coach their witnesses in the woodshed behind the courthouse). Stewart gets just about as close as you can get to scripting testimony without being open to indictment or disbarment. The most accurate depiction of a trial on film, IMHO. One of the highlights is that a real judge (Joseph Welch, who also represented the U.S. Army during McCarthy hearings) played the judge in the courtroom scenes. And the soundtrack's by Duke Ellington.

Breaker Morant (Bruce Beresford, 1979). Based on a true story (so you know it's true!), the movie involves the career of three officers in the Bushveldt Carbiniers during the Boer War. They receive "informal" orders from Lord Kitchener, commander of the British forces, to shoot prisoners. As the war winds down, and the British are taking heavy criticism for their treatment of the Boers, the Carbiniers become an embarassment. The three officers are court-martialed for following their orders. They're defended by an inexperienced solicitor from Australia played by Jack Thompson (who also played Sonny, the defense attorney in Clint Eastwood's production of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil). The trial scenes are well done, the presentation of evidence on each charge is neatly interwoven with the "real" episodes in the form of flashbacks. In addition to Thompson embarrassing the British by behaving as though their own regulations meant what they said, we see that the law doesn't always mean what it says nor do trials always end up with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I like the movie because (once you get past the anti-Brit theme) it highlights the human problems that arise when the positive law deviates from the natural law.

More to come . . . . .

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