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Witness for the Prosecution

What one critic called “a witty, terse adaptation of the Agatha Christie hit play,” the “ingenuity and vitality” that writer/director Billy Wilder brought to Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution (itself an adaptation of Christie’s short story of the same title), earns a place in film history as an early example of the neo-noir crime thriller later brought to cinematic maturity in director Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995).

Through flashback and fluid camera shots, Wilder makes the courtroom a place of excitement, relieving the audience of the boredom and tediousness of the rules of criminal prosecution.

Equal parts comedy and drama, Witness for the Prosecution (1957) is not so much a ‘Whodunit’ as it is a ‘Whodathunkit.’

When World War II veteran Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) is accused of murdering a rich widow, his solicitor brings Vole to the offices of barrister Sir Wilfred Robarts (Charles Loughton).

Sir Wilfred is under doctor’s orders not to undertake any criminal cases.

Unhappy at the prospect of representing clients in matters of divorce, tax liability, and marine insurance—“nice smooth matters with excellent fees”— Sir Wilfred can’t  resist a chance to take his wig out of mothballs and abandon his diet of “bland civil suits.”

Not surprisingly, as we learn from his nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), Sir Wilfred was “expelled” from the hospital “for conduct unbecoming of a cardiac patient.”

Convinced that Vole is innocent, and that Vole’s wife Christina (Marlene Dietrich) provides an alibi, Sir Wilfred is shocked when Christina is called as a witness for the prosecution, testifying under oath that her husband admitted killing the widow.

Witness for the Prosecution concludes with a voice-over imploring the audience not to divulge the ending of the story to anyone who has not yet seen the film.

No doubt the voice-over worked.

Critics loved the movie, and its $9 million box office was a nice return on the movie’s $3 million dollar budget.

What we like about Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution is the way Wilder the writer includes technology in his stories about lawyers and the practice of law (See Volume 1, Issue 2 of Amicus Advocati, and our recommendation of Wilder’s 1966 movie, The Fortune Cookie).

Also testifying against Vole is the murdered widow’s housekeeper, Janet McKenzie (Una O’Connor). When Mrs. McKenzie tries speaking to the court by moving away from the microphone at the witness box, the patient judge directs her back to the microphone.

“Oh! Is this thing necessary?” She asks with annoyance.

“An excellent question,” replies the judge.

“However, it has been installed at considerable expense to the taxpayers, so let us take advantage of it.”

It’s hard to believe that it’s been over a quarter-century since director Adrian Lyne introduced us to that even harder to forget scene of a bunny boiling in a pot of water.

The 1987 thriller Fatal Attraction is an important film on many levels—not the least its $14 million dollar budget and its box office take of over $320 million dollars.

Some have pointed out that before Fatal Attraction, not one jurisdiction in the United States had an anti-stalker law; by 1990 every state had one. Feminist critics decried the films depiction of “career woman” (played by actress Glenn Close) as psychotic; some critics called the movie the first Yuppie horror film and others saw it as a morality tale about promiscuity in post AIDS America.

For those who haven’t watched the movie (and for the rest of you ready to watch it again) we invite you to pay less attention to Close’s creepily clingy editor Alix Forrest and more attention to actor Michael Douglas’ depiction of lawyer Dan Gallagher.

You have to wonder what Dan is thinking.

At a weekend meeting with one of his firm’s most important clients regarding an injunction to stop the release of a book, Dan flirts with editor Alix while the non-lawyers at the publishing house of Robbins and Hart are left to their non-lawyer group think to contemplate bribery and blackmail as the solution to their problem (you’ll miss this key background dialogue if you don’t turn on the subtitles).

If you focus on a weekend tryst gone horribly wrong, you miss the subtext: that Dan is pushing the ethical boundaries with an employee of a major client. When things get out of hand and Alix slits her wrists, Dan fails to do the right thing with an unstable woman who is clearly a danger to herself. No 911 call needed when Dan can bandage her up himself and avoid a scandal.

No doubt, Dan wants to prevent any damage to his marriage and to a senior partnership at the firm of Miller, Goodman, and Hurst. But by ignoring the woman who “will not be ignored,” the danger Alix poses to herself quickly becomes a danger to Dan and to others.

As a digital court reporting firm, we know that an audio deposition is pretty powerful stuff. That’s why we’re particularly taken with the scene where Dan is listening to a “deposition” with such intensity that he’s scared out of his wits when his wife puts her hand on his shoulder.

For an even interesting take on the power of the spoken word, take a look at the original ending of the film.

If you need any convincing that the tone and inflection of words are more powerful when you hear them, compare the two audio tapes and judge for yourself.

Lawyers on the Silver Screen is our review and recommendation of a movie on lawyers and the practice  of law.

While the documentary film Divorce Corp. is making the rounds as of late (see BlogSay in this issue), our recommendation in this issue is a screwball comedy about a lawyer who falls in love.

Intolerable Cruelty (2003) is the story of divorce lawyer Miles Massey (George Clooney).

Miles is rich, and he got that way because his “Massey pre-nup” is the iron-clad, sine qua non of pre-nup agreements.

In fact, the Massey pre-nup is so good  that “They spend an entire semester on it at Harvard Law.”

“Only love is on the mind, if a Massey is signed” is how Miles Massey’s junior associate sums up the cultural significance of  Massey’s contribution to family law.

As a leader in the National Organization of Matrimonial Attorneys, Nationally (N.O.M.A.N.), Miles is the good-looking poster-boy of an organization that proudly proclaims, “Let N.O.M.A.N. put asunder!”

Miles Massey has it all – two Mercedes-Benz’s, a cabin in Aspen and a “guy who waxes my jet.” But what he doesn’t have is faith in love, and his experience as a divorce lawyer leads to his conclusion that marriage  is “struggle and challenge and ultimate destruction of your opponents – that’s life.”

For Massey, the more time he spends whitening his teeth, the more the stark reality and horrific image of  his unmarried, yellowed, crooked, snarly, and long-in-the-tooth managing partner comes to the fore – a man who gleefully itemizes the  billable hours and summary judgments garnered by Miles that make the firm of Massey, Myerson, Sloan and Gurofnick the only game in town.

That is until Marilyn Hamilton Rexroth (Katherine Zeta-Jones) enters the courtroom and Massey falls hard and fast for a woman who sees Massey’s client (her soon-to-be ex-husband) as her “passport to wealth, independence, and freedom.”

Directed by Joel Coen and written by a team of writers including Coen and his brother Ethan, Intolerable Cruelty has so much clever dialogue, it’s hard to resist spoiling the movie for anyone who’s yet to see it.

In one scene, courtroom etiquette is reduced to a comic absurdity in a trialogue that puts Abbott and Costello’s dialogue “Who’s on First” to shame.

The testimony of Heinz the Baron Kraus von Espy, concierge at Les Pantaloons Rouge in the Swiss Canton of Uri is made all the more comical when Massey requests a  read-back from the court reporter.

And Massey’s  junior associate’s attempt to order a healthy salad at a greasy spoon is another gem of comedic writing.

Intolerable Cruelty succeeds because a brilliant script is put in the hands of some very talented actors including Edward Hermann, Billy Bob Thornton, Cedric the Entertainer, and Geoffrey Rush (who’s initial appearance in the film is nothing less than a clever parody of the popular late 1960s television show Love American Style). 

In the end, what makes Intolerable Cruelty a good movie is  that for better or worse, love does conquer all.

Lawyers on the Silver Screen is our recommendation of a film about lawyers and the practice of law. 

Legendary Hollywood writer and director Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie (1966) is notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s the first screen collaboration between actors Walter Mattheau and Jack Lemmon. The two actors would co-star in 10 feature films including the screen adaptation of Neil Simon’s Broadway play, The Odd Couple (1968).

The Fortune Cookie is also notable for its on-location shooting at a Minnesota Vikings/Cleveland Browns match-up on October 31, 1965. Requiring over 10,000 extras (including the football team from Ohio’s Kent State University), it was the largest extras call in cinematic history at the time.

The movie is also noteworthy for its cinematography. The Fortune Cookie is certainly the comic romp that film critic Vincent Canby said was “peopled with dropouts from the Great Society,” but what makes it oddly pleasing to our critical sensibilities is how comedy is conveyed through cynical irony by filming in the same widescreen black and white that Wilder used in Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), his two masterpieces of film noir. 

In The Fortune Cookie Willie “Whiplash” Gingrich (Mattheau) is the kind of lawyer who “could find a loophole in the Ten Commandments.” With that skill-set it’s no surprise that the firm of O’Brien, Thomas, and Kinkaid decides to hire a private investigator to surveille Gingrich’s client (who also happens to be Gingrich’s brother-in-law) Harry Hinkle (Lemmon), a C.B.S. cameraman who suffers a concussion when a Cleveland Browns linebacker goes out of bounds and takes down Hinkle at the sideline.

For us, what makes The Fortune Cookie a notable movie is the cat and mouse game played between Mattheau’s character and private investigator Chester Purkey (actor Cliff Osmond).

Purkey is certain that Hinkle is feigning injury, and by convincing plaintiff’s lawyers on the value of his  firms “Gemini Plan” — two investigators, round-the-clock-surveillance, hidden microphones, and wire tapping — Purkey assures the lawyers that he’ll catch Hinkle’s fraud in “Technicolor” and save the insurance company millions.

In The Fortune Cookie, film is a tool of the defendant. Today you are more often to see a video of a day in the life of the plaintiff documenting the impact of an injury.

For more information on Activities of Daily Living and Settlement Documentaries as powerful tools in personal injury law click here to access our glossary of Digital Court Reporting Terms.

Lawyers on the Silver Screen is our recommendation of a film about lawyers and the practice of law.

Our inaugural film is Inherit the Wind (1960), director Stanley Kramer’s film adaptation of Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee’s 1955 stage play that fictionalized the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial.

Of interest to us is the small role of WGN radio technician played by actor Norman Fell. While the Fell’s character is at first glance inconsequential to the story that unfolds in the powerful performances by actors Spencer Tracey and Frederic March, the inclusion of this seemingly small character illustrates why the Scopes Trial was considered “the trial of the century.”

The Scopes Trial was the first live broadcast of a trial in American history. Chicago radio station WGN was still in its infancy when it sent radio announcer Quinn Ryan to Dayton, Tennessee to cover the trial. At the cost of $1,000 per day, WGN rented AT&T cables to connect the trial to its Chicago studios. With four microphones placed strategically throughout the courtroom, WGN radio enjoyed unprecedented cooperation of the Rhea County Courthouse in accommodating the radio station microphones to give American radio listeners a front-row seat.

Unfortunately, technology in 1925 was not advanced enough to record WGN’s historic broadcast for posterity. While the film is a compelling dramatization of the Scopes Monkey Trial, we can’t help but regret that the audio record is lost to the ages. In 1925, a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution brought two of the greatest lawyers of the twentieth century to the sleepy, economically-depressed mining town of Dayton. While the words of Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan are recorded on paper, no doubt radio audiences from coast-to-coast were lucky to hear what we can now only read. 

Do you have a favorite movie about lawyers? Email us your recommendation. We’ll watch it and review it here. Or feel free to write your own review and we’ll post it.

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