A Book Review by Tanja Bresan.
An insightful and well researched book on judicial processes and views on expressing justice, its meaning, and duplicity within the Hollywood courtroom film genre.”
Truth and Trickery in Courtroom Movies (Vandeplas Publishing, 2021) written and researched by two prominent law professors and cinephiles – Michael Asimow, Dean’s Executive Professor of Law at Santa Clara Law School and Professor of Law Emeritus at UCLA School of Law and Paul Bergman, UCLA Professor of Law Emeritus – is an insightful and well researched book on judicial processes and views on expressing justice, its meaning, and duplicity within the Hollywood courtroom film genre. As stated in the introduction by Arthur Gilbert, Presiding Judge of California Court of Appeal:
A trial, by its nature, is theatre. The courtroom is in fact a “set” one may find in a movie or on the stage. The movie director has more creative role than the judge in the courtroom, but both control the proceedings and decide what can and cannot be said” (12).
Bergman’s and Asimow’s insight into courtroom dramas serve as a compendium of those films which tackle the issues of (re)presenting the practice of the law in sometimes accurate but often distorted ways.
In reviewing over 200 courtroom movies from early talkies up to more recent years, the book is a sort of guide in legal analysis, giving detailed highlights and background information on the legal issues raised in the films. Rather than presenting a legally accurate account, courtroom films tend to express public attitudes in society regarding the judicial process at the time of the film’s making.
Their constant and common motif is in discovering and determining “the truth,” especially since that same truth is often questionable, or even openly contradicted as the judicial process takes place after whatever crime happened in the past. What a cinema audience is shown is almost always different from what the drama’s jury is presented. In order to express opinions in a manner that pleases the audience for the commercial purpose of selling tickets, too often in films “the truth” is unambiguously revealed, clear justice is won, and innocence is regained by the wrongly accused in dramatic and unlikely ways at the eleventh hour. But the authors also deal with films that do not come to an agreement on justice.
Fifteen chapters discuss prejudice on trial, corruption of justice, uncivil trials and the troublesome issue of the death penalty, to name a few. Each chapter presents the topic and gives one longer review, followed by “selected shorts” – quick mentions of other takes on similar issues. Appropriately, a gavel is given to each review, four gavels denote a classic, three are deemed “quite entertaining,” two are “just good” while one gavel suggests we should ask for a new trial. Or perhaps, a new director’s cut.
Each review begins with an Opening Statement, followed with – spoilers ahead! – Courtroom Closeups analyzing the events of the trial itself. Next, Beyond the Courtroom highlight events that took place outside of the courtroom [at the time of the film’s release? would love a bit of context on the events.]. Lastly, For the Record gives an account of the actual cases on which films are based or inspired by, and probable or intentional portrayals of actual lawyers, judges, or criminal suspects. In some cases, this proves to be the most illuminating section, such as the entry for Compulsion (Richard Fletcher, 1959), a fictionalized version of the Leopold and Loeb murder trial, many times dramatized in different eras as society reacted to the existence and decriminalization of homosexuality more openly.
Appendixes provide the basics on Hollywood’s self-imposed censorship mechanism known as the Production Code, a system that ruled the content of Hollywood film from the mid 1930 to the mid-1960, also the time where many of the most memorable courtroom dramas were made. Most of the legal procedures take place in an American courtroom, which became the most exciting stage and court of all courts, thanks in part to the existence of films such as 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957), To Kill A Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962), Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959), JFK (Oliver Stone,1991), Angel Face (Otto Preminger,1952), The Talk Of the Town (George Stevens,1942), and The Lady From Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947).
The book’s goal, as pointed out by its authors, is to entertain and enlighten, or in my case to expose me to the best courtroom drama I have seen in a while – Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, film released in 1956, the last Hollywood film by German-expatriate master director Fritz Lang. Interesting to note that his first film in Hollywood as a recent immigrant from Nazi Germany to America was also a courtroom crime drama, Fury (1936), which concerns a Lynch mob’s attempt to blame an outsider for a crime, skip the trial and proceed straight to the lynch mob’s administration of [what they see as] “swift justice.” Motifs such as lynching, abuse of power and unmasking the values and codes of the American constitution are present in both of Lang’s film masterpieces.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is essentially a story about three people: Tom Garrett, an aspiring novelist, his fiancé Susan Spencer, a beautiful heiress, and Austin Spencer, a newspaper owner and Tom’s future father-in-law. Austin Spencer is opposed to capital punishment and in order to help his son-in-law to get started on a new book, together they conspire to place false evidence and frame Tom for a murder he did not commit and make a case of it in order to eradicate the law. Tom is convicted and during the trial Spencer gets into a fatal accident which burns the photo evidence of the planted photo “evidence”. Tom is suddenly on a real trial for which he may or may not be able to prove his innocence.
The most striking aspects of the film are the nihilistic atmosphere that follows through the whole hour and twenty minutes of its duration, the somewhat non elaborated mise-en-scene, and characters removed from any particular past events or present circumstances. Here, the goal established by the authors of this book is being denounced. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is not an entertaining court-drama film. As pointed in Jacques Rivette’s review in Cahiers du Cinema, from November 1957: “A film like this is obviously the absolute antithesis of the idea of an entertaining evening, and by comparison to the The Wrong Man are jolly Saturday nights out. Here one breathes, if I may venture to say so, the rarefied air of the summits, but at risk of asphyxiation.”Damning circumstances have sent a person to the death penalty, then, at the very end, this supposed innocence is proven to be a real guilt. What proves different in Lang’s approach is that he immediately starts off bleak and defeated, as Rivette notes, more as a staged experiment or read through script exercise. Image is a lie, the truth is hidden behind the language and how much (or how little) truth is disclosed. In the world of this film, facts don’t mean a thing. The audience is perplexed, there is no one to “cheer” for in the courtroom, and the overarching social issues are not discussed and debated, merely presented as nearly unanswerable questions that won’t go away. These are well made and established people playing with law, getting caught up.
Eloquent arguments and camera trickery can persuade untruths; sophistry and sentiment can aim to outmaneuver one’s own instincts. A good prosecutor has to face – and be followed by – a spirited defense, but a film director need only satisfy his producer and/or an audience to have his say on a matter. No cross-examination is permitted of the screenwriter, or by them unless they so choose. Juries are instructed to disregard evidence and testimony, just as the censor’s scissors can remove anything before an audience gets to judge. A bad defense lawyer doesn’t go to prison or the electric chair, his helpless client does. What movies and the courtroom share in common is the art of persuasion and that they are only attempts at revealing truth by unjust, imperfect and biased partisans that are ultimately judged by a group of peers first, harshly and immediately and then by history and humanity only later, after careful curation and consideration. Finally, as Fritz Lang seems to suggest, if you think you are in sole possession of the truth, you probably haven’t been paying attention to how artificial the entire endeavor truly is – and perhaps that’s the final truth. Necessary fictions and artificial truths are as close to impartial as we’ve managed to come.
“Le Main, on Beyond a Reasonable Doubt,” Cahiers du Cinema 76, November 1957.
Tanja Bresan holds a masters degree in art and cultural studies from the University of Arts, Belgrade. Her writing on film had appeared in several online journals including Berlin Film Journal and IndieKino Berlin.