Mr. Cimoli: “Say, how much do you think my pelvis is worth?”
“Whiplash Willie” Gingrich: “By itself, nothing. So it’s a good thing you came to me. Before we’re through, we’ll have them begging for mercy.”
Mr. Cimoli: “Well, who’s “them”?”
“Whiplash Willie” Gingrich: “That I haven’t figured out yet.”
[Howard McNear to Walter Matthau, “The Fortune Cookie” (1966)]
Many different types of professions have been portrayed from the very beginning for films, television and various streaming services. Members of the armed forces, law enforcement, and the medical profession are a few that immediately come to mind, and dramas focusing specifically on these professions have been constantly popular with the general public as well as providing box office gold for the major film studios, networks and media services. Another popular profession dramatized was also one involving lawyers or the various different aspects of the judicial/legal system. They could cover such things as criminal justice, comedy, horror, mystery, romance, or even legal issues of historical importance for example. This month’s Blog Post will discuss various types of films and television series about the legal profession.
A number of legal dramatizations based on fact have been done for both film and television. Two examples, which were both originally done for the theater, were “Inherit the Wind” (1960) and “The Andersonville Trial” (1970). “Wind”, directed by Stanley Kramer, was a dramatization of the famous 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial where legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow defended teacher John Scopes, who violated Tennessee’s “Butler Law” forbidding the teaching of human evolution in any state-funded school vs. former U.S. Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan who represented the state. This legendary 1955 play, which was also a veiled attack against McCarthyism, starred Spencer Tracy in the Darrow role and Frederic March in the Bryan role (although both characters had different names in the film). Even though both actors gave powerhouse performances, this picture was, in retrospect, only good, rather than great. This was due, unfortunately, to Stanley Kramer’s style of direction. Although Kramer did a number of successful and socially progressive themed pictures (“The Defiant Ones”, “Judgement at Nuremberg”, “Ship of Fools”, etc.), he was too often as subtle as a buffalo stampede through a church! He could be so heavy-handed in his messaging, that it was all you could do to keep from just yelling at the movie screen, “OK Stan, will you quit pontificating, and just tell the G-d Damn story already.” It also didn’t help that he miscast Gene Kelly as a stand-in for H.L. Mencken reporting on all of the proceedings. Kelly might have been a dancing/choreographer colossus, but unfortunately, he also was, a “colossally” bad film actor. Every time he opened his mouth to say some supposedly cynical smart-ass comment, you just wished that Humphrey Bogart (if he would have still been alive) would have been the one saying that line instead. Fortunately, a far better historical dramatization, and one that cost a whole lot less, was for “The Andersonville Trial.”
Expertly directed by George C. Scott, who also starred in the original 1959 Broadway production, “Trial” was adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by MacKinlay Kantor about the war crimes trial of Henry Wirz, the Confederate commander of the infamous Andersonville prison in Georgia where some 13,000 out of 49,000 Union prisoners died due to exposure, malnutrition, and disease. This was not so much a movie, but more of a filmed stage dramatization with all of the scenes shot indoors with few sets, and with the focus of the drama, almost exclusively on the acting. To instill even more accuracy, all of the witnesses portrayed in the film were actual witnesses who testified at Wirz’s trial, and in a number of cases, their dialogue was taken almost verbatim from the actual trial transcript. Oh, and regarding the acting, it’s spectacular! Scott assembled an all-star cast with William Shatner as real-life Chief JAG Prosecutor Lt. Col. Norton Chipman, Richard Basehart as Wirz, Cameron Mitchell as real-life Major Gen. Lew Wallace, Jack Cassidy (Emmy nominated) as Wirz’s defense counsel, and numerous other fine actors (Buddy Ebsen, Michael Burns, Albert Salmi, John Anderson, etc.) as witnesses testifying during the trial. Scott even had big time name character actors like Kenneth Tobey, Ian Wolfe, Charles McGraw, Alan Hale Jr., Bert Freed, etc. in non-speaking roles as members of The Board of Military Judges that would determine Wirz’s fate. Everyone gives fine performances, even Shatner, if you can exclude some of his more hyper-spastic moments. Despite its cheaper production costs, and the fact that it was shown as an episode on the PBS’s anthology series Hollywood Television Theatre rather than on any of the major networks, “The Andersonville Trial” still won the Emmy for Outstanding Single Program that year, and a Peabody Award as well. After all these years, it is still one of the most compelling historical courtroom dramas ever made.
There have also been other fine historical courtroom dramas made too! As examples, you had…
- “Compulsion” (1959): An adaption of the fictionized novel of the 1924 Leopold and Loeb murder trial, with Orson Welles giving one of the finest performances of his career as a lawyer (patterned after Clarence Darrow) who defends two young adults (Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman) charged with murdering a 14-year-old boy.
- “Breaker Morant” (1980): Australian picture dramatizing one of the first historical war crimes prosecutions in British military history involving Australian soldiers serving in the British army during the Second Boer War of 1899-02 accused of murdering captured enemy combatants and civilians during the conflict. Directed by Bruce Beresford and with Edward Woodward and Bryan Brown as two of the accused. Just like for “The Andersonville Trial” the accused defense here also utilized what was later known as the “Nuremberg Defense”, or in other words, “They were just following orders…” It didn’t work! The soldiers were executed anyway!
- “In the Name of the Father” (1993): Irish biographical drama about Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis), one of the “Guildford Four”, who was falsely convicted of the 1974 Guildford pub bombings that killed four British soldiers, a civilian, and injured many others. Conlon was tortured, his father (Pete Postiethwaite) arrested and thrown into prison with him, and when the authorities found proof that they were innocent, they deliberately withheld the evidence instead. This powerful drama was directed by Jim Sheridan (“My Left Foot”), and after seeing it, it will make your blood boil!
OK, Dear Reader, before you ask me whether I am going to keep highlighting controversial and somber real life courtroom dramas that could get you depressed or angry, I will quickly answer that question for you… NOPE! Moving right along, courtroom dramas were also quite abundant for the category of suspense or mystery/crime films. Only problem was that too many of them were absolutely terrible. For example, you had the 1996 legal thriller “Primal Fear” (AKA Edward Norton gives Richard Gere an Acting Lesson) with Gere more interested in mugging for the camera to show off how pretty he is rather than actually trying to believably play Norton’s defense attorney. Then you had the 1993 film,” The Firm” (AKA Gene Hackman gives Tom Cruise an acting lesson) with Cruise so out of his league next to Hackman, who plays a senior partner in a law firm that is actually controlled by the mob, that you almost felt sorry for him until Cruise flashed his pretty “capped” teeth once too often and you just wished that the mob either “capped” Cruise or at least pulled his teeth out instead. Maybe the worst one of them all was the 1988 film, “Criminal Law” with Gary Oldman playing another young brash defense attorney defending rich psycho Kevin Bacon, but more concerned with how much of the scenery he could chew up while over acting worse than a used car salesman trying to be sincere. Despite these losers, there have been some good ones too. One of the best of them all was the legal thriller, “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957) directed by Billy Wilder.
Based on a short story by Agatha Christie, “Witness for the Prosecution” starred Charles Laughton as senior English barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts, who, after recovering from a recent heart attack, and despite his nurse’s (Elsa Lanchester) misgivings, decides to take on the case of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) who is charged with murder. The murder victim was a wealthy older widow so enamoured with Vole that he was named as the main beneficiary in her will. Although strong circumstantial evidence implicates Vole, Roberts believes him innocent, and Vole even has an alibi provided by his older German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich). Therefore, it comes as a shock to Robarts when, during the trial’s proceedings, Christine is named as a witness for the prosecution and, when called to the stand, she immediately implicates Vole as the murderer. Now what’s barrister Roberts to do?
Whatever you may think of Agatha Christie as a writer, she could definitely craft fine mystery stories. However, for this picture it also helped that this adaption had Billy Wilder as the film’s director. Besides being a great director, Wilder also was skilled in helping to craft great screenplays usually containing a mix of cynicism laced with gallows humor. The performances of all of the cast are top notch with Power, despite some bad exaggerated moments, fine as a likeable charmer who also might have a hidden dark side. Wilder even managed to get an actual real performance out of Dietrich as Christine. Dietrich, vain as always, had plastic surgery done beforehand, wore heavy make-up, and even had “tape lifts attached to the sides of her head to pull her facial skin back to hide her wrinkles so she could still look somewhat younger. Hell, if botox was around then, she probably would have jumped into a bathtub full of the stuff if it could keep her from looking like Dick Tracy’s “Pruneface.” After all of that it still didn’t help her come Oscar time. Laughton, his wife, Elsa Lanchester, Wilder, and the picture itself all got well deserved Oscar nominations while Dietrich was left on the sidelines probably still smearing herself with cold cream. It also was one of only two adaptions of her works [the other being “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974)] that Agatha Christie actually liked. As a courtroom crime thriller, “Witness for the Prosecution” is a gem.
Television had a number of successful legal dramatic series too. These series usually fell into two major groups. The first group involved legal dramas where the focus was on lawyer(s) defending individuals accused of a crime. The second group consisted of legal dramas where a prosecutor tried to prove someone guilty of a crime before a jury. For the first group, two popular early television legal dramas were “Perry Mason” (1957-66) and “The Defenders” (1961-65) both on CBS. “Perry Mason” starred Raymond Burr as the aforementioned Mason, a criminal defense lawyer, and was based on a series of detective novels by author Erle Stanley Gardner. The show’s episode format consisted of having Mason always defend someone wrongly charged with murder and where, while assisted by his confidential secretary (Barbara Hale) and PI (William Hopper), he always has to square off against aggressive District Attorney Hamilton Burger (William Talman). Things usually look bleak until Mason always finds some clue which he utilizes to unmask the real killer, usually on the witness stand, and where the killer always confesses to the crime conveniently before the end of every episode. As a drama exploring complex legal issues, this show was about as complex as a straight line, and the acting, what there was of it, was even broader than Raymond Burr’s waist… line. And as for how hard it was to actually figure out who the killer was for every episode, well… even Cheetah the chimpanzee could figure that one out! Maybe the unintentionally funniest thing about this show was that both Burr and Talman during the late nineteen forties and throughout the nineteen fifties were the “go to guys” for playing sleazy, psychopathic, perverted, sadistic, bad guy/killers in role after role after role. In “Mason” Raymond Burr, for once, actually played a “good guy.” However, for Talman, even though he was now technically a “good guy” too, he still played Burger like a bullying bad guy while always losing to Perry Mason every frigging week and pouting like Marlene Dietrich after a botched face lift. I always felt that good old District Attorney Burger must have had pictures of the Los Angeles Mayor in the sack with an armadillo. How else would anyone still want this bum to be the District Attorney!
“The Defenders” however, was an entirely different and far better type of legal drama. E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed (before he became an acting joke on the “Brady Bunch”) played father-and-son defense attorneys who specialized in legally complex cases, and which was the direct antithesis to the slop found on “Mason.” The show was not necessarily a crime, mystery or courtroom drama. Instead, it was an exploration of the law itself, and how it applied to various types of issues where morality and legal ethics could fall into a gray area, and where victory was not always the end result. Writer Reginald Rose (“12 Angry Men”), was the creator of the show, and “The Defenders” helped to highlight a number of controversial issues such as abortion, capital punishment, immigration quotas, “no-knock” searches, the insanity defense, the Hollywood blacklist, custody rights, along with many, many others. Despite all of that, the show was neither dry nor dull. However, it was definitely, realistic and thought provoking. For three years in a row, it won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series as well as an additional ten Emmys in all. Never a huge rating success, after it’s third win it was believed that conservative corporate elements in CBS had the show moved from the more popular Saturday night lineup to CBS’s Thursday night ratings graveyard shift where it was subsequently cancelled. However, it was the harbinger for other future legal dramas that also took on controversial subjects such as ABC’s “Judd, for the Defense” (1967-69) and “The Practice” (1997-2004).
Maybe the biggest and most successful television legal drama show of them all began in 1990, and it was such a long-term success that it led to the creation of additional dramatic series as well as a television film, several video games, and international adaptations of the series. What was the series you may ask, Dear Reader? Why it was NBC’s “Law & Order” [(1990-2010) and (2022-present)]. The premise was that after a violent crime (usually murder) was committed, the first half of an episode followed two investigating detectives who ultimately found a suspect that they had arrested. Then the second half of the episode followed two prosecutors following advice from the District Attorney as to how they should proceed. It was in how the prosecutors tried to handle each case that the show explored various larger ethical and legal issues where justice was not always so well defined or determinable. For years this series, filmed on location in New York City and done in a semi-documentary style, was must see TV with whip smart dialogue, believable performances, and sharp sophisticated original stories that, at times, had surprising twists which could change the outcome of a case, and not always favorably. As much as I originally loved this show, somewhere during its long run I finally noticed a heavy-handed change by the show’s executive producers which made, what I once loved, unwatchable.
The series was known for utilizing plots for some of their stories from some recognizable recent criminal case which they advertised as being “Ripped from the Headlines”, but the incorporation of elements of an actual legal case into one of “Law & Order’s” episodes was never overt and never heavy handed. Unfortunately, that changed as years went by. In its later years and more recently, every episode was now from a highly recognizable real case, but it was so clumsily obvious that any real originality was gone. Also, the show now was often focused on some of the personal lives of the detectives and prosecutors rather than just sticking to the details of a particular case. Next, the acting (maybe due to the low quality of the scripts) steadily grew worse with everyone coming across more like caricatures than believable human beings. Lastly, basically almost all of the cases were resolved with the prosecutors being triumphant. What was once a great show was now nothing more than a sort of reverse “Perry Mason” with the good old ghost of Hamilton Berger hanging over it, and grinning from ear to ear! Perhaps the greatest crime in “Law & Order” was for it to still be on the air at all!
The last subject that I want to highlight for this month’s blog post regarding the legal profession is well… definitely not a drama, but something else entirely, namely, a comedy. In films you could have one about a fish out of water lawyer played hilariously by Joey Pesci as a newly minted New York City lawyer defending two youths (or is it Youts?) in rural Alabama accused of murder in “My Cousin Vinny” (1992). Or you could have another one about top-notch divorce attorney George Clooney who has the tables turned on him when he mistakenly becomes romantically involved with marriage-for-money predator Catherine Zeta-Jones in the Cohen Bros. riotous comedy farce, “Intolerable Cruelty” (2003). Or maybe you might even have a television sitcom about the night shift in a Manhattan municipal court, and all of the strange and whacky individuals accused of various charges along with the equally whacky members of the legal profession presided over by a young unorthodox judge played by Harry Anderson in “Night Court” (1984-92). All of these would be good examples to discuss further. However, the last one that I want to highlight for this month’s blog post is the last great film, comedy or otherwise in director Billy Wilder’s storied career (OK! I’ll admit it! I like him a lot!). That picture is the black comedy classic, “The Fortune Cookie” (1966).
Jack Lemmon starred as Harry Hinkle, a CBS cameraman who is slightly injured when a Cleveland Browns football player runs into him on the sidelines during a home game. However, for Harry’s conniving brother-in-law (Walter Matthau), he has other ideas. He is the scheming lawyer, William H. “Whiplash Willie” Gingrich who smells a possible financial jackpot quicker than a shark smelling blood in the water. He quickly has Harry pretend to be partially paralyzed and wheelchair bound so he can sue CBS and the Cleveland Browns for a large insurance payout. His scheme might actually work since new x-rays show the remnants of a compressed vertebra which, unbeknownst to anyone else, resulted from an injury that Harry suffered when he was a child. However, there are just a few itsy-bitsy problems. One, Harry only agreed to do it so he could hopefully win back his mercenary ex-wife (Judi West). Two, the insurance company hired Cleveland’s best private detective Chester Purkey (Cliff Osmond) who is perched in an apartment across from Harry to see if he makes any mistake. Three, and last, the football player (Ron Rich) that injured Harry is consumed with guilt and trying so hard to be Harry’s unofficial nurse that he is putting his own professional career at risk. “Cookie” was the first team up of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in a motion picture together and they are hysterical. They both play off of each other effortlessly helped in no small way by the Oscar nominated screenplay by Wilder and his long-time collaborator I.A.L. Diamond. However, it’s Walter Matthau who steals the entire film as the consequential sleaze bag fast talking crooked ambulance chasing lawyer, “Whiplash Willie.” He is never at a loss for words! He never completely looses control! And he is so slippery that he is never unable to squeeze out of any trouble that ensues no matter how hopeless things first appear to be. Matthau justly won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor that year, and even “Better Call Saul’s” Jimmy McGill could learn a thing or two from Matthau’s “Whiplash Willie” in “The Fortune Cookie.”
Well that concludes this month’s Blog Post. So, if any of you need a special type of lawyer like Saul Goodman or Whiplash Willie, I’m sure that you can find one. Of course, some of you might have a different view of lawyers which might best be summarized by playwright William Shakespeare’s Henry VI who once said…
“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
Well, to each, their own I always say!
3 thoughts on “Disorder in the Court!”
Thanks Nelson for another fine post. Being a lawyer myself I found this one particularly interesting. I’ve seen a lot of the movies you discuss but not all and will be checking some of them out. Thanks.
I feel I should defend my fellow lawyers on one point. The “Let’s kill the lawyers” line is one of the most misunderstood quotes in the English language. Shakespeare meant it as a compliment to lawyers not an insult. The idea is if you want to do away with law and order (i.e., want chaos) the first thing you do is kill those who maintain the law. See https://www.nytimes.com/1990/06/17/nyregion/l-kill-the-lawyers-a-line-misinterpreted-599990.html
By the way, your reference to Gary Oldman made me think to recommend a tv series in which he stars, namely “Slow Horses” on Apple Tv. Gloria and I like it a lot.
I know Slow Horses very well and have seen all of the episodes so far and Oldman is excellent in the role. And yes, I know that Shakespeare’s line has been misinterpreted that way. However, I never said that it was an insult to lawyers although it might have been inferred that way. I just laid it out there for however anyone wanted to interpret/misinterpret it.
I admit to having a fondness for “Perry Mason” and I think the first season holds up pretty well. It helps that most of those episodes are based on Earl Stanley Gardner’s novel. But, their is also a late 1950’s L.A. noir feel to those episodes…which disappears in subsequent seasons. I have fond memories of watching late night reruns of the show as a teenager while babysitting the kids down the street.
I’m also a fan of Agatha Christie, particularly her Poirot novels. Like most genre writers who produced “product” on a regular basis (she wrote 66 novels!), she could hit or miss. But, when she hit…like in “The ABC Murders” or “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”…she hit grand slams.