“The Judge,” opening Friday, pits Robert Downey, Jr. against Robert Duvall. They are not opposing counsel, but estranged father and son, the former a hotshot city lawyer, the latter a rural judge accused of murder.
The courtroom drama is one of the movies’ most viscerally thrilling genres on par with the elemental chase. It’s good vs. evil, literally on trial. We watch with baited breath to see if the justice system will prevail for the falsely accused, or that the guilty will be suitably punished. We want the underdog lawyer to get the best of the slick opposing counsel. We want to see historical precedent set. We want to see Al Pacino lose it (“You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order!”)
While waiting for critics and audiences to reveal their verdicts on “The Judge,” we make our case for the movies’ most memorable courtroom dramas. We call to the stand:
12 Angry Men: A classic claustrophobic post-courtroom drama starring Henry Fonda as Juror 8, the lone holdout in a murder case and whose peers are itching to find the defendant guilty.
Anatomy of a Murder: James Stewart is “just a humble country lawyer” up against “a brilliant prosecutor from the big city of Lansing” in the case of an army lieutenant who kills the man he says assaulted his wife.
...And Justice for All: Is the criminal justice system going crazy or is just idealistic attorney Al Pacino, who is charged with defending a despised judge accused of rape?
A Few Good Men: A courtroom drama is all about getting to the truth. In the case of two Marines on trial for murder, Jack Nicholson's Col. Nathan Jessup is of the opinion that the truth is something you cannot handle.
My Cousin Vinny: Two “yoots” from New York are arrested for murder in a small Southern town. Enter Joe Pesci as leather-clad Vinny Gambini, a neophyte lawyer out of his element and in over his head in this fish out of water comedy.
Primal Fear: Richard Gere is a slick lawyer, but perhaps not as slick as his client, an altar boy (Edward Norton in his film debut) charged with the murder of an archbishop.
Reversal of Fortune: Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver) to his client, Claus von Bulow: “You’re a very strange man.” Von Bulow (Jeremy Irons) to Dershowitz: “You have no idea.”
Separate but Equal: This Emmy-winning made-for-TV historical drama is a class act all the way, with Sidney Poitier as NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall making his case for the desegregation of America’s schools.
To Kill a Mockingbird: The American Film Institute voted Gregory Peck’s Depression-era small-town Southern lawyer Atticus Finch as the movies’ greatest hero. Want evidence? Watch his impassioned defense of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of assaulting a white woman.
The Verdict: Paul Newman won an Oscar as an alcoholic lawyer who gets a shot at redemption when, rather than settle for the easy money, takes a medical malpractice case to trial.
Witness for the Prosecution: “It’s all parry and punch from the word ‘Go!’”, praised the New York Times of Billy Wilder’s gripping adaptation of Agatha Christie’s celebrated story about a man on trial for the murder of a rich widow. Charles Laughton as the barrister and Marlene Dietrich as the accused’s shrewd wife are worthy adversaries.
You be the judge: Did we miss any of your favorites?