Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey
Ray Rice. Adrian Peterson. The issues of domestic violence and child abuse are at the forefront of the news once again, jumping into our consciousness because of high-profile cases involving NFL players. But violence like this is hardly a new phenomenon. For this month’s film I’ve chosen a film from 1931, in black and white, in a foreign language, that is one of the most powerful cinematic statements – if not THE most powerful cinematic statement – about the horrors of child abduction and sexual assault on children. It will chill you to the bone.
M is a German film released in 1931. It was directed by Fritz Lang, one of the all-time great directors. It was Lang’s first sound film. Lang also wrote the script with his wife, Thea Von Harbou. Of all his many movies, M was Lang’s favorite. He stated years later that the story came to him because Germany was plagued by a number of serial killers. However, the subject matter of the movie was not one that the public was happy about. When Lang announced that he would make a movie about this subject, he received death threats and his regular studio refused to allow the film to be made there. Lang would eventually come to the United States after Hitler came to power and would make a number of remarkable films after moving here.
M tells the story of a mentally ill man who abducts, sexually assaults and kills children. We see the pursuit of the killer on two fronts. There is the frantic search by the police authorities, led by Inspector Karl Lohmann. That search leads to a crackdown on the city’s criminal class and that crackdown in turn leads the criminal underground to begin its own parallel search, at the direction of a character known as The Safecracker. The criminals find the killer first and put him on trial before a kangaroo court made up of the criminal underground. I won’t spoil the ending – but it will move you.
The killer is played by Peter Lorre in his first starring role. If you only know Lorre from his slightly silly performances in low-budget horror films of the ‘60’s, his acting here will be a revelation. The anguish of a crazed and obsessed killer is palpable. Watching him during the trial, one can almost feel sorry for him. Almost.
M is filled with images that will disturb and even shock you – but given the time of its making, we see nothing explicit or even very direct. Rather than battering us with the kind of graphic images easily available to us today on the internet and television, Lang instead conveys fear, terror, obsession and loathing by carefully crafted images that leave everything to our imaginations. The power of Lang’s visual language is such that I have seen people weep or cry out in shock or fear while watching M.
Yes, this movie is 83 years old. Yes, it’s in black and white. Yes, it’s in German with subtitles. None of that matters. Watching it will be powerful and unforgettable experience for you. M reminds us that violence against our fellow beings is a scourge that is always with us and is, sadly, nothing new. Every one of us in the legal system sees this every day, no matter where we are: sex assaults on children in criminal, sexual harassment suits in civil, protection orders in domestic, D&N’s in juvenile, abuse of the elderly in probate. The maltreatment of human beings by other human beings is a constant thread in our work. But our knowledge of that sad, frightening thread should remind us that we, as a society can do better.
And we must do better.
 Among other movies, Lang also directed Metropolis, a silent film about a future society and its relationship to robots, found on every list of movie classics and a must for all sci-fi fans.
Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey
You knew I’d get to A Few Good Men eventually, didn’t you? Yes, it’s best remembered for Jack Nicholson’s famous line, but this movie has much else to recommend it.
The film revolves around the court martial of two Marines, Dawson and Downey, for allegedly murdering Santiago, a fellow Marine. Santiago was an ineffective soldier and during the investigation, Lt. Commander Galloway (Demi Moore) begins to suspect that Santiago was the victim of a “Code Red,” an unofficial punishment either directly or tacitly ordered by Santiago’s commanding officer, Colonel Jessup (Nicholson).
Although Galloway wants to represent Dawson and Downey, their defense is instead assigned to Lt. Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise. Kaffee is hardly a paragon of lawyerly behavior: he’s lazy, hedonistic, doesn’t take his job seriously, and prefers plea bargains to trials. In his representation of Dawson and Downey, he initially cuts a deal with the prosecutor, Captain Ross (Kevin Bacon), but his clients turn it down, forcing Kaffee to take the case forward to trial.
Through numerous twists and turns, Kaffee eventually discovers the truth—although that isn’t the truth Colonel Jessup is talking about in his outburst on the witness stand, the line that everyone remembers from this movie: “You can’t handle the truth!” (That line is Number 29 in the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotes.)
Having never been a JAG officer, I can’t comment on how accurately the court martial scenes reflect the military justice system; accurate or not, they are certainly dramatic and well acted. There is one excellent example of how real lawyers should conduct themselves: Captain Ross’s opening statement is succinct, premised on statements of fact, devoid of emotion but not of passion and drama, and offers a clear view of what his case is about. I’ve showed it to my students at DU Law School, who think that an opening statement has to be long, flowery, and argumentative to be effective. Perhaps I should show it to some of the lawyers who appear in my courtroom, too.
This movie was nominated for Best Picture and Nicholson for Best Supporting Actor (although how anyone could see Nicholson as having a “supporting” role is beyond me). The movie was directed by Rob Reiner, famous as “Meathead” Michael Stivic, Archie Bunker’s son-in-law. Reiner also directed one of my favorite non-law movies, The Princess Bride. There are a number of recognizable faces in the cast, including Kiefer Sutherland, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Kevin Pollack.
If you’ve never seen A Few Good Men, cue it up. See if you can handle the truth!
Paul Newman was one of our greatest actors. He was nominated for eight Best Actor Oscars, winning in 1986 for The Color of Money. That was sort of a Lifetime Achievement Award—a number of his other portrayals were much better, including his role as Frank Galvin, a Boston lawyer, in 1982’s courtroom drama, The Verdict. The film is well-acted, well-directed, dramatic, and, as the book Reel Justice notes, “[I]t’s … in the running for Most Lawyer Misconduct in a Single Film.” (Mark Caldwell and I have used at least four different scenes from The Verdict in our film clip ethics presentations over the years).
Galvin is a lush so down on his luck that we first meet him he is trying to hustle business at the funeral of a man he didn’t know. He gets a medical malpractice case from a friend. The victim is a young woman in a persistent vegetative state, brought on by a mistaken dose of anesthetic during childbirth. Galvin is opposed by Concannon, a ruthless defense lawyer, brilliantly played by James Mason (who was also nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.) Galvin also has to take on the Catholic Diocese of Boston, who owned the hospital. This being a Hollywood movie, you probably have a pretty good idea on how this will end. But the twists and turns are mesmerizing and Newman makes Galvin’s road to redemption as a lawyer and a human being believable and moving.
However, it’s an easier movie to watch if somehow you can forget about all the egregious ethical violations: an ex parte meeting with the trial judge, bribing a witness to disappear, using burglary to obtain evidence, failing to communicate a settlement offer to a client, lawyers communicating with opponents who are represented by counsel, etc. If ethical violations were a drinking game, you’d be hammered before The Verdict was half over.
As a lawyer, you should care about all that, but you can love the movie anyway for its appeal to justice (even if that appeal isn’t based on any admissible evidence.) Whether you’re a lawyer or not, you can love The Verdict as a gripping drama, directed by a great director (Sidney Lumet, who also directed 12 Angry Men) and acted by real pros (Newman, Mason, Milo O’Shea, and Jack Warden, who played Juror Number 7 in 12 Angry Men). It’s those qualities that make The Verdict one of my favorite legal movies. I bet it’ll be one of yours, too.
I have plenty of movies in mind I want to write about, but please let me know if there’s a movie you’d like to have me review. I’ll try to accommodate requests!
Post written by guest blogger: Judge Bob McGahey.
“The One and Only Santa Claus!”
Miracle on 34th Street (the one from 1947) is the second greatest Christmas movie ever. The climax is when a white-bearded jolly gentleman named Kris Kringle goes on trial for lunacy, after insisting that he really is Santa Claus. The legal machinations surrounding that trial are some of the best things about the movie – and the main reason I chose Miracle on 34th Street for December’s review. (Well, that and the fact that it’s a Christmas movie!)
One thing that makes Miracle on 34th Street so good is its terrific cast. The story focuses on Kris Kringle (played by Edmund Gwenn, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor) and Susan Walker, a six year old girl played by the heartbreakingly young Natalie Wood. Also prominent are Fred Gailey (John Payne), a young lawyer who represents Kris and Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), and Susan’s mother, a no-nonsense divorcee who works for Macy’s as special events coordinator. Also making an appearance are Judge Henry X. Harper, played by veteran character actor Gene Lockhart, and his political advisor, Charlie Halloran, played by William Frawley, whom you may remember as the beloved Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy. There are other wonderful characters, all well played by excellent actors. (Watch for Jack Albertson in a literal throwaway part.) In addition to Edmund Gwenn, George Seaton (who also directed the film) won an Oscar for Best Screenplay, and Valentine Davies won one for Best Original Story. Miracle on 34th Street was nominated for Best Picture, but lost to Gentlemen’s Agreement.
(As an aside, Doris was way ahead of her time: she was an independent, self-confident, successful divorced woman, raising a child without a husband. Showing a “divorced woman” in a positive light got this movie a “B” rating from the National Legion of Decency for being “morally objectionable in part”.)
The movie opens with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Gwenn actually played Santa in the 1946 parade, which was filmed for use in the movie. Oddly enough, this movie was released in May of 1947, because Daryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, believed that more people went to the movies in the summer than in the winter. The original publicity for the film suggests that it’s a love story between the two adult leads, with hardly any mention of the centrality of the holiday theme.
The legal elements of this movie are great. Kringle’s trial for lunacy – and his potential commitment to an asylum if he loses – is portrayed convincingly, yet with humor. The evidence is wonderful: Kris cheerfully agrees that he’s Santa, the DA immediately rests, Fred subpoenas the DA’s son as a witness, the Post Office gets involved, etc. But there are other, deeper things that the movie says about lawyers, judges, and justice that are important.
First of all there’s Fred Gailey. He’s a junior lawyer with a prominent firm, and appears to be on an upward path in that realm. But after he takes on Kris as a client and becomes more and more convinced of the righteousness of the case, he eventually loses his job and (for a while at least) his budding romance with Doris. Fred demonstrates that a lawyer’s duty to his client and to justice can have difficult and painful personal consequences. He shows, as the Preamble to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct states, that “[a] lawyer is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system and a public citizen having a special responsibility for the quality of justice.”
And then there’s Judge Harper. Coming from Colorado, I’m a die-hard supporter of merit selection for judges. Miracle on 34th Street shows, in humorous form, the pitfalls and dangers of electing judges. The scenes between Judge Harper and his political adviser Halloran, are hilarious when you watch them, but on another level, they emphasize how a judge could be influenced by having to appeal to various constituencies to stay on the bench. There’s also a wonderful scene between the judge and his grandchildren that demonstrates the potential consequences for a judge who has to make tough decisions. It’s so good that Mark Caldwell and I used it as part of an ethics presentation at the Colorado Judicial Conference in 2011.
There are three caveats about watching this movie. First of all, try to watch it without commercials. The pacing and flow are important – and since it’s a relatively short film (96 minutes), those matter. Secondly, try to watch it in black and white, as it was originally filmed. I don’t want to get on a rant here, but colorization? Ugh! Finally (and I will rant here), DO NOT, under any circumstances, think that the 1994 remake is a viable substitute. It most emphatically isn’t!
I could go on. Instead, I think I’ll go home tonight, break out my black and white DVD copy, and watch Miracle on 34th Street. And I’ll watch it again with my grandchildren after they all get here for the holiday.
And finally, as Susan says near the end of the movie: “I believe… I believe… It’s silly, but I believe.” After watching Miracle on 34th Street, see if you don’t believe, too.
A happy and healthy holiday season to everyone in the NITA family!