(This is for Carol.)
True story: after acing my bar mitzvah at the tender age of 13, I told my parents that when I grew up, I did NOT want to be a rabbi – I wanted to be a movie star. My mom and dad exchanged a look – correct that: it was a Look – and then my mother said to me, “Why don’t you be a movie star like Perry Mason?” As a result of Mom’s psychological home run, I went through the next eight years of school believing I would become a lawyer.
Bad parents. Gullible Bradley.
See, I have always been fascinated with, if not exactly the legal profession, then the dramatics of the law. I have sat on two juries, and both experiences were highly dramatic . . . maybe not in terms of points of law, but I guarantee that if you ever ask me about them, my stories will curl your hair!! I have friends who are attorneys, and most of them seem to love the intricacies of the law and the intellectual battles that arise in their work, whether or not they even step foot inside a courtroom.
What I truly love is a good legal story. Ironically, this does not extend to those writers who have staked the courtroom as their literary arena, except for one: Erle Stanley Gardner. The modern-day authors, of which John Grisham is the king and Scott Turow and John Lescroart his gentlemen-in-waiting, just don’t do it for me. Once in a while, something entertaining has appeared, like Grisham’s A Time to Kill or Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer, but most of today’s legal thrillers leave me cold.
It’s clear to me that my love of the courtroom stemmed from TV, and I voraciously watched those series that were steeped in the legal profession. In the 1960’s, there was, of course, Perry Mason, but there was also The Defenders, which starred E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed, had an incredible musical theme, and ran for four years. Perry Mason was an homage to its creator, despite the fact that the characters and the adaptations often bore little resemblance to the original novels. But The Defenders was much more of a template for shows that would follow: the father and son team of Lawrence and Kenneth Preston would get involved, often at emotional expense, in cases that dealt with pressing issues of the day like racism, anti-war sentiment, and atheism.
The template was expanded with 1971’s Owen Marshall, Counselor-at-Law, where Marshall (Arthur Hill) worked with a group of assistants, whose emotional lives were as important as the cases they worked on. This concept was expanded in an exciting, if over-the-top manner on L.A. Law, where creator-producer Stephen Bochco did for lawyers what he had done for cops in Hill Street Blues. The “wacky law firm” concept continued on television for the next thirty-plus years. If you didn’t like it, there were new versions a-plenty of Perry Mason always at the ready, one of them called Matlock. The retro Andy Griffith series was the traditionalist’s balm against all the run-into-court-hop-into-bed hijinks of the lawyers at McKenzie, Brackman, Cheney, and Kuzak.
The 90’s might have been the heyday of legal series: David E. Kelley assumed Bochco’s mantle and produced The Practice, which was grittier than L.A. Law and delved into the moral implications of daily defending criminals. Raymond Burr completed the second half of a decade of new Perry Mason cases in a series of TV movies that were, frankly, much too long to comfortably support the basic formula of the old series. Bochco himself contributed a series called Murder One, which covered a single case over its first season (quite well) and then, for its second and final year, split the season into several cases, none of which quite matched the first series in quality.
Then there came the movement toward whimsy, with shows like Ally McBeal (also by Kelley) and Boston Legal, a reboot of The Practice that I never could get behind. Side by side with this was the depiction of the law as a reality series. For years, you could turn on your set in the afternoon and watch Divorce Court, where real life couples yelled at each other before the cameras. In the early 80’s we got Judge Joseph Wapner presiding over The People’s Court. And in 1996, a little girl with dimples on her cheeks and a twinkle in her eye named Judith Sheindlin became Judge Judy. I call all of these shows “Not Me” TV for two reasons: first, they exemplify the Jerry Springer car crash sentiment of “better them than me” and, secondly, because shows like this were definitely not for me.
The amalgamation of the realistic and the dramatic premiered in 1990 with Law & Order, which turned a man named Dick Wolf into a cottage industry. I confess to a fondness for most of his series, especially Special Victims Unit, preferring their stylized realism to the forced craziness of Shonda Rimes’ How to Get Away with Murder and the banality of Aaron Korsh’s Suits. Still, Wolf’s shows rely heavily on jamming the latest topical issues into a super-tight formula, resulting in mixed quality and very little “wow factor” in any specific episode.
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Today, I want to share with you a list of my ten favorite examples of courtroom storytelling. I prepared this list with one thing in mind: how much do I enjoy each of these items? Consequently, you should know a few things going in:
- This is not a “Ten Best” list. I don’t have the cred to write one of those, and I find most people who do write a “Ten Best” list don’t either. All I would get is a collective rant of “Why didn’t you include this?” My answer is that I didn’t include it because it’s not one of my favorites. But please feel free to include your favorites in the comments below. It may give me fodder for a whole new list!!!
- There are books, plays, films and TV shows on this list. As stated above, I don’t read most legal thrillers, so I’m no expert (again, I welcome suggestions). Courtroom stories obviously lend themselves to performance (“You can’t HANDLE the truth!!!!!”), and a good trial scene can elevate even the most mediocre of tales.
- Some of the best courtroom tales are about something completely outside the law, whether it’s the people involved or some larger issue that goes hand in hand with the search for justice. As a result, you might doubt the qualifications of some of the items I have placed on the list below. To you, I want to say, with love with the fullness of hearts: “Make your own damn list.”
- I truly did not know how this list would turn out until I was finished making it. Consequently, I didn’t know going in that three of my Top Ten would be movies made in 1957 by three of my favorite directors (well, two of them anyway), that I would end up bookending the list with Christie (not a surprise, I know, to most of you), or that my list would span eighty-four years. Who’da thunk it?
10. Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie (1940)
Consummate fans of Agatha Christie will be aware that her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, originally reached its climax in court when Hercule Poirot took the stand, and his testimony unveiled the killer and Poirot’s path to unmasking same. One publisher after another rejected her first effort, until The Bodley Head showed great wisdom in accepting Christie as one of its authors. (And then the six-book contract the firm drew up so ill favored its client that in 1926 Agatha withdrew to much better terms with William Collins.
Bodley’s acceptance of Styles hinged on one non-negotiable requirement: Christie was told to replace the courtroom denouement with something else. Her solution – the gathering together of the suspects where the detective revealed all – became a mainstay of classic detective fiction. (The final proof of guilt, a letter where one co-conspirator sends the other co-conspirator congratulations on the success of their evil plan, remains one of Christie’s worse clues ever.)
You can actually read the courtroom denouement from the initial draft of Styles today, thanks to John Curran. I agree that the second ending is better, but Poirot on the stand is a fine sight to behold – so fine, that Christie returned to it twenty years later in what would prove to be her only novel centered around a courtroom trial, 1940’s Sad Cypress. This was a pivotal year for Christie (And Then There Were None didn’t reach America’s shores till January 1940), a shift in her focus and tone. Cypress is a perfectly good mystery, with some nice clueing and an excellent murder method, but the author is clearly going for something different – a more character-centric, emotional drama with a fiendish murder plot arranged therein.
The cast is small, and both murder victims are sympathetic, something Christie rarely did in the 30’s. The book begins in court, where Elinor Carlisle, the complex heroine, is read the charges against her. We follow Elinor through most of the novel; Poirot doesn’t really arrive until after Elinor is arrested quite late in the novel, and because his role as the detective belies a strong emotional approach on Christie’s part to his character, he is used sparingly. But then he appears in court, giving evidence that tears apart many readers’ preconceptions of the case and setting up the corroborating witnesses. The courtroom setting puts Poirot at a remove from the emotional drama that has preceded his reveal and shines a light on the power of the legal system that Christie so admired.
In his 1940 review of the book for The Guardian, author E.R. Punshon complained that the case Poirot presents hinges on an inaccurately interpreted point of law. I couldn’t find the review and would be interested to hear what this point was.
9. Paths of Glory (1957, d. Stanley Kubrick)
Stanley Kubrick made thirteen full-length films in a career that spanned forty-seven years (he worked reaalllllyyy slloooooowwwwwllyy), and three of them were anti-war films. This is the only entry on my list that does not hinge on a mystery. We saw exactly what happened before and during the ill-fated attack by a French brigade on the German position known as the Anthill. The desperation of the situation may have led to some critical decisions, but so does the self-aggrandizement of the Army’s leaders. The soldiers who refuse en masse to follow orders and charge the Anthill to certain death take the only humane position they can; unfortunately, this army is not interested in humanity, a theme we will see manifested in different ways in Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket.
I love war films that don’t take place on the battlefield. Give me Stalag 17 over Saving Private Ryan any day. With that preference out in the open, I appreciate how much of Paths unrolls during the courts martial of the three soldiers selected by ill-luck to represent all the mutinous troops. The whole affair is exceedingly Kafka-esque as the judges pick and choose which “evidence” they will accept, and no transcribed record of this farce is allowed.
The trial runs its expected, tragic course, and although one of the most reprehensible of the officers receives his just desserts in the end, his comeuppance is followed by a one-two punch that doubles down on the horror of the situation. Adolph Menjou, who made a career of playing smooth scoundrels, excels here. And while Kirk Douglas is far from a favorite of mine, his heartfelt performance as an honorable, doomed soldier (as well as his turn as a charming psychopath in Out of the Past) make a great argument for his stardom.
8. Perry Mason “The Case of the Candy Queen” (1965, Season 9, Episode 3)
As I traverse the world of mystery fans in the blog-o-verse and read more Erle Stanley Gardner, I hesitate at putting the entire Perry Mason series down as a favorite courtroom experience. You can’t help but notice, especially if you binge-watch the show – its fealty to a strict formula, so I’m so I’m only going to mention my favorite episode in the series: “The Case of the Candy Queen.” (I wrote more extensively about both the formula and this episode a few years ago; you can read that post here.)
What I love about this one is that it tries to trick you with a piece of information that many of us might know and a sort of reversal. Neither Gardner nor the Perry Mason series had much interest in reversals: the defendant was always innocent, and the killer was neither obvious nor much of a surprise. (My most recent read of a Mason novel was a welcome, er, reversal of that predilection.) Interestingly, this episode was a remake of a much earlier one that is adapted from an actual Gardner novel, the title of which I won’t mention here. In the novel and the first version, the reversal is present, but the trick that reveals it is different. You can argue with me as to whether the final version does this thing better or worse, but I love it, and the excellent performance by the actor who plays the killer only hammers my opinion home.
7. The Dick Van Dyke Show “One Angry Man” (Season 1, Episode 25) and “The Case of the Pillow” (Season 4, Episode 20)
If you have followed this blog for a while, you may know that The Dick Van Dyke Show is my favorite sitcom of all time. You can read this post if you want to discover the reasons why (as well as my personal connection to the show!), but I bring the series up here because the writers took Rob Petrie and Company to court not once but twice, both times with excellent results.
TDVDS had one of the greatest ensemble casts in the history of television, anchored by its star whose character, Rob Petrie, was at once intelligent, loving, decent, and immensely flawed. But his flaws weren’t the usual sitcom quirks: they stemmed out of his humanity and were, at once, relatable and also hilarious. The show also had a way of zeroing in on various genres in order to create spoofs that both ripped off and honored the tropes they were satirizing. (“It May Look Like a Walnut,” the show’s sci-fi parody of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, is one of the most satisfying half-hours in television history.)
Season One’s episode, “One Angry Man,” is their take on the Reginald Rose play (and soon-to-be discussed film) Twelve Angry Men. Rob Petrie (Van Dyke) has been summoned for jury duty and selected to serve at the trial of Marla Hendrix (Sue Ane Langdon), an exotic dancer accused of being a diamond smuggler. In asserting Marla’s innocence, Rob stands alone against the other jurors and ultimately proves that Marla is, in fact, innocent.
What I love is how this situation juxtaposes Rob in heroic, Henry Fonda mode with the mundane truths behind his situation. Rob jumps at being a juror not out of a sense of civic duty but to get out of writing a difficult script at work; he is clearly attracted to Marla (Van Dyke mines physical comedy gold in the trial scenes) and is in for a trial by fire when he finds out his wife Laura has been attending the trial. Finally, although Rob causes real justice to happen, he is no hero; in fact, the rest of the jurors end up hating his guts.
Even better is the Season Four episode, “The Case of the Pillow,” which satirizes CBS’ other hit show at the time, Perry Mason. The story takes place in civil court, where Rob and Laura are suing a traveling salesman who sold them four pillows he claimed were filled with eider down but in reality were stuffed with “cheap chopped chicken feathers.” From the first moment, Van Dyke does a fantastic job showing how Rob, channeling his best Mason, becomes imbued with a totally unfounded sense of self-importance that belies the silliness of the case. And then, of course, he succeeds, if only by accident!
Van Dyke finds a worthy foil in Ed Begley (who we will see again in Twelve Angry Men), who plays the long-suffering judge hearing the case. The script is wonderful: there’s a moment where Rob tries to palm off some legal gobbledy-gook, Begley doubles down with more legal jargon, and Rob becomes totally lost. And Mary Tyler Moore proves her indispensability to the series as Rob’s wife Laura when she takes the stand as a witness, alternating as straight man to Van Dyke and comic genius in her own right.
I highly recommend you sit down somewhere for a couple of weeks and binge the entire series, but by all means find both of these episodes and watch them.
6. The Judas Window by Carter Dickson (1938)
The Judas Window is currently sitting at Number Two in my Carter Dickson Celebration, and even though I’ve got thirteen more cases featuring Sir Henry Merrivale to read, I don’t expect this title to dip below #3 or #4 by the end. Even if you don’t like courtroom stories and are only reading this post on a dare, Judas is an exceptional locked room mystery with arguably the best opening for an author who excelled at great openings.
Young Jimmy Answell is finally going to meet his fiancée’s father. When he gets there, he is treated with unconcealed hostility: the discussion between the two men about archery is tense with danger. Jimmy is offered a cocktail that knocks him out, and when he awakens, he is locked in the room with his future father-in-law – who has been skewered to death with an arrow.
The joys of this novel are manifold, and many reviews center on the impossible situation. But, you see, I almost never understand impossible situations in these books, even though I read them like candy. Frankly, even today after reading the novel twice, I couldn’t really explain to you what a Judas window is!
What I can tell you is that Sir Henry Merrivale decides to step back into court after a long absence and defend Jimmy against charges of murder. Fans are torn over whether HM is as funny as John Dickson Carr hoped he would be, but there is no argument here: the trial scenes are genuinely hilarious.
5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) and the 1962 film directed by Robert Mulligan
There’s not much to say about this one that hasn’t already been said. Harper Lee evokes her childhood in small town Alabama in this story of a lawyer who must protect and teach his two children when he is assigned the case of a black man accused of raping a white woman. The man’s innocence is as certain as the outcome of his trial will be, and although Atticus Finch loses the trial, he succeeds both as a lawyer and a parent.
Even though the book is about a whole lot more than the trial, it hovers over the first half of the novel and forms the center of the second half. And when Robert Mulligan turned the novel into a film two years after it was published, he managed to do everything right.
Today, To Kill a Mockingbird is going through a dramatic reassessment, and I have no argument with that. The concept of the Southern white savior as a balm against racism grates hard. And then the publication of Lee’s “sequel” Go Set a Watchman cast a dark blot on her original intentions and on the man we had all perceived Atticus Finch to be. What cannot be denied is how beautifully Lee and Mulligan render the coming of age for Scout, Jem, and Dill from innocence to full-blown awareness of humankind’s worst and best. The film focuses more on the trial than the novel, cutting the book’s wonderful subplot involving Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose and other auxiliary adventures. Still, the power and quality of the both versions of the story is evident.
Gregory Peck justifiably garnered much acclaim (and an Oscar) for playing Atticus (first choice James Stewart had declined the role, and Rock Hudson was deemed not famous enough), but those trial scene also shine due to an ensemble of great actors, especially Brock Peters as Tom Robinson and Collin Wilcox as Mayella Ewell. By the time Peck delivers Atticus’ final, stirring speech, every member of that court is shifting uncomfortably with their culpability in a racist conspiracy. It’s the most Atticus can hope for – that, and the lesson he hopes to provide for his children.
4. Twelve Angry Men (1957, d. Sidney Lumet)
I have always held the jury system in awe. I’ve been called for jury duty many times and have served twice. I even had my Twelve Angry Men moment when I served on what should have been a simple case: a young man had been accused of two counts related to the possession and sale of rock cocaine. Both sides presented their case over three days, and then the judge sent us off to deliberate. The first thing we did was vote. It was eleven to one – in favor of acquittal.
I was the holdout. I had dreamed of walking into that trial in full Henry Fonda mode, and suddenly I was E.G. Marshall, trying as calmly as I could to convict one of my fellow men. When another juror said, “C’mon, man, it’s just a little cocaine,” I argued that we had been tasked with applying the charges against existing law, not the law as he felt it should be.
Things went from bad to worse: it turned out that there were not one but two women on the jury from some small religious sect that frowned on people judging others. This pair must have lied to the court when they swore they could exercise their duty as jurors because they refused to find the man guilty. They truly believed they had no moral right to do so.
Everybody turned against these women, and after hours of haranguing them over the very concept of the jury system, we shuffled back into court and told the judge that we were deadlocked. The attorneys stared at us, dumbfounded. The judge yelled at us. He told us that this was an easy case to adjudicate. Finally, he ordered us to go back to the jury room and not return until we had either convicted or acquitted the defendant.
Our final verdict was a compromise based not on the case but on the complex nature of the jury. We did not view the evidence dispassionately and apply it to the law. We reached a conclusion after grappling with our warring prejudices and principles. So, in the end, I did get my Twelve Angry Men experience, just not in the way I thought it would be.
I have seen the movie multiple times; I have even directed the play. And while it’s still a gripping drama, Men serves mostly as a parable of the human condition. The case itself may come across like a classic murder mystery. Yes, the young defendant had a bad lawyer and a rushed trial. But in a few hours, Juror #8 manages to thoroughly discredit both witnesses and the evidence of the knife with the aplomb of a Poirot. And the characters are a suspiciously convenient cross-section of mankind – emphasis on man, since in order to find a woman on this jury, you either have to produce/watch the all-female version or merge your casting into the clunkily named Twelve Angry People. (I did my version this way but retained the original title. Sue me.) On one side, you’ve got the saintly rational man, flanked by representations of the immigrant experience, the elderly, the youth, the milquetoast – all those who have been bullied into silence in the outside world. Against them, you have the man who is all id, the racist, the equally-smart-but-incredibly-arrogant-about-it businessman, and a few guys who are too bored or too stupid to recognize and embrace their responsibility. And during one hot, rainy afternoon, Juror #8 improves every single one of them just enough to get the job done right.
Put like that, Twelve Angry Men might sound hokey – but it’s not. Reginald Rose’s screenplay tightens up his original playscript and gives it a spark. The brilliant cast, headed by by Fonda, Marshall Lee J. Cobb, and Ed Begley truly delivers. And Lumet films the whole thing in that black-and-white, real-yet-stylized way that elevated so many late 50’s/early 60’s films. You can feel the sweat, both physical and emotional, emanating off these men. And if anyone tries to dismiss the whole affair as so much melodrama, I tell them about how I lived this over the course of a single crazy week in court.
It’s a great story.
3. The Good Wife and The Good Fight
If my childhood relationship to viewing the law was dominated by all the incarnations of Perry Mason, and my young adulthood saw me through the Stephen Bochco and the David E. Kelley Experiences, maturity has dealt me a lucky blow with the emergence of Michelle and Robert King, creator/producers of three wonderful series, two of which are set in the legal world. (The third, Evil, is currently scaring the bejeebers out of me on Paramount+.)
The Good Wife (2009 – 16) centers around Alicia Florrick, (Julianna Margulies), devastated by the public cuckolding she has endured after her husband, the Chicago D.A., publicly admits to an affair with a prostitute. (This, as it will take Alicia seven years to discover, was only the tip of the iceberg.) Peter Florrick is jailed, and Alicia moves her two children out of their beloved suburban home to an apartment in the city, and tries to re-enter the legal profession she had abandoned over a decade earlier in order to raise a family. The prospects look dim – until she runs into a former fellow law student, Will Gardner (Josh Charles), who offers her a job, much to the displeasure of his partner Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), the disdain of fellow associate Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) and the unease of office investigator Kalinda Sharma (Archie Punjabi), who had a one-night stand with Peter many years ago.
Okay, I’ve laid out the soap opera aspects of the show, which are handled beautifully by a distinguished cast. All of this plays out against seven years of gripping trials and a delightful array of clients, rival attorneys, and eccentric judges (one of whom was played by this guy with whom I performed a number of shows in college named Kurt Fuller; he is now playing the psychiatrist on Evil). It’s the Bochco formula, for sure, but it was written and performed for modern sensibilities, and it may be the best legal/political series I’ve ever seen.
Until The Good Fight. Unfortunately, CBS saw fit to put this series on its streaming platform rather than the network, with the result being that it remains a hidden gem. Fight follows Diane Lockhart, who is forced out of a comfortable retirement when her financial advisor makes off with all her money. She ends up in a firm mostly staffed by black attorneys and must constantly reassess the strength of her own liberal sensibilities.
A few of the characters in Fight have strayed over from The Good Wife (including some of the judges), but the Kings are doing something quite different in their second series. The Good Fight has been, from the beginning, a response to the Trump era. It is unabashedly partisan, although it is wise enough to expose its liberal characters’ weaknesses. One of my favorite episodes was the opening of Season 4, where Diane wakes up in an alternate reality where Hilary Clinton won the presidency. She quickly learns that America is just as screwed up as it was under Trump, only in different ways.
The sixth and final season of Fight is just around the corner, and it has been a wild, delightful ride. Despite its admittedly political bent, we still get a gripping exploration into the legal world, a world dedicated to leaving the insanity of the world behind – an impossible goal. I cannot recommend both of these shows strongly enough to lovers of the courtroom. I hope the Kings offer more such worlds in whatever new projects they have coming down the pike.
2. The Verdict (1982, d. Sidney Lumet)
Yes, The Verdict is really the story of a man reclaiming his soul and proof positive that the ever-gorgeous Paul Newman evolved into a brilliant actor. It is also both an amazing legal thriller and a David vs. Goliath story, two concepts which partner better even than chocolate and peanut butter. Newman plays Frank Galvin, an alcoholic joke of an attorney who returns to life in the courtroom. He has been given a gift by an old friend, a medical malpractice suit that is sure to be settled out of court, giving Frank enough booze money to send him even more quickly to an inevitable early grave.
Even in his hazy state, however, Frank can tell that something about this case stinks, and he decides to go up against a massive law firm, a prestigious doctor, and the Church itself (the alleged crime occurred in a Catholic hospital) to find justice and, hopefully, a huge settlement for a permanently comatose young woman.
The odds are truly stacked against Frank: the firm, run by no less than James Mason, has all the resources and tricks at its disposal that Frank lacks. The judge (Milo O’Shea) is against him. And someone he chooses to trust betrays him. What Frank does have on his side, it turns out, is the truth, along with some faint glimmer of the original spark he possessed when he first became a lawyer, and that leads to a glorious climax that features the wonderful Lindsey Crouse as a very reluctant witness.
With a script by David Mamet, and that quiet, devastating direction of Sidney Lumet, who seems to just focus his camera and let the actors do their thing so brilliantly, Verdict is my second favorite legal film of all time.
Which brings us to . . .
1.Witness for the Prosecution (1957, d. Billy Wilder)
Swear to God! I didn’t know this list would start and end with Christie. But, honestly, there’s a reason I’m only listing Wilder’s film here. “The Witness for the Prosecution” is one of Christie’s best short stories, an exercise in the author’s masterly hand with a twist. For someone who loved the law and who believed in the system of capturing and punishing criminals, her depiction of the system’s failure due to human error is as brave as it is clever and perfect for a short form story. Other writers would go on to use the same twist successfully (I’m thinking of Ellery Queen and the film Primal Fear as two great examples.) But Christie manages to jam a great many tricks of her trade into twenty-plus pages, including her penchant for disguise and her warning that readers must suspect everybody.
When it came to dramatizing her story for the stage, Christie faced a dilemma: she wanted the play, like the tale, to end with a punch in the gut, but it had to be a different punch. The story ends with evil triumphant, and contemporary audiences simply would not accept that, especially in the expanded form the story took as a West End Drama. (Modern audiences are not so squeamish about depictions of immorality: the most recent adaptation by Sarah Phelps traded on that fact – just before it went completely off the rails.)
In order to achieve a shock at the end and still adhere to the prevailing moral code that – SPOILER ALERT – murderers shouldn’t get away with their crime, Christie added a coda to the play’s finale: after informing his lawyer that the acquitted Leonard Vole was, in fact, guilty of murdering Emily French, Romaine gets a shock of her own when Leonard stops by to thank her . . . and then parades his new love interest in front of her. In a moment of passion, Romaine grabs the knife Leonard used to kill Miss French off the table and stabs him to death in full view of the court. The final words of the play are hers:
“I shall not be tried as an accessory after the fact. I shall not be tried for perjury. I shall be tried for murder – the murder of the only man I ever loved.”
To me, it’s a middling substitute for the shocker at the end of the short story, although the actress I saw as Romaine in the recent successful revival in London (performed in an actual courtroom) played it to the hilt. Yes, Romaine’s savage act restores justice at the end so that audience members could sleep better in their beds after the show, but sometimes darkness trumps light and I think that’s the case here.
When producers approached Marlene Dietrich to play Romaine in the film adaptation of Christie’s play, she insisted on having Billy Wilder direct. Wilder co-wrote the screenplay with Larry Marcus and Harry Kurnitz, and although he ignored the story’s ending (this was 1957, after all), he did something that elevated the play into something spectacular: the role of Sir Wilfred Robarts, Leonard Vole’s barrister, was expanded, and Charles Laughton was cast in the role. Basing his performance on his own real-life attorney, Laughton’s Sir Wilfred easily became one of the top ten screen attorneys of all time. (Hey, another list!!)
Sir Wilfred was also given a back-story, and for those of you who accuse me of being a Christie “purist,” I want you to know that the addition both of the lawyer’s heart condition and of his nurse Miss Plimsoll, played by Laughton’s real-life spouse Elsa Lanchester, is the cherry on top that makes this film soar for me. (Evidently, Agatha Christie liked it, too!) What this does, which may or may not suit your tastes, is give the film an arguably happier ending. The stress of the Vole case is a hazard to Sir Wilfred’s health, and he spends a lot of time dodging his nurse’s admonitions. In the end, he is visibly stricken, both at the exposure of Leonard’s guilt and at Romaine’s act of vengeance. But, with Miss Plimsoll as an ally, Sir Wilfred rallies and pledges to defend Romaine in court. Justice comes round full circle!
The screenplay includes flashbacks that allow us to explore the relationship between Leonard and Miss French, who is played by Norma Varden, one of my very favorite actresses that nobody except Scott Ratner and I have heard of. You might remember her from a key scene in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. She makes a tiny appearance in Casablanca, and her lengthy career allowed for many TV spots as well. We also get a look at how Leonard and Romaine met. The flashbacks here form an ode of sorts to Dietrich’s early career (Wilder adored Dietrich!) and especially to her early classic The Blue Angel. The budget soared when one scene was included in order to show off her still fabulous legs!
Are Dietrich and Tyrone Power (Leonard Vole) too old to play their parts? Sure . . . now go tell that to Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford, Gary Cooper, and every other star in classic Hollywood. I think Power is fine as Leonard, and while I’ve never been a big fan of Dietrich, she does a good job here. Her big trick might have been harder to pull off, given her distinctive looks and voice, but it all shakes out nicely. Evidently, Laughton himself coached Dietrich on her accent.
Best of all, the courtroom scenes zing! Laughton is flanked by some of the best character actors of the time as his support team, including John Williams, Henry Daniell, and Ian Wolfe. Torin Thatcher, who I will always associate with those Sinbad movies, is excellent as the Prosecutor. And Una O’Connor made her last appearance in film, reprising her stage role as the late Miss French’s housekeeper; her testimony is a highlight. By their very nature, courtroom dramas can be all talk, but there’s a wonderful tension throughout in these scenes, largely due to Laughton. He and his wife, the director, and the film itself were nominated for Oscars, but this was the year of The Bridge on the River Kwai, the sort of heroic epic that the Academy Awards love, and it swept the Oscars that year.
Still, there’s something epic about Witness for the Prosecution that belies its roots as a mystery story. I think that has to do with the grandness of the courtroom and the larger-than-life performance of its stars. The stakes feel as high for these lawyers, clients and witnesses as if they were standing by that bridge in Thailand. That is what the best courtroom tales do, whether the fight is over a man’s life and freedom or all about some defective pillows. I hope you found this eclectic list enjoyable and that it provides many of you with some ideas for reading and viewing. I would love to hear about your favorite courtroom tales as well in the comments section.