Greatest Legal Movies


The courtroom is an incredible epicenter for drama. You have two opposing sides locked in argument sometimes with the fate of another human being at stake. This is why so many great films have taken place in the legal world giving audiences a taste, though often exaggerated, of what goes on during a heated trial. Here are some of the great legal movies of all time.

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To Kill a Mockingbird: Gregory Peck gives a heartfelt portrayal of the attorney Atticus Finch, a character dubbed by the American Film Institute as the all-time greatest movie hero for good reason. Through the eyes of Finch’s children, Jim and Scout we witness a tumultuous time in their sleepy Southern town. An African American has been accused of a horrific crime and Finch is the only attorney with the courage to stand up to ensure he receives a fair trial. Try as he might to protect his children, they along with their imaginative friend Dill, are exposed to the racial tension and evil which plagues their community. While they see the worst of humanity, they also see Atticus as the best of humanity as he takes on the entire community in order to defend an innocent man. To Kill a Mockingbird easily ranks as one of the landmark films in American cinema with it’s portrayal of a good man remaining steadfast in his principles no matter the cost.

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The Firm: I must admit that given this movie takes place in my beloved hometown of Memphis, I definitely have a soft spot for it. Seen as a blue chipper in the legal world, Mitch McDeere takes a position with a small but respected Memphis law firm Bendini, Lambert, & Locke. The firm’s two senior partner’s Avery Tolar and Oliver Lambert take a liking to the young attorney and take him under their wing. However his excitement turns to dread as he begins to discover his new firm may be connected to a number of high level crimes. Soon the FBI sets their sights on Mitch as possibly being a weak link who can snitch on the operation. While this would save him from and prosecution, the Feds want him to break attorney-client confidentiality which would ruin his promising career. When Mitch thinks he has found a way out, he learns the hard way the firm has dangerous ways of keeping it’s secrets.

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Witness for the Prosecution: With a cast which includes; Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Elsa Lanchester, and Tyrone Power all led by Billy Wilder, it would be a shock if this movie were not the highly regarded classic it is. When Leonard Vole is accused of murdering a wealthy widow, veteran barrister Sir Wilfred Robarts is brought in for his defense. However Robarts is recovering from major heart troubles and this issue looms large over the case.  When the prosecution pulls a swerve and has Vole’s wife, the cunning Christine point an accusatory finger at him. Though things do not seem right with all of this. As he prods further and finds evidence which is all too convenient to help his case, Sir Wilfred wonders if Christine is pulling the strings behind everything.

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Anatomy of a Murder: Inspired by a real murder case from the 1950’s Jimmy Stewart plays Paul Biegler, a retired lawyer who would now rather spend his days fishing than in front of a judge. But a soldier charged with murdering the man who sexually assaulted his wife Laura (Lee Remick in possibly in her best performance), turns to him for a help. Now the retired lawyer has to use every tactic he knows up against a sharp prosecuting opponent in federal attorney Claude Dancer. Biegler seeks to prove acted in a fit of insanity because of the horrific crime his wife endured. While at the same time Dancer puts forth Laura’s history as a loose and flirtatious woman who probably led on the man who was murdered. Famed director Otto Preminger refused to pull any punches when tackling the sensitive topics in Anatomy of a Murder, as such the movie is just as edgy and relevant today as it was in 1959.

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Philadelphia: During the 80’s and 90’s the subject of AIDS was treated as taboo and those afflicted with this disease became societal pariahs. Tom Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, a once respected attorney who discovers he has contracted the disease and is fired from his law firm. Seeking to file a wrongful termination suit against his former employer the only person he can find willing to take up his case is Joe Miller, played by Denzel Washington, who himself hold homophobic prejudices against Beckett. Reluctantly, Miller takes up the role as they go after a prestigious firm who claim that Beckett brought this on himself due to his sexuality. As the duo battle a powerful enemy old prejudices fade away as their friendship grows.

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The Verdict: A favorite among those who work in the legal profession as well as one of the finest films from not only director Sydney Lumet but it’s legendary star Paul Newman. There was a time when Frank Galvin was one of the most promising attorneys in Boston. But after his biggest case goes down in flames and he is almost disbarred, Frank is left a borderline alcoholic and a joke among his profession. But when the case of a woman left in a vegetative state after a botched medical procedure falls into his lap, he believes his career is back on track. However this seemingly simple case changes, when Frank discovers his client was maliciously harmed by the Archdiocese of Boston. With every odd stacked against him the veteran lawyer believes absolutely in the morality of his cause and is willing lay it on the line in court.

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12 Angry Men: While this film shows no lawyers or judges, it does give a fascinating glimpse inside the jury deliberation room. Henry Fonda leads an all-star ensemble which also includes; Ed Begley, Jack Klugman, Lee J. Cobb, EG Marshall, John Fielder, and more. These twelve unnamed men, must decide the fate of a young man accused of murdering his own father. All of the evidence points to the fact he did it, but Fonda as Juror 8 does not believe it is that simple. Throughout the day the 12 men stuck in a room argue and pick sides while the fate of a young man hangs in the balance. Tensions rise and prejudices are exposed as these former strangers spend are forced to come to a conclusion.

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A Few Good Men: At the infamous Guantanamo Bay naval base a soldier is allegedly killed by two Marines. It falls to the unenthusiastic Lt. Kaffee to defend them, and he is more than willing to work out a plea deal. However his colleague Lt. Commander Galloway convinces him to actually take it to trial, believing there is more to a simple murder and somehow the base commander Col. Nathan Jessup is involved. Learning of a culture of hazing, Kaffee takes a career risk and challenges the Col. Jessup  in military court.

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Kramer vs Kramer: After his wife Joanna Kramer leaves him, Ted Kramer takes on the role of single parent to their son Billy. Though he is forced to make major adjustments to his life and even alter his once bright career path, Ted proves to be a great parent to his son. Everything changes when Joanna returns looking to take her son back. In a courtroom battle which becomes incredibly heated and personal the two former spouses go at each other to decide who will raise their child. In the end, Joanna wins the judgment of the court based on a number of superficial reasons. Despite the bad blood between the two she realizes Billy belongs with her ex-husband. Propelled by a real life drama between it’s stars Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, Kramer vs Kramer truly portrayed a shift in how society saw the roles of parents.

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Judgment at Nuremberg: Three years after the ending of World War II, the Allied nations are sifting through the people responsible for the atrocities of the Nazis. Spencer Tracy portrays Judge Dan Haywood who is proceeding over the trials of four members of the Nazi legal system charged with crimes against humanity. Chief among those on trial is the respected Dr. Ernst Janning, portrayed to perfection by Burt Lancaster. While the prosecutor for the Americans is eager to pursue them with a vengeance, while the defendants are framing the trial as an attack on the German way of life. As Haywood has to sort through the legal issues of a war trial in a foreign land, the Soviet Union’s aggression in Europe is rearing it’s head.

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My Cousin Vinny: It only took six attempts before loudmouth Brooklyn native Vinny Gambini passed the bar. It seems as though he has passed just in time, because in Alabama his cousin and a friend have been arrested for murder during a road trip. The loudmouth New Yorker now finds himself embroiled in his first ever trial in front of a no-nonsense judge, a stuffy confident prosecutor, and jurors who see him as an outsider. Complicating matters is his relationship with his fiancée Mona Lisa who has come down to help him figure out what to do during a murder trial. Despite being a fun screwball comedy My Cousin Vinny is surprisingly hailed as one of the most accurate portrayals of the world of trial lawyers on film.

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Inherent the Wind: Two Hollywood heavyweights, Spencer Tracy and Frederic March, square off in a courtroom during this dramatization of the landmark Scopes Monkey Trial. A local school teacher has been charged with breaking an archaic law by teaching of Darwinian evolution. Supporters and critics alike see this case as a crucible to take a stand and send two of the nation’s most prominent legal minds to battle it out in this small Tennessee town. Arguing for the prosecution is famed political and religious figure Matthew Brady while the defense is led by renowned attorney Henry Drummond. The trial balloons far beyond it’s original intention as this becomes a battle over the role theology should play in the national public sphere. Everything comes to a head, once Drummond makes the bold move of putting Brady himself on the stand in order to dissect his religious convictions.