Best Movies by Farr: Courtroom Thrillers

July 6, 2010 | John Farr

John Farr presents a voir dire of must-see courtroom classics.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)


Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is a former prosecutor who’s at a professional turning point. Now out of the district attorney’s office, he’s a defense lawyer, and needs a high-profile assignment to establish himself. He finds it in the case of Lieutenant Fred Mannion (Ben Gazzara), an army officer accused of killing the man who raped Bannion’s sexy wife Laura (Lee Remick). The case grows more complex the deeper Biegler probes, and he’s also up against a ruthless young prosecutor (George C. Scott) intent on winning a conviction at all costs.


Preminger’s crackling courtroom drama makes for a twisty, racy, irresistible film. Stewart is in his element as the dogged Biegler, but junior players Gazzara, Remick and Scott are every bit as good. Gritty atmosphere and a smoky Ellington score (with Duke himself in a rare on-screen appearance) help make this daring, distinctive picture hum.

The Verdict


Boston lawyer Frank Galvin (Paul Newman), a washed-up alcoholic, faces the battle of his life when he decides to pursue a medical malpractice suit against a powerful Catholic hospital on behalf of a young comatose woman’s family. Of course, the case he lands appears impossible to win given his tenuous condition and the array of egal forces against him, led by the shrewd and powerful attorney Ed Concannon (James Mason).


A searing, moody courtroom drama masterfully directed by Sidney Lumet, the film earned five Oscar nominations in 1982, including one for writer David Mamet. As Frank Galvin, Newman shows a rare vulnerability as a man struggling to redeem himself before it’s too late. This film represents both courtroom and human drama at its finest, with veteran player Jack Warden superb as Mickey Morrissey, Galvin’s only remaining colleague and friend.

A Civil Action (1999)


This fact-based film tells the story of Jan Schlictmann (John Travolta), a personal-injury attorney who pursues a negligence suit against corporate titans W.R Grace and Beatrice Foods. The companies have a joint interest in a leather-production facility in Woburn, Massachusetts, whose illegal dumping of toxic waste may have led to the deaths of several local children. Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan), the mother of one victim, decides to sue. As Jan immerses himself in this high-stakes battle, he wagers everything he has on a positive outcome, but his opposing counsel, Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall), is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant, ruthless legal minds around. Is Jan in over his head?


Produced by Robert Redford and based on the best-selling book by Jonathan Harr, this gripping, literate enviro-action legal drama is the classic David and Goliath story – the little people versus big industry – told with gusto in a decidedly unpredictable fashion. “Action” features a stellar cast, notably John Lithgow as the trial judge, and and an Oscar-nominated Duvall as Facher. William H. Macy also distinguishes himself playing Jan’s understandably anxious accountant. It may sound dry as paper, but this absorbing courtroom drama grabs you by the throat and never lets go.

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