By Erin Free

THE PROCURATOR (2023)

As you would expect from the director of the wonderfully high-octane Infernal Affairs and Initial D, Alan Mak’s The Procurator is a particularly dynamic take on the sub-genre of the courtroom film. Mak takes as his starting point the figure of the “Procurator”, a public prosecutor in The Supreme People’s Procuratorate Of The People’s Republic of China, the country’s highest national agency responsible for legal prosecution. The Procurator oversees the investigation and prosecution of crimes, basically making them both a cop and courtroom prosecutor, which lets Alan Mak off the leash when it comes to the film’s on-the-street action scenes, and then sees him ratchet up the tension with equal aplomb while on trial.

JOH’S JURY (1993)

Aired back on ABC-TV in 1993, this telemovie from the small screen powerhouse team of director Ken Cameron (Offspring, Brides Of Christ, Bangkok Hilton) and writer Ian David (Blue Murder, Police State) brings together a cracking Aussie cast (John Jarratt, John Howard, Penny Cook, Noah Taylor, Graeme Blundell, Norman Yemm) for this compelling look at what happened in the jury room when infamous Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen (ingeniously played here by his comic impersonator Gerry Connolly) was put on trial for perjury in 1991. Joh’s Jury is an expertly tailored piece of local TV, and the equal of anything you’d see on the big screen.

FROM THE HIP (1987)

Do you remember that very small window that appeared after Judd Nelson won hearts and fans for his edgy, funny performances in The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire? The time when it looked like Nelson could have been a genuine leading man? Well, along with the now forgotten Blue City, 1987’s From The Hip was another film staged as a star vehicle for Nelson, and while not great, it certainly offers up a few laughs, and rates as a solid WTF whenever courtroom flicks are put on the stand. In this little remembered effort from director Bob Clark (Porky’s, Black Christmas) and co-writer David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal), Nelson plays Robin “Stormy” Weathers, a wholly unconventional lawyer who turns the courtroom into his stage.

THE TRIAL (1962)

In the ultimate film for anyone who’s ever been done over, or just flat-out confused, by the legal system, the great Orson Welles puts an appropriately trippy spin on Franz Kafka’s famous novel in which an unassuming everyman (perfectly played by Anthony Perkins) is arrested and placed on trial, while never being actually informed of what he’s being charged with. Though filmed again in 1997 with Kyle MacLachlan and Anthony Hopkins, this is the best version of Kafka’s legal and existential nightmare.

THE CAINE MUTINY COURT-MARTIAL (1988)

While Edward Dmytryck’s 1954 adaptation of Herman Wouk’s novel is justifiably praised, it’s also difficult to find fault with the great Robert Altman’s utterly absorbing meditation on the material with his brilliant 1988 television film. Offering a far different interpretation of the character of Lieutenant Commander Queeg to that of Humphrey Bogart, Brad Davis is a brilliant picture of instability and obfuscation in Altman’s film, which is based not on Herman Wouk’s novel, but on his play, which focused solely on the courtroom element of the court-martial. Brilliantly performed (Eric Bogosian, Jeff Daniels, Peter Gallagher and Michael Murphy also star), this is one of Robert Altman’s best and most underrated “filmed plays”.

12 ANGRY MEN (1997)

Though Sidney Lumet’s 1957 classic 12 Angry Men (boasting magisterial work by Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb) is a true standard bearer when it comes to courtroom cinema, William Friedkin’s take on the material for his 1997 television film is well worth a look too. The story of the back-and-forth that happens in the jury room of a highly divisive criminal case is beautifully and dynamically handled, while the assembled cast (Jack Lemmon, George C. Scott, Hume Cronyn, Tony Danza, Ossie Davis, James Gandolfini, Mykelti Williamson, William Petersen, Courtney B. Vance, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Dorian Harewood, Edward James Olmos) is utterly superb.

THE ACCUSED (1988)

Though justifiably most appreciated for its truly staggering lead performance by the great Jodie Foster (who won a well-deserved Oscar for her career defining work here), as well as her extraordinary act of commitment, bravery and immersion in the film’s highly confrontational gang-rape scene, The Accused is also an excellent piece of courtroom cinema courtesy of the perennially underrated Jonathan Kaplan (Over The Edge, Heart Like A Wheel), who digs deep into the ugliness of the American legal system, with a particular focus on the manner in which it so poorly treats women and the victims of sexual crimes.

BREAKER MORANT (1979)

In Bruce Beresford’s masterpiece set during The Boer War in Africa, Australian soldier Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward) and his off-siders (Bryan Brown, Lewis Fitz-Gerald) are put on trial for killing Boer prisoners in revenge for a previous attack, even though they claim to have acted under orders. It soon emerges that the men are being scapegoated by the command, as a seemingly in-over-his-head lawyer (Jack Thompson) takes on their case. A majestic anti-war statement to rival Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Paths Of Glory, Breaker Morant is a truly mesmerising piece of courtroom cinema.

JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961)

A strong, potent piece of socially minded filmmaking from the now sadly and unfairly maligned Stanley Kramer (The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?), Judgment At Nuremburg is a gripping drama set in post-WWII Germany, where the US military is trying four Nazis charged with war crimes. The courtroom drama is intense, the dialogue is razor sharp (screenwriter and Kojak creator Abby Mann was a master when it came to TV crime and courtroom dramas), the sense of moral enquiry is fascinating, and the cast is stacked (Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, William Shatner), but the most memorable aspect of this quite incredible film is Montgomery Clift’s utterly gut-wrenching performance.

M (1931)

As potent, powerful and relevant today as it was back in 1931 (!!!) when it was first released, M is a blitzing exercise in tension from the great Fritz Lang (Metropolis, The Big Heat, Rancho Notorious) working in his native Germany. Peter Lorre plays a child murderer whose despicable deeds have put a German city into a state of panic. As the city’s upright denizens live in fear, and the police do their best to catch the killer, the underworld’s leading figures see a decrease in business, and join in the fray to apprehend the culprit for both moral and financial purposes. From its shadowy cinematography to the inventive manner in which it deals with such dark subject matter, M is a masterpiece. It climactic “kangaroo court” sequence, in which Lorre’s killer is “tried” for his crimes, meanwhile, sees its safe inclusion on this list.

THE STAR CHAMBER (1983)

A courtroom flick of a different stripe, this now largely forgotten 1983 thriller from the criminally underrated Peter Hyams (Outland, Busting, Capricorn One, Running Scared) stars the excellent Michael Douglas as a young judge lured into the titular organisation, which is a secret cabal of judges who employ hitmen to murder criminals who have managed to evade courtroom justice through legal loopholes. In this taut, enjoyably fanciful thriller that effectively questions the US judicial system, the secret society of judges hold their own trials to determine who will suffer the fate of execution for their crimes, which is more than enough evidence to place The Star Chamber onto this list.

THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005)

A courtroom drama combined with The Exorcist-style flashbacks, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose follows the case of nineteen-year-old Emily Rose (a very strong turn from Jennifer Carpenter), who comes down with a bad case of demon possession. Desperate to act, her devoutly Catholic family calls in Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson, superb as always) to exorcise their daughter. When the ensuing exorcism is botched and Emily dies, the well-meaning priest is charged with negligent homicide, making for a wholly unconventional courtroom flick. Well handled by director Scott Derrickson, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose is a surprisingly cogent and coherent mix of prosaic legality and otherworldly horror.

The Procurator is screening now. Click here for our review.

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