Part 2: Top 10 lawyer movies of all time

John J. Hopkins Sep. 18, 2005, 11:26am

Here are the remainder of my "Top 10" lawyer movie picks, subjective though they may be. Any feed back is welcome on the email address.

SIDEBAR is off for a while...the day job is calling.


This Otto Preminger-directed, Jimmy Stewart-starring film deals with a murder in the upper section of Michigan, and is based on a novel by Robert Traver--who was himself an actual trial judge in Michigan.

It shows--as the objections are realistic--the dramatics in the courtroom accurate and, above all else, sound discussions of the legal aspects of the insanity defense. It also shows that the truth is oft times better than fiction.

George C. Scott steals the show as the assistant attorney general sent down from Lansing to try the case. His response to defense attorney Stewart’s complaint that he was constantly blocking his view of the witness on the stand:

"Oh, I‘m sorry Mr. Beigler. I surely did not mean to interfere with your signals to your client” is priceless. A good, intelligent thriller all around.


"You can’t handle the truth!" is certainly the most famous line, but a small part of what gives this film such value, "A Few Good Men” is the story of the death of a Marine at Guantanamo Bay and the subsequent Court Martial. It shows how a case is worked up and investigated, how witnesses need to be prepped, the skill of re-direct, and finally, a brilliant cross examination using only the witness’s own words, pointing out in forceful persuasion the inherent contradictions.

A truly great film that for years I gave to associates to watch and learn. I still recommend the practice.


In his very best performance, Paul Newman plays washed-up, alcoholic lawyer Francis P. Galvin, desperately trying to find redemption in a malpractice case against the Boston Arch Diocese. Facing long odds on success, the double opponents of a corrupt judge and a politically connected defense counsel bound to do anything to win the case, a brilliant performance by James Mason, Galvin initially turns down the offer of settlement, only to find a disaster in trial. Missing expert witnesses, a poor last minute substitute, all stack the odds against him.

But a surprise rebuttal witness turns the tide, only to see it fade away as her testimony is stricken. Undaunted, Galvin gives a powerful summation, “Today you ARE the Law," such that the jury asks the court if they can award more money than the plaintiff asked for, a dream if there ever was one.

“The Verdict” is a story of the good guys winning, and the power of the law, as the great social equalizer.


There are certain scenes in movies that you remember forever, that you hope, you pray, will one day come to life for you. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” one scene stands out for me.

The trial--such as it was--for Tom Robinson’s alleged rape of Mayella Ewell is over, the black defendant predictably convicted in the Depression-era Alabama, attorney Atticus Finch, Oscar winner Gregory Peck, is assembling his papers, filling his brief case, just having lost his most publized case.

After gentlemanly shaking the hands and thanking the clerk and the bailiff, some parting words of encouragement for his client, he prepares to leave.

As he walks out of the courtroom, the Rev. Sykes, leader of the black community relegated to the balcony in the segregated South, rises up as a sign of respect, as does every one else, telling Finch’s daughter, Scout, "Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your Father’s passing.”

Such a silent, but powerful salute to the lawyer who has fought the good fight, is sure to bring the tear to the eye and a lump to the throat. Gratitude for the taking on the lost cause, without pay and without regard to the outcome is rare, but it does happen.

When it does, it is more valuable than cash or publicity. When it happens to you, it is the substance that feeds the soul, and makes you proud to be a member of such a noble profession.

"To Kill a Mockingbird” is one of the American Film Institute’s top 100 films of all time, and lawyer Atticus Finch was voted the "Number One Movie Hero" of all time. Both honors are richly deserved.


If “Mockingbird” did not make you want to be lawyer, then “Inherit the Wind” did. The premise of the fictionalized account of the Scopes Evolution trial in 1920-rural Tennessee is well known.

Three time Democratic Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan led the prosecution team, challenged by legendary defense attorney Clarence Darrow. Bryan--called Matthew Harrison Brady--was played by two-time Oscar winner Frederic March, while Darrow--called Henry Drummond--was Spencer Tracy, a double Oscar recipient himself.

On every scale, a battle of heavy weights.

Beginning with a soulful version of “Gimme that Ol’ Time Religion” by Mahalia Jackson, this classic is in stark black and white, only adding to the newsreel-like feel. Verbal fireworks abound in the courtroom scenes, highlighted by the cross examination of Brady by Drummond--Brady has been accepted as an expert on the Bible.

Back and forth they go, like in a heavyweight title fight, on the still current subject of Darwinism vs. a literal interpretation of Biblical creation in seven days.

Finally, Drummond asks the key question--"How long were the first three days, since there was not yet a Sun?? Was it 24 hours? Two days? A month? A thousand years... a billion years??"

Drawing strength directly from the words of your hostile witness--the art of cross examination.

The thundering speeches by both counsel ring throughout the film, with each attorney giving and getting the best of oratorical skills.

“Inherit the Wind,” with its respect for the law as the arbitrator of disputes, even in the face of angry and hysterical mobs, has inspired generations of young would-be lawyers since its debut in 1960, yours truly included.

The story of the battle between conflicting ideas, resolved by the secular priests, is truly a joy to behold. To paraphrase an old Madison County political slogan, after seeing this movie, "Who wouldn’t be proud to be a lawyer?"

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