There’s nothing better than to watch an intense courtroom motion picture on a hot summer evening. Unfortunately, for most of the United States and Canada, it’s cold, but that doesn’t mean you can’t crack a sweat with these unforgettable films.
Over the years, writers and directors have put together some of the greatest legal and courtroom motion pictures to ever hit the silverscreen. Whether it was Billy Wilder’s “Witness for the Prosecution” or Richard Fleischer’s “Compulsion,” much of the greatest courtroom films have made you to sport your Clarence Darrow or Johnnie Cochrane cap.
Although there have been numerous movies that have involved a courtroom scene, this list highlights films where a significant portion of it is situated inside of a courtroom – “The Lady from Shanghai,” “The Caine Mutiny” and “12 Angry Men” cannot be included.
With that being said, here are 10 of the best courtroom dramas to ever appear on the big screen (in no particular order).
“Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961) | directed by: Stanley Kramer | starring: Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell, Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland
This film tells the story of an American court that puts four Nazi judges on trial for war crimes in occupied Germany shortly after the end of the Second World War. Kramer was able to bring out the very best in his cast as well as establishing tremendous shots. The entire ensemble cast stole the show.
“Anatomy of a Murder” (1959) | directed by: Otto Preminger | starring: James Stewart, Lee Remick and George C. Scott
What can be cooler than having a Duke Ellington jazz score, James Stewart and a murder in a film? This is a unique film that has Stewart’s character attempt to get a military man off on a murder charge for killing a man, who allegedly raped his wife.
“Witness for the Prosecution” (1957) | directed by: Billy Wilder | starring: Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich and Tyrone Power
After viewing this movie, you’ll ask yourself the question: is there any type of film that Wilder cannot direct? Based upon the play by Agatha Christie, this picture comes with numerous twists and turns as well as a delightful performance by Laughton. Be sure not to tell anyone the ending after you watch it.
“Inherit the Wind” (1960) | directed by: Stanley Kramer | starring: Spencer Tracy, Gene Kelly and Fredric March
The story is based on a real life trial in the year 1925 when a town opposed a science teacher for teaching his class evolution. In the film, two old lawyers battle it out in a case of science versus faith.
“Compulsion” (1959) | directed by: Richard Fleischer | starring: Orson Welles, E.G. Marshall and Dean Stockwell
Also based on a true story, “Compulsion” depicts the real life case of the infamous duo of Leopold and Loeb, two intelligent law school students were charged of murdering a 14-year-old. The case gained even more coverage after Clarence Darrow was the defense attorney and fought against capital punishment.
The story was also the inspiration behind Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope.”
“JFK” (1991) | directed by: Oliver Stone | starring: Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Sissy Spacek, Jack Lemon and Joe Pesci
Based on two books by Jim Marrs and Jim Garrison, “JFK” is a gripping tale of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison trying to bring those to justice who were allegedly behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This film also depicts important filmmaking techniques, especially in its editing.
“A Few Good Men” (1992) | directed by: Rob Reiner | starring: Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore
A new military attorney defends marines who have been accused of murder. The basis of the defense is that the defendants were following orders, which leads to intense questioning by Cruise’s character against Nicholson’s.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) | directed by: Robert Mulligan | starring: Gregory Peck, Robert Duvall, John Megna and Frank Overton
One of the most groundbreaking novels of the 20th century, a lawyer in the south agrees to defend a black man who is charged of rape. Many of the townspeople attempt to get him to pull out, but he goes ahead and maybe changes the town’s racist behavior.
“Philadelphia” (1993) | directed by: Jonathan Demme | starring: Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington and Roberta Maxwell
Considered one of Hanks’s best films ever made, “Philadelphia” is a story about a man with AIDS who is fired from his job by a law firm. He hires a homophobic lawyer to get a successful verdict in his wrongful dismissal lawsuit.
“Fury” (1936) | directed by: Fritz Lang | starring: Spencer Tracy, Sylvia Sidney and Walter Abel
Justice of vigilante justice? This is a question that Fritz Lang liked to explore in his films, such as “M” and “Fury.” Tracy plays a man who has been falsely accused but the town concludes he is guilty and tries to kill him. He survives and decides to seek revenge by pretending he’s dead and frames the violent mob.