Courtroom dramas are a film genre in themselves. From fierce closing arguments to witness-stand confessions to classic lines such as “You can’t handle the truth!” they’ve engaged and enthralled viewers for generations. But what are the greatest of the great lawyer movies?
That’s a matter of opinion — and the American Bar Association has one. Its ABA Journal surveyed prominent attorneys who are involved in the film industry to compile a list of the top 25 greatest legal films. (This was done in 2008, so movies such as 2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer are missing.)
We’ll share their top 15 lawyer movies with you — along with our own observations. Then you can deliver your own verdict.
- To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Widely considered the best of the bunch, and written by Wharton, Texas native Horton Foote, this tale of a small-town lawyer (Gregory Peck) defending an innocent African American against a racist charge of rape set a standard for stout belief in the truth — the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
- 12 Angry Men (1957). More of a jury room drama than a courtroom drama, this starred Henry Fonda as the lone skeptical jurist in what at first seemed like a clear-cut death-penalty case. The story began as a play, then was adapted for TV before scoring three Oscar nominations for the big screen.
- My Cousin Vinny (1992). A favorite of several attorneys of Jim Adler & Associates, this courtroom comedy starred Joe Pesci as a brash, scrappy, loud-mouthed Brooklyn attorney defending his New York cousin and a friend on a murder rap in Alabama. In his last big-screen role, Fred Gwynne played the judge, and Marisa Tomei won a supporting actress Oscar as Pesci’s foul-mouthed fiancée.
- Anatomy of a Murder (1959). Inspired by a true case, this riveting tale of an Army officer accused of murder had an all-star cast from top to bottom, including George C. Scott, James Stewart, Ben Gazzara and Lee Remick. But a real-life lawyer stole the show — namely, Joseph N. Welch as the judge.
- Inherit the Wind (1960). Over 50 years later, some Americans are still arguing this film’s central case, which involved a teacher on trial for teaching evolution. The great Spencer Tracy and Frederic March played thinly veiled versions of lawyers Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan arguing in the famed Scopes “monkey trial” in 1925 Tennessee.
- Witness for the Prosecution (1957). Notice how five of the ABA’s top six films are from 1957-62? Call it the era of TV’s Perry Mason, which premiered in ‘57 and ran for nine years. This murder-case movie drawn from Agatha Christie’s work had another all-star cast in Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester, Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich.
- Breaker Morant (1980). This war-crimes drama involved Australian officers on trial after fighting for the British Empire in 1901’s Boer War in South Africa. At issue is the age-old quandary of whether soldiers who acted “under orders” were guilty of atrocities they were commanded to perform.
- Philadelphia (1993). As much about the AIDS epidemic as about law, this concerns a gay lawyer (Tom Hanks) and his personal injury lawyer (Denzel Washington) in a wrongful dismissal suit when Hanks’ law firm fires him due to his condition. Hanks won the first of his back-to-back Oscars, and Bruce Springsteen also won for his haunting title song.
- Erin Brockovich (2000). Julia Roberts also won an Oscar for playing a brassy real-life paralegal involved in investigating a real-estate scheme which turned out to mask a power company’s illegal toxic dumping and evolved into a massive class-action lawsuit. Albert Finney portrayed her law firm’s boss.
- The Verdict (1982). Oscar-nominated Paul Newman played a struggling, alcoholic attorney who tried to redeem his career by taking to trial a medical malpractice case rather than settling out of court. James Mason played the defense attorney. The director of 12 Angry Men, Sidney Lumet, also helmed this one.
- Presumed Innocent (1990). Harrison Ford played a star prosecutor on trial for killing a deputy prosecutor with whom he’d had an affair. Raul Julia played his defense attorney. The case took dark twists and turns as it careened toward a surprising finish.
- Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). Spencer Tracy played an American judge in 1948 Nazi war crime trials in occupied Germany involving death camps and German judges’ complicity in their atrocities. The film won Oscars for best adapted screenplay and for best actor, who was Maximilian Schell — the first fifth-billed actor to win the top award. (Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark and Marlene Dietrich were billed ahead of him in the credits.)
- A Man For All Seasons (1966). This six-time Oscar winner involved a judge (Paul Scofield) turned chancellor in 16th Century England. He became embroiled in conflict when standing up to King Henry VI (Robert Shaw), who wanted to defy the Roman Catholic Church to divorce his wife and marry another woman. The timeless tale concerned fighting for one’s convictions no matter what the cost.
- A Few Good Men (1992). Tom Cruise played an undistinguished Navy lawyer defending two Marines accused of killing another Marine, with Jack Nicholson as a crusty colonel. Based on a true case, the highly charged courtroom drama was a huge hit, grossing $141 million, and received four Oscar nominations. It also coined Nicholson’s fiery line, “You can’t handle the truth!”
- Chicago (2002). Though known more as a lively Jazz Age musical drawn from Broadway, this tale of a notorious, fame-fueling murder case also is a legal movie, with a deft turn by Richard Gere as singing and dancing lawyer Billy Fynn. It won six Oscars, including Best Picture.