Few know it, but today is the 216th birthday of the Supreme Court. Established by Article 3 of the Constitution, the Supreme Court held its first meeting in the Royal Exchange Building on New York City’s Broad Street in 1790. This birthday, as well as the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, makes it fitting to recommend movies about the judicial system. These movies are fun and fascinating, sometimes awe-inspiring. But more importantly they are classic movies that have withstood the test of time. Just as they portray the ideals of American justice and are therefore timeless, they are in themselves timeless in the chronicles of American cinematic history.
Judgment at Nuremberg
For anyone who hasn’t seen it, this is a movie that explains better than perhaps any other the ideals of the American judicial system. Based on the actual Nuremberg Trials that took place from 1945 to 1949, Judgment at Nuremberg is about the trial of four judges who were active under the Nazi regime. Portraying both the reasons of the guilty as well as the devastation of the victims, it is a movie that illustrates the nature of law and its relentless but necessary ambiguities. Burt Lancaster, as Dr. Ernst Janning, performs one of the most famous monologues in cinematic history. Spencer Tracy, not to be outdone as Chief Justice Dan Haywood, is an understated but extremely intense character, as well as a simple man who knows right from wrong. Judgment at Nuremberg is a refreshing throwback to a simpler time as well as a classic that will always remain an important part of cinematic history.
Witness for the Prosecution
Black-and-white movies usually aren’t funny. They are generally too outdated to really be humorous to contemporary audiences. This movie has a twist ending better than M. Night Shyamalan ever dreamed of and is simply hilarious. Leonard Stephen Vole (Tyrone Power) is accused of murder despite admissions of innocence. Sir Wilfred Robarts (Charles Laughton) is his barrister, which is essentially a lawyer in British courts. Marlene Dietrich, who also stars in Judgment at Nuremberg as Mrs. Bertholt, plays Christine Helm Vole. What plays out is the dramatic struggle of a defense attorney representing his client as well as fighting for his life due to a heart condition. The sacrifices of love, an illustration of the subjectivity that can be read into events by biased sources and some moments of pure comedic genius keep the audience guessing. It’s one of the most worthwhile 116 minutes around.
12 Angry Men
When 12 jurors retire to discuss a case, conviction seems imminent without even needing discussion. Henry Fonda as Juror No. 8 votes innocent while the rest vote guilty. After that, it’s a war of words and almost fists as this movie shows what a magnificent difference one man and a conversation can have. The different motivations that sway jurors one way or the other are also portrayed as 12 Angry Men vividly illustrates class distinction, ethnicity differentiation and the rift between liberal and conservative. Though, the beautiful aspect of the movie is how all find common ground within the notion of the ideals of human justice after one man voices his opinion.
The remake made in 1997 simply can’t compete. George C. Scott, who plays Juror No. 3 in the remake, will always be Patton in my book.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Ghosts of Mississippi, Anatomy of a Murderer, Philadelphia, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and others all had the potential for making this list. They are excellent movies with excellent casts, but it does not seem possible to be better than Gregory Peck in his prime. Peck has equals in Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Anthony Hopkins and others, but being a better actor than Peck is impossible. This is arguably the best film Peck starred in.Based on the book by Harper Lee, who was portrayed by Catherine Keener alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman in the stunningly brilliant Capote, To Kill a Mockingbird stars Peck as the remarkable Atticus Finch. To give an idea of just how brilliant Peck is in this movie, Atticus Finch was voted the top screen hero of the 20th century by the American Film Institute. Finch plays a lawyer and a single man with a son and daughter. He is called to represent Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man accused of raping a white woman in the deeply racist American South of the depression-era. Robert Duvall, in what was his first screen appearance, plays Arthur “Boo” Radley, a mentally arrested man who lives on the edge of town. The events that play out are as historical as the principles this movie illustrates. Like the other movies on this list, To Kill a Mockingbird gives an apt view of cinematic history as well as the timeless ideals of American justice.