The verdict is in: We love trial movies
Courtroom-conflict films not only entertain, but affect our thinking on other issues, says Berkeley professor

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs



In “The Kiss” (1929), Greta Garbo — appearing in her last silent film — portrayed a woman on trial for killing her husband.

23 October 2002 | Since the dawn of the film industry, there have been movies about court trials. From 1907’s “Falsely Accused” to 1996’s “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and beyond, it’s a category that has endured for nearly a century.

These films are not only extremely entertaining, says Carol J. Clover, professor in the film studies, rhetoric, and Scandinavian departments, but their adversarial structure has also shaped the way we frame issues outside the courtroom.

“So much of our cultural rhetoric is effectively legal rhetoric,” says Clover. “The ‘point-counterpoint’ reasoning of the trial gets extended to every sort of issue. Two prime examples are ‘The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer’ and ‘Ebert & Roeper and the Movies,’ with their ‘pro-con’ or ‘thumbs-up/thumbs-down’ approach. This type of counternarrative is what makes trial movies, as well as thrillers and mysteries, so compelling.”

Exploring the ways that the Anglo-American trial has given rise and shape to courtroom-themed entertainment is the focus of Clover’s current research and the subject of her forthcoming book, “The People’s Plot: Trials, Movies, and the Adversarial Imagination.” She is also teaching a class on the topic this fall, with students viewing quintessential trial films throughout the semester at the Pacific Film Archive.

Insight in the jurybox
Clover was inspired to explore the connection between popular entertainment and the law while serving as a juror in a criminal trial in the early 1990s.

“I was amazed at how much my fellow jurors knew about legal procedure,” she says. “Even those who had never set foot in a courtroom were familiar with things like jury selection, opening statements, cross examination, and so forth. That’s when I first appreciated the extent to which our popular culture — primarily films and television — offers viewers a legal education.”

Indeed, trial-based movies and television courtroom dramas are made year after year in the English-speaking world. Just in the U.S., the airwaves are clogged with shows like “Law & Order,” “Judge Judy,” and “The People’s Court,” as well as Court TV, a cable network devoted to legal proceedings.

But this phenomenon isn’t something you’ll see in European countries, says Clover. It’s overwhelmingly Anglo-American.

“The typical continental European trial is a more collaborative and, hence, a less dramatic affair,” she says. “It does not involve citizens in the same way, and is not nearly as public as it is in the United States or countries with similar systems.”

It is not surprising, then, that European citizens know very little about how their legal system works, says Clover. Some countries, like Sweden and Denmark, have tried to develop television programs based on their own legal systems, but have met with little or no success.

Flashbacks and close-ups
The Anglo-American legal system has given film more than a wealth of storylines; it has also contributed to the “language” of cinema.

The flashback, for example, was used in the earliest trial movies to illustrate witnesses’ descriptions of past events. The device has been a staple of movies and TV shows ever since.

The “credibility” close-up, another venerable device, reflects the importance of witness demeanor in Anglo-American law. In real courts, jurors rely heavily on the facial expressions of witnesses and defendants to determine whether they’re telling the truth or lying, says Clover. By zooming in on actors’ faces, audience members, like jurors, have a chance to judge the credibility of those characters.

Though trial films have been a staple of the medium for more than 90 years, the 1950s was perhaps the genre’s most distinguished decade, says Clover. She speculates it had to do with Hollywood’s response to the Cold War and hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which specifically targeted the film industry in its search for communist sympathizers.

“My guess,” she says, “is that these movies served to remind the public of the rule of law — the importance of due process and the presumption of innocence.”

Perhaps the best film of that period, Clover believes, is “Anatomy of a Murder” from 1959, starring Jimmy Stewart as a lawyer defending a murderer played by Ben Gazarra. It received seven Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture.

“At nearly three hours, it is an unusually thorough representation of the trial process,” she says. “In fact, it’s the first film I showed students in my class. Because it’s so instructional, it laid the foundation for the rest of the material presented in the course.”

The production of trial entertainment has continued to chug along, and the public’s appetite for them seems to be as ravenous as ever. “Despite what sometimes seems like saturation in our popular culture,” says Clover, “trial dramas, on both film and in television, just keep on coming out. There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.”

The movies presented in Carol Clover’s “Trials & Film” class are open to the public, space permitting. Cost for faculty and staff is $5. The 3 p.m. screenings take place at the Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft Ave. Upcoming films include:

Oct. 28
Compulsion (1959)

Directed by Richard Fleischer
Orson Welles, Dean Stockwell, E.G. Marshall

Nov. 4
Sergeant Rutledge (1960)

Directed by John Ford
Jeffrey Hunter, Constance Travers, Billie Burke

Nov. 18
Cape Fear (1991)

Directed by Martin Scorcese
Robert DeNiro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange

Nov. 25
The Thin Blue Line (1988)

Directed by Errol Morris
Documentary featuring Randall Adams and David Harris

Dec. 2
Stairway to Heaven (1998)

Directed by Errol Morris
Documentary featuring Temple Gradin


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