Reversal of Fortune and the Lawyer Film

Friday, 27 March 2009

More than any other figure in the Hollywood imagination, more
even than the maverick cop, the lawyer embodies viewers’
ambivalent attitudes toward the law. Ever since the American
public became aware that “a distressing number of the Watergate
villains, including the President, were lawyers,”1 disillusionment with
lawyers as overpaid hairsplitters who ride roughshod over the truth
in defense of their well-heeled and amoral clients has spawned a thousand
late-night comedy monologues. When special prosecutor Kenneth
Starr issued his historic report on President Clinton’s alleged perjuries
about his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, each side was quick
to attack the other’s tactics as legalistic, as if the practice of law were
itself contemptible. Recent movie lawyers have accordingly included
Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) in The Devil’s Advocate (1997), which
makes explicit the widespread implication that lawyers are in league
with the devil [Fig. 59], and Fletcher Reede (Jim Carrey) in Liar Liar
(1997), which chooses a compulsively untruthful lawyer as the person
who would be most comically hamstrung by his disappointed son’s
magically granted wish that he be forced to tell the truth for a single

Even as lawyers are universally vilified in the public imagination,
they occupy a position of unprecedented popularity in American culture.
From Scott Turow to John Grisham, from TV’s Law and Order to
its The Practice, from Primal Fear (1996) to A Civil Action (1998), from
Johnnie Cochrane to Christopher Darden to Marcia Clark, from Kenneth
Starr to Bill Clinton, lawyers have never before held such sway
over the popular imagination. Real-life jurists from Judge Wapner to

Judge Judy have become television stars, and an increasing number
of cable franchises allocate an entire television channel to Court TV.
Certainly some entries in the recent torrent of legal fiction and nonfiction
– for example, the films Trial by Jury (1994) and The Juror
(1996), following the lead of 12 Angry Men (1957), which pit the heroic
ordinary citizens of the jury against a system that seems to be rigged
against justice – cast lawyers as bogeymen. More often, however,
Hollywood prefers to focus on idealistic lawyers, especially those who
originally plied their trade in John Grisham novels adapted for the
screen, who win justice for their clients against impossible odds. For
fictional lawyers, the 1990s seem to be the worst of times that are also
the best of times.

This ambivalence is nothing new. Over the years, in fact, lawyers
have modeled and evoked a wider range of attitudes toward the justice
system than any other single figure. How dramatic these mood
swings have been can be illustrated by fictional representations of the
archetypal lawyer hero. Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason has been
played by dapper Warren William, in a series of Warner Bros. features
(e.g., The Case of the Howling Dog, 1934), as a wily legal tactician; by
Raymond Burr, in the CBS television series that ran from 1957 to 1966,
as a staunch defender of the innocent; and, in a series of television
movies that brought back Burr from 1985 to the star’s death in 1993,
as a stern reminder of a tradition of legal probity endangered by a new
generation of lawyers.

Nor are the changing attitudes Mason has reflected limited to questions
of morality, for, like all criminal investigators, Hollywood lawyers
offer images of power as well as images of virtue or vice. Warren
William’s Mason – respected by the district attorney, trusted by his
clients, worshiped by his faithful secretary – is a paragon of personal
power. When Alfred Hitchcock presents one of his rare lawyer heroes
in The Paradine Case (1947), however, he makes Anthony Keane (Gregory
Peck) into a victim who is undone by the depth of his advocacy
for his client, the mysterious widow Maddalena Paradine (Alida Valli),
which crosses the line to a ruinous infatuation and a romantic rivalry
with Andre Latour (Louis Jourdain), the valet he is convinced has murdered
Mrs. Paradine’s husband. Because lawyers, well paid as they often
are by clients who never call on them except when they are in trouble,
are so often assumed to occupy a privileged position in society
and the legal establishment, they are ripe for the reversals that play
to audiences’ revenge fantasies by making them outcasts or victims
in films like The Verdict (1982), Presumed Innocent (1990), The Firm
(1992), A Time to Kill (1996), and Witness for the Prosecution (1957;
based on a 1949 story and 1954 play by Agatha Christie), in which the
magisterial Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) takes a client he
has proved to his own imperious satisfaction is innocent, only to be
flimflammed by both the client and his resourceful wife.
59. The Devil’s Advocate: A lawyer hero (Keanu Reeves) literally in league with
the Devil (Al Pacino).

Instead of being figured as simply powerful or powerless, lawyers
can be shown as evenly matched sparring partners, as in the protofeminist
comedy Adam’s Rib (1949), which asks whether an aggrieved
wife who shoots her philandering husband in the arms of his mistress
is entitled to the same unwritten legal defense that a man in her position
has long been able to claim in attacking his wife. The twist here
is that Adam Bonner (Spencer Tracy), the assistant D.A. prosecuting
Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday), is married to her defense attorney,
Amanda Bonner (Katharine Hepburn). Despite their amusingly different
views of gender politics, both partners, in their different ways, ultimately
reveal their respect for the law as it is written and their sense
of the underlying ideals of social justice for which the law is all too
often an imperfect instrument.

Despite its comic mode, Adam’s Rib provides an unusually explicit
illustration of the contradictory nature of movie lawyers. Movies can
readily capitalize on viewers’ ambivalence toward lawyers because
movie lawyers, unlike cops, private eyes, amateur detectives, gangsters,
or the heroes and heroines of films noirs and erotic thrillers, are
routinely opposed by other lawyers. The ambivalence toward social
authority that has to be worked into police films by isolating heroic
loner cops like Frank Serpico or Elliot Ness from a corrupt or uncaring
force is built into the adversarial system of American justice, since
lawyers represent both the values with which viewers most sympathize
and those they find most repugnant.

Movie lawyers are not, of course, always set against other lawyers
of equal stature. The Crown Prosecutors who oppose the barristers
in The Paradine Case and Witness for the Prosecution are colorless figures
who never hold the screen. The prosecutors in Primal Fear and
The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) are consistently upstaged by the defense
attorneys, even when they are the attorneys’ former lovers. In
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), repeatedly
shown in dominating low-angle shots even though his children are
watching him from a gallery above, towers over everyone else in the
courtroom, so that the lone hero’s antagonist becomes the whole depersonalized
system of racist justice in 1932 Georgia rather than the
attorney and any single opponent. The heroic attorney in Erin Brockovich
(2000) is not even an attorney but a filing clerk who hates lawyers
so much that she takes on their role herself.

More typically, however, the impossibly heroic attorneys in Anatomy
of a Murder (1959), Inherit the Wind (1960), Sergeant Rutledge
(1960), The Verdict, A Few Good Men (1992), Philadelphia (1993), John
Grisham’s The Rainmaker (1997), and A Civil Action are opposed by
lawyers whose oily smugness is equally impossible, so that the audiences’
interest in rooting for a heroic lawyer, usually a fledgling or a
has-been, is fueled in large part by their interest in rooting against other
lawyers who are much more closely implicated in the system. Films
as different as JFK (1991), My Cousin Vinny (1992), In the Name of the
Father (1993), and Amistad (1997) express the hope, familiar from police
movies, that heroic individuals incarnating the best principles of
the justice system can triumph over the imperfections of the system
as it is.

It may seem odd for lawyer films to emphasize the injustices of the
justice system, but a founding convention of these films is that any
system that puts citizens on trial, holding their actions up to the measure
of the law, is open to question itself, particularly in those films
that present an innocent defendant or some other miscarriage of justice.
The lawyer’s official role, held in contempt in gangster films and
police films alike, is to represent the law to individual citizens accused
of wrongdoing, and to represent those citizens to the legal system. In
practically all lawyer films, the hero is a criminal defense attorney who
represents an overmatched David against the state’s Goliath [Fig. 60].
Even films like The Verdict, The Firm, A Civil Action, and Erin Brockovich,
which focus on noncriminal law, retain this David-and-Goliath
structure by inflating the power of the hero’s adversaries – which, in
The Verdict, include a hospital, a battery of wealthy doctors, specialist
deponents, insurance companies, the most fearsome law firm in Boston,
and the Catholic Church. Since the constant implication is that
any system with so much power must be corrupt or unfair, lawyer
films use the very power of the law as an argument against its unquestioned
moral authority.

Even more obviously than other crime films, lawyer films are irreducibly
dualistic. The most emphatic dualism, of course, is between
the positions of the two opposing lawyers – in criminal trials, the prosecution
story and the defense story – but there are many others as
well. Sergeant Rutledge, a western that puts a black cavalryman on
trial for rape and murder, depends on a visual contrast between the
dark, claustrophobic world of the courtroom, which brands First Sgt.
Braxton Rutledge (Woody Strode) as a criminal, and the increasingly
open, natural world of the flashbacks leading up to the trial, which
show Rutledge as brave, loyal, selfless, and ultimately helpless to save
his life by deserting the 9th Cavalry, which he calls “my home, my real
freedom, and my self-respect.” Hence the design of the film, alternating
low-ceilinged interiors with low-horizoned exteriors, closely
echoes that of its black-and-white predecessor Stagecoach (1939), also
directed by John Ford and photographed by Bert Glennon. The contrast
confirms the judgment of Rutledge’s lawyer, Lt. Thomas Cantrell
(Jeffrey Hunter): “It is this court that stands on trial, and not Sergeant

Lawyer films frequently load further dualities onto this dualistic matrix.
A Few Good Men, beginning with a case against a pair of Marines
for a hazing prank that ended in death, pits the plea-bargaining compromiser
Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) not only against court-martial
prosecutor Capt. Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon) but against his own ally, the
feisty, principled Lt. Cmdr. JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) [Fig. 61];
the authority of the Navy defense attorneys against that of the Marine
prosecutors; official authority (the meeting at which the Marines were
ordered not to take reprisals against a despised informer) against un-
60. The Verdict: Shirt-sleeved Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) takes on the Boston
Goliath Edward J. Concannon (James Mason) before Judge Hoyle (Milo

official (the clandestine order immediately afterward to institute a
“Code Red” against the informer); orders from one’s legal superiors
against individual conscience, and hence individual against group welfare;
and finally the authority of the Marine command against that of
the court. So powerful are these conflicts that Lt. Col. Matthew Markinson
(J. T. Walsh) is destroyed by them, and even Kaffee’s two clients
obtain only a split verdict on their actions.
Inherit the Wind goes still further, taking the 1925 Scopes Monkey
Trial, which indicted a Tennessee schoolteacher for teaching Darwin’s
theory of evolution, as the basis for an epic battle of worldviews. In
one corner is the creationist prosecutor, oracular Matthew Harrison
Brady (Fredric March), representing the transcendent authority of divine
law, the Bible as central text, faith, preaching, patriarchal authority,
pietistic rural values, and the weight of the past. In the other is the
evolutionist defense attorney Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy), representing
the authority of human law, the Constitution as central text,
rationality, analytical cross-examination, avuncular self-deprecation,
progressive urban values, and the promise of the future. Though the
film has its share of courtroom pyrotechnics, the real action of the film
is in the speeches the two titans hurl at each other.
61. A Few Good Men: Lt. Kaffee (Tom Cruise) fights with everyone, even allies
like Lt. Cmdr. Galloway (Demi Moore).
Though few courtroom dramas take on as much sociocultural baggage
as Inherit the Wind, it is the business of all lawyer films to explore
conflicting views about morality and power – in effect, to raise the
question of what gives legal authority its authority – by projecting
those conflicts onto the courtroom. Most lawyer films end up in the
courtroom for the same reason that most westerns end up in a climactic
shootout: because the arena of the courtroom is the seat of powers
in conflict and the site of the heroic individual agon. Just as the western
shootout is supposed to eliminate every distraction in favor of a
purified, disinterested contest of power, skill, and nerve, the courtroom
is supposed to be a sheltered arena free of distractions or prejudice
that will allow the best man (or, in films like Suspect [1987] and
Music Box [1989], the best woman) to win. The complication essential
to courtroom drama, however, is the suspicion that the institutional
justice system is biased against women (Adam’s Rib), or people of color
(Sergeant Rutledge, To Kill a Mockingbird), or more generally that
justice under the law is not congruent with moral justice (The Accused,
1988). Even assuming, as lawyer films generally do, that the best client
and the best lawyer has the best case, the law itself may not recognize
that superiority. The courtroom thus aims to test the social status
quo to which the law by its nature appeals.

The space of individual courtrooms customarily expresses both a
general aspiration to impartial justice and the specific prejudices of
the justice system in any given film. British courtrooms place prisoners
in the dock, an elevated platform that isolates them and emphasizes
their importance; but American courtrooms seat the accused
alongside their attorneys, giving them much less prominence, so that
once Perry Mason’s cases go to trial, his clients generally fade to insignificance.
Instead, Hollywood courtrooms, divided between architecturally
balanced tables for the two opposing sides and symmetrically
placed seats for the spectators who uniformly fill the space behind
them, emphasize their equality under the law and their deference toward
the law, represented by the elevated judge’s seat they all face.
This seat, even more than the person who occupies it, represents the
law’s authority, as Daniel Kaffee indicates when he pauses before it before
leaving the empty courtroom at the end of A Few Good Men. Movies
that diminish its visual importance invariably imply that the judge
in their particular case is insignificant (Inherit the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird)
or corrupt (Presumed Innocent).

Courtroom decorum is as rigidly prescribed as courtroom space.
Witnesses swear to tell the truth; defendants and spectators are en-
248 Crime Films
joined against unseemly outbursts; attorneys for both sides, who frequently
object to their adversaries’ questions as irrelevant, leading, or
immaterial, are forbidden from offering testimony themselves under
the guise of questioning witnesses; and juries are routinely ordered
to disregard what they have just heard. Yet all these rules are constantly
broken; indeed, their breaches provide much of the courtroom
drama’s allure. The judge in Sergeant Rutledge begins by ejecting his
wife from the court, then is forced to readmit her when she is called
as a witness. Both lead attorneys in Inherit the Wind are more interested
in making speeches, and both attorneys in Anatomy of a Murder are
more interested in denouncing each other’s narrow-mindedly legalistic
tactics, than any of them is in the job of examining the witnesses
who are supposed to establish the facts of their cases. The defense
attorney calls the prosecutor to testify in Inherit the Wind, and the
judge comes down from his bench to testify in Fury (1936). Witnesses
rush to incriminate themselves in Sergeant Rutledge and A Few Good
Men. Perry Mason, who has an uncanny knack of evoking confessions
from witnesses even when he is not questioning them on the stand, is
constantly accused by his favorite television adversary, the outraged
District Attorney Hamilton Burger (William Talman), of turning the
courtroom into a circus. This transformation is more literal in Adam’s
Rib, when defense attorney Amanda Bonner asks a female weightlifter
to lift Amanda’s husband, the prosecuting attorney, off his feet during
one of their many arguments.

Every breach of courtroom decorum rehearses a conflict between
the conventions established to administer justice and an attorney’s
plea that those conventions unfairly stifle an individual client’s rights.
A well-ordered courtroom indicates the audience’s faith in the system;
the more frequent and turbulent the violations of decorum, the more
openly that faith is challenged. In extreme cases, the system designed
to evince the truth seems to work only when it is ignored (12 Angry
Men, Trial by Jury, The Juror) or has broken down completely. In Presumed
Innocent, Sandy Stern (Raul Julia) gets the charges against his
client dismissed by obliquely threatening to expose the judge (Paul
Winfield) to prosecution for bribery; in . . . And Justice for All (1979),
Arthur Kirkland (Al Pacino) brings his defense of his old adversary
Judge Henry Fleming (John Forsythe), an accused rapist, to a climax
by insisting that his client is guilty (“He told me so himself”), guaranteeing
a mistrial for the client and disbarment for himself. Justice
can be served, these films imply, only when lawyers exceed their legal
authority. In Adam’s Rib, which argues that the same legal defenses
should be allowed to men and women, Amanda Bonner in effect steps
outside of her judicial role to become an ad hoc legislator arguing the
case on the basis of what the law should be. At the end of Witness for
the Prosecution, the virtually deserted courtroom serves as backdrop
to the murder of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) by his enraged wife,
Christine (Marlene Dietrich), after her plan to free him by unmasking
as perjury her testimony attacking his alibi backfires when he declares
his attachment to another woman. Finally, the courtroom setting proclaims,
justice has been done, but only because Christine has acted
as her husband’s executioner, condemning and killing him when the
law would not. The film puts a last, comical twist on this breakdown
of the law before the imperatives of justice in Sir Wilfrid Robarts’s announcement
that he will be delighted to handle Christine’s defense,
suggesting that for him, the law is nothing but a game.

Sir Wilfrid had first taken her husband’s case because he had convinced
himself of Vole’s innocence by watching his eyes react without
blinking to the bright light Sir Wilfrid’s monocle was reflecting into
them. In whodunits like Witness for the Prosecution, Sergeant Rutledge,
and Presumed Innocent, which leave the question of the guilty party’s
identity open until the end, it would undoubtedly be useful to have
a special line on the truth, even if Sir Wilfrid is grievously misled in
believing he has it. But when questions of motivation rather than the
identity of the perpetrator are in dispute, as in Adam’s Rib, Anatomy
of a Murder, or A Few Good Men, privileged access to the truth is less
important than the ability to sell one’s story to a jury.

Thinking of lawyers as gamesters or salespeople implies a more cynical
approach to the law than most Hollywood movies are comfortable
affirming in the end. Instead, lawyer movies like To Kill a Mockingbird
typically open a space between the historical specificity of an individual
law or courtroom, which may well be inadequate, corrupt, or
dated, and the presumed generality of the moral law on which the audience
can be counted to share. More ambitious films like Inherit the
Wind and A Few Good Men use courtrooms to stage broader cultural
conflicts without unequivocally endorsing either side, though even
these two films, for example, clearly assume that their audiences will
root for the defense.

Even when they present value systems in collision, Hollywood
courtroom dramas end by appealing to allegedly universal moral
norms that have less to do with transcendental authority, historical
tradition, or the legal precedents of particular social orders than with
250 Crime Films
a surprisingly simple ideology of Hollywood entertainment. The unbroken
rule is that David trumps Goliath; the underdogs always have
moral right on their side. Hence the few are always more justified than
the many, the poor than the rich, the lower class than the upper class,
the powerless than the powerful, the individual than the system.
The constancy with which Hollywood champions underdogs goes
far to explain the changes in lawyers’ fortunes since the coming of synchronized
sound. Attorneys of the 1930s and 1940s are first and foremost
successful professional men and women who may be admired
for their success (Counsellor-at-Law, 1933; the Perry Mason movies) or
victimized because of it (The Paradine Case). In general, films of this
period, regarding lawyers as anything but underdogs, project their attitudes
toward the law onto its representatives, from the constant
writs of habeas corpus submitted by Johnny Lovo’s shyster lawyer,
Epstein (Bert Starkey), in Scarface (1932) to the background as an unsuccessful
lawyer that prepares Brick Davis (James Cagney) for an FBI
career that suits his idealism better in “G” Men (1935). Adam’s Rib provides
perhaps the most comprehensive celebration of the attorney’s
material success before The Firm. Its lawyer couple enjoys an uppercrust
life-style including a beautiful Manhattan apartment, a country
house, and servants who prepare everything from morning coffee to
dinner. Freed of financial constraints, they can concentrate on the important
business of alternately bickering and flirting with each other
over whether the existing laws concerning criminal assault should be
enforced or rewritten. There is, however, no lawyer genre coeval with
the gangster genre or film noir because films starring lawyers are relatively
rare during periods in which the law’s authority is generally
accepted; lawyers are neither clearly David nor Goliath.

Because the legal formula relies on conflicts about the most fundamental
institutional values, its appeal is greatest in crises of belief –
not simply belief in the legal system, but belief in authority generally.
The civil rights movement provides just such a pivotal moment in the
later 1950s. Fifteen years earlier, The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) had used
the conventions of the western to present a cautionary tale of what
happens when well-meaning citizens constitute themselves a lynch
mob; it provided a warning against fascism, endorsed the authority
of the American legal system, and incidentally made a hero of Gil Carter
(Henry Fonda), the lone cowboy who argues against the lynching.
The more optimistic The Caine Mutiny (1954) shows that system vindicating
the necessity of a naval mutiny against the paranoiac Captain

Queeg (Humphrey Bogart). A series of films contemporaneous with
the original Perry Mason television series – Anatomy of a Murder, Compulsion
(1959), Inherit the Wind – present underdog lawyers as heroic
social prophets and engineers. Sergeant Rutledge and To Kill a Mockingbird
stigmatize racial bigotry to make explicit the pattern beneath
all these films: the fear of existing laws as coercive and unfair, coupled
with faith in heroic lawyers as advocates for those oppressed by the
law and architects of better laws.

The years following Watergate dramatically reverse this view of lawyers
as embattled champions of the underdog. . . . And Justice for All
offers a scathing portrait of a justice system so dysfunctional (one
judge is suicidal, another on trial for rape, attorneys on both sides under
constant investigation) that no one could serve its distorted offices
in good conscience; the only ethical choice is to denounce it and
opt out, as Arthur Kirkland does by fingering his own client. When
Raymond Burr returned as television’s Perry Mason in 1985, it was as
a comfortable paterfamilias, a blast from a past when lawyers could
still be heroes because they fought the power.

The other option open to defenders of would-be heroic lawyers was
to argue that they were not really lawyers. Washed-up alcoholic Frank
Galvin (Paul Newman) in The Verdict and fish-out-of-water Brooklyn
shyster Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci) in My Cousin Vinny are antilawyers;
the attorney heroes of John Grisham are nonlawyers. Mitch McDeere
(Tom Cruise), a Harvard Law graduate recruited by the sinister Memphis
firm of Bendini, Lambert and Locke in The Firm, does not even
pass the bar exam until the film is nearly over [Fig. 62]. Darby Shaw
(Julia Roberts), the heroine of The Pelican Brief (1993), is a law student
whose brief speculating on the reason for the murders of two
Supreme Court justices leads to the murder of her lover, Tulane Law
professor Thomas Callahan (Sam Shepard), and forces her to take
flight in a series of breathtaking high-fashion chases that make her
look anything but lawyerly. The heroine of The Client (1994) is a troubled,
maternal attorney (Susan Sarandon) whose incongruous name,
Reggie Love, suggests, as Atticus Finch did thirty years earlier, that the
best lawyers are mom and dad writ large. Even in Grisham’s more orthodox
courtroom dramas, A Time to Kill and John Grisham’s The Rainmaker,
the lawyer heroes, Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey) and
Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) and their allies are unseasoned, raffish,
or cast-off types set against powerful, corrupt legal insiders like D.A.
Rufus Buckley (Kevin Spacey) and Leo F. Drummond (Jon Voight), who
are apparently more representative of the justice system. Julia Roberts’s
eponymous heroine in Erin Brockovich represents the antilawyer
(trash talk, sexy clothes, unlimited empathy) who is also a nonlawyer.
(Her herculean efforts on behalf of her boss’s pro bono clients are
bracketed by two memorable remarks: “I hate lawyers. I just work for
’em,” and “Tell her I’m not a lawyer. That may help.”)
Even in an age noted for its skepticism about the law and its contempt
for lawyers’ morality, there are other ways to make a lawyer into
a hero. If Grisham sets his nonlawyer or barely lawyer heroes against
the legal establishment, his contemporary Scott Turow, in a series of
novels as notable for their differences from one another as Grisham’s
are for their formulaic similarities, puts his lawyer heroes through a
wide variety of paces. The film version of his best-known novel, Presumed
Innocent, offers a textbook case of how contemporary filmmakers
can breathe new life into the dualities of the lawyer film – in this
case, by using a series of analogies between sex and the law to explore
the range of roles the prosecutor Rusty Sabich (Harrison Ford) must

More and more completely, the film muddles the distinction between
heroic lawyers like Rusty who have respect for the law and cor-
Reversal of Fortune and the Lawyer Film 253
62. The Firm: Cruise again, as a lawyer hero who has not even passed the
bar exam.
rupt lawyers like Nico Della Guardia (Tom Mardirosian) who, as Rusty
announces, “fuck the law for politics.” The professional and sexual
career of Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi), the manipulative lover
Rusty is accused of killing, unmasks respect for the law as fucking, and
fucking as the pursuit of power. It is a lesson Rusty does not learn until
he loses the power of his office and realizes that if he declines to use
the law to fuck his enemies by beating back Nico’s challenge or challenging
his boss, Raymond Horgan (Brian Dennehy), himself, the law
does not thereby remain pure; someone else merely uses it to fuck
him. Like sex, the law is in itself neither bad nor good; it is merely one
more medium for human relationships based on lust and power. But
in Rusty’s bleak world, in which the only possibilities open to anyone
are to fuck or be fucked, the law becomes simply the most powerful
tool of oppression and the most transparent expression of the universal
will to power. Lawyers like Rusty Sabich are no more or less guilty
than anyone else; they are simply people with greater opportunities
to seize power, and more to lose if it is used against them [Fig. 63].
Presumed Innocent soft-pedals its lawyer hero, and incidentally casts
him as David against the Goliaths in his old office, by giving him a variety
of roles that do justice to his representative humanity, forcing
him to shift from one reasonable but impossible role (prosecutor, politician,
detective, husband, father, lover, client, officer of the court) to
the next, and showing the compromises each role exacts. A more direct
and radical critique of the stereotype of the contemptible lawyer,
and the conventions of lawyer films generally, is Reversal of Fortune
(1990), a film remarkable for its refusal of the melodrama Presumed
Innocent handles so resourcefully and expertly. In Reversal of Fortune,
a well-known, well-heeled, self-publicizing, and potentially despicable
lawyer takes on the appeal of one of the most hated men in America,
already convicted of attempted murder in a trial that cast him in a
truly villainous light, and secures for a him a new trial that will ultimately
reverse his conviction – all without losing the audience’s sympathy,
and while scarcely entering a courtroom.

Where Presumed Innocent is impassioned and involving, Reversal of
Fortune is clinically detached in its handling of the question of whether
jet-setting socialite Claus von Bülow injected his beautiful, wealthy,
pill-popping wife, Sunny, with a near-lethal dose of insulin. This detachment
begins with the film’s opening helicopter shot of the Rhode
Island coast, moving toward Clarendon Court, the von Bülows’ estate,
and then tracking down a hospital corridor toward the open door of
the room where Sunny von Bülow lies in an irreversible coma, attended
by round-the-clock nurses who monitor her condition, bathe her,
and turn her body to prevent bedsores, leaving her, as she puts it in
disembodied voice-over, “brain dead, body better than ever.”
If the resulting air of otherworldly detachment seems remote from
Hollywood, it is no surprise that director Barbet Schroeder, like his
cinematographer, Luciano Tovoli, had trained in Europe. The French
director, best known to American audiences for the more melodramatic
but equally chilly Single White Female (1992), had followed teenaged
dropouts in More (1969) and The Valley Obscured by the Clouds
(1972), then explored the sexual underworld of Maîtresse (1976) and
the criminal underworld of Tricheurs (1984) before making his American
debut with Barfly (1987). The unsettling force of Reversal of Fortune’s
opening sequence, with its gliding, weightless camera and its
crisp exterior shadows, depends as well on its suppression of live
sound in favor of the quiet, vaguely sinister music of Mark Isham. The
combination of Isham’s darkly self-effacing score, the brightly lit
Rhode Island exteriors, the antiseptic hospital corridor filled with
63. Presumed Innocent: Harrison Ford as a lawyer hero no more or less innocent
than anyone else. (Raul Julia, Bonnie Bedelia, Ford)
silent people, and the sense of penetration from a mysterious exterior
to the secrets hidden behind Sunny von Bülow’s door, her hospital
room bathed in spectral, blue-filtered light, provide both a foretaste
of the film’s narrative plan – a series of movements from outside to
inside, from the surface to the secrets beneath – and a hint that this
plan, like that of Joseph Conrad’s story “Heart of Darkness,” or of Citizen
Kane (1941) or Psycho (1960), offers an analytical critique rather
than an example of the empirical method, for there is no ultimate truth
to be found.

The true auteurs of the film are its three lead actors and its two
screenwriters. The most unlikely of these is Alan Dershowitz, who not
only wrote the book on which the film is based but was himself the
star of that book, a factual account of his success in winning an appeal
of Claus von Bülow’s attempted-murder conviction. Dershowitz, at the
time a professor at Harvard Law School and the coauthor of two textbooks
and a volume of reminiscences, has since become far more
widely known as a legal analyst, novelist, and social polemicist; but
it was the publication of Reversal of Fortune (1986) that first made his
abrasive, self-promoting figure known outside the legal community. In
Dershowitz’s account of von Bülow’s two trials, which spans the years
1982–5, von Bülow himself is a relatively minor figure; the stage is
dominated by Dershowitz himself as the real star of the case, the unflappable
lawyer who prepared the successful appeal of the first verdict
that won his client the right to a second trial.

Nicholas Kazan turned Dershowitz’s sprawling book into a screenplay
by retaining his central focus on the appeal but changing almost
everything else, dropping figures (mostly other lawyers and jurists)
who are vital to Dershowitz’s account and replacing them with other
characters (mostly law students) who appear only briefly in the
book’s brief hints about his domestic life. In Kazan’s account, Dershowitz’s
students become a surrogate family whose contrast with the
von Bülow family provides a structural fulcrum. Kazan changes the relationship
between Dershowitz and von Bülow, emphasizing the social
differences between them and making Dershowitz far more noncommittal
about his client’s innocence. Of all Kazan’s changes, however,
two stand out as crucial. He jettisons half of Dershowitz’s story, focusing
only on the appeal, and eliminating virtually every possibility for
courtroom scenes. Then, although his decision to elide every phase
of the legal process in which Dershowitz was not personally involved
would seem to leave Dershowitz as the dominant figure in the story,
he recasts the narrative voice of the film, dropping Dershowitz’s firstperson
account not for the third-person presentation the material
seems to suggest, but for an unexpected new narrator: Sunny von Bülow,
whose voice-over commentary frames and repeatedly interrupts
the action even though Sunny spends the entire running time of the
film in her second, irreversible coma.

The effect is eerie and electrifying. Sunset Blvd. (1950) had been narrated
by a dead character, but largely for shock and surprise; no film
had ever made such a grating issue of giving a voice to a narrator beyond
all human speech. The change in voice from the brash, practical
Dershowitz to the ethereal, pill-popping Sunny, combined with the
flashbacks Kazan strategically interpolates showing glimpses of the
von Bülows’ strangely dispassionate marriage before the two episodes
that left Sunny comatose, elevates her role to star status; Glenn Close,
who played Sunny, received top billing. Having the story narrated from
a physical limbo, by a woman who is neither dead nor alive, gives the
film a formal disengagement that parallels its visual detachment. Nor
is this disengagement merely formal, since the spoiled hypochondriac’s
placidly self-absorbed narration, which presents the facts of the
case against her husband but is silent on the film’s larger questions,
never makes it clear whether she believes, or even cares, whether her
husband is guilty of trying to murder her. At the same time, casting
the victim as the narrator succeeds in doing something murder trials
always strive and fail to do, giving voice to the silenced victim, even
though, as Sunny coolly notes, “It’s hard to remember that all this is
about me.” Using Sunny’s voice to frame the narrative, even as Dershowitz
is framing the action, subtly pits her interests against his, even
though their antagonism is never made explicit.
In the role of Sunny’s oblique antagonist, the man bent on proving
that she injected herself with insulin, the filmmakers cast Jewish
Everyman Ron Silver, whose strong physical resemblance to Dershowitz
made him an obvious choice for the role. The real casting coup,
however, was Jeremy Irons in the role of Claus von Bülow. The patrician
Irons, most often cast in cerebral or obsessive romantic roles
(The French Lieutenant’s Woman, 1981; Betrayal, 1983; Swann in Love,
1984; Dead Ringers, 1988), scored a triumph as von Bülow, sweeping
all the year’s major acting awards.

Organizing the film around these three characters allows Schroeder
and Kazan to make Dershowitz a heroic figure while assuming that
their audience holds lawyers in low esteem. The film addresses view-
Reversal of Fortune and the Lawyer Film 257
ers’ distaste for lawyers head on. “I’m not a hired gun,” Dershowitz
tells von Bülow during their first meeting, anticipating the presumption
that that is exactly what he is. “I’ve got to feel that there’s some
moral or constitutional issue at stake.” The conflation of moral and
constitutional issues is completed by Dershowitz’s pro bono labors on
behalf of the Johnson brothers, two black teenagers whose assistance
in breaking their father out of jail put them on death row after he shot
two guards in the escape. In some cases, at least, Dershowitz is presented
as knowing what the truth is, and he is interested in questions
of morality as in points of law.

At other times the film is more candid about Dershowitz’s personal
interest in the case. Dershowitz opens the initial meeting in which he
invites his old students to work on the case by telling them, “I take
cases because I am pissed off.” But the students reveal quite different
attitudes. When one of them, Minnie (Felicity Huffman), refuses point
blank to work for the defense of a man who is obviously guilty, another,
Raj (Mano Singh), replies, “I agree von Bülow is guilty, but that’s
the fun! I mean, that’s the challenge!” Posing before a painting of a family
at dinner in order to confirm his legal team’s status as surrogate
family, Dershowitz responds approvingly: “Now there’s a lawyer.” The
following debate is aimed at persuading Minnie, as the audience’s
skeptical surrogate, that handling von Bülow’s appeal is more ethical
than declining to defend him. The legal principle on which Dershowitz
bases his moral position is that Sunny’s family, by hiring a private
prosecutor to gather evidence against her husband, not only violated
his rights but established a precedent that, if adopted widely by the
wealthy, would undermine the principle of equal justice for all.
As Dershowitz is making his case directly to his former students and
the skeptical audience, the film is indirectly making a second case for
his moral authority by contrasting him visually to his client. Von Bülow
moves slowly and stiffly, even when he is summoning medical assistance
for the comatose wife he has sat beside in bed for hours. Von
Bülow’s throaty voice, varying in volume but never in inflection, is
frustratingly inexpressive, and the film shows how cold-blooded are
his attempts at moral outrage (“Innocence has always been my position,”
he tells Dershowitz when invited to give an account of his actions)
and humor (when Sunny asks in a flashback whether her first
husband, Alfie von Auersperg, should have treated her as if he were
her lord and master, von Bülow replies, “Of course not. I am your lord
and master,” then, after a two-beat pause, adds, “Just kidding”) [Fig.
64]. When Dershowitz taxes him with his indifference to Sunny’s fate,
he replies, “Of course I care, Alan, I just don’t wear my heart on my
sleeve.” At von Bülow’s Manhattan apartment, painterly, symmetrical
shots of von Bülow and his mistress, Andrea Reynolds (Christine Baranski),
are intercut with even more severely symmetrical shots of Dershowitz
perched uncomfortably alone in a chair in the center of the

Instead of dressing like Hollywood’s idea of a lawyer (oxford-gray
suits, subdued ties, black wing tips), Dershowitz dresses like Hollywood’s
idea of an academic (a rumpled tweed jacket and chinos for
his first meeting with von Bülow, a flannel shirt and khakis for his
working sessions at home). Since von Bülow is always faultlessly attired,
the audience is encouraged to project their resistance to Dershowitz’s
profession onto his client. As a Harvard professor and a successful
litigator, Dershowitz may be well off, but his modest home and
his scruffy appearance and fondness for takeout pizza give no hint of
his financial status; nor does his frenetic activity level [Fig. 65]. After
fifteen minutes of oppressively tasteful scenes at Clarendon Court, in
which the waxwork characters rarely show enough energy to walk
64. Reversal of Fortune: A flashback shows the brittle charm of the von
Bülows’ courtship. (Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons)
across the room, the cut from a hand swabbing the inside of Sunny’s
slackly unresponsive mouth to the basketball game that introduces
Dershowitz as a scrappy fighter in T-shirt and shorts who relaxes
through physical activity is downright refreshing. After the students
who have finished a meal von Bülow ordered clamor for an explanation
of his behavior, Schroeder shows them falling silent and frozen in
a long-held group shot, then cuts to von Bülow placidly stirring his tea.
The contrast between the eager, enthusiastic, curious, conflicted yet
committed students and the enigmatic, unresponsive man they are
working to free could not be greater.

The film is even more emphatic about the class differences between
Dershowitz and his client, who begins their relationship by saying, “I
should tell you that I have the greatest respect for the intelligence and
integrity of the Jewish people.” Andrea Reynolds later tells Dershowitz
that she had advised von Bülow to seek him out: “Get the Jew, I said.”
Dershowitz’s reply – “The Jew is here” – reveals a self-deprecating
Jewish humor that seems to mark von Bülow and Reynolds, by contrast,
as members of an alien species. Against the grotesquely dysfunctional
von Bülow family, whose members seem to make common
cause only for the purpose of gathering evidence against each other,
the film sets the reassuringly normal loner Dershowitz, whose absent
65. Reversal of Fortune: The intense physicality of the lawyer hero. (Ron Silver,
with Mano Singh, Felicity Huffman, Alan Pottinger, Annabella Sciorra)
wife is replaced by his devoted son Elon (Stephen Mailer), his ex-lover
Sarah (Annabella Sciorra), and his rowdy team of students-turnedcolleagues,
herded, in one of the few details borrowed from Dershowitz’s
book, into different rooms of his house according to their specific
assignments.2 When Dershowitz is on the telephone making still
another argument on behalf of the Johnson brothers, Sarah’s comment
to Elon – “It’s great when he’s like this, huh? I only wish he had
something left for the people around him” – simply confirms Dershowitz’s
own comfortable self-assessment: “My clients are the people I
care about.”

These cultural conflicts between Dershowitz and the client who
serves as lightning rod for resentment viewers might normally direct
against lawyers [Fig. 66] consistently upstage what would be the big
moments in other lawyer films. When Dershowitz’s team realizes that
the crusted insulin on the tip of the hypodermic needle the prosecution
offered in evidence as von Bülow’s weapon cannot have been produced
by injecting it but only by dipping it in insulin, perhaps in an
attempt to manufacture evidence against von Bülow, this startling new
66. Reversal of Fortune: Dershowitz’s patrician client looks more like a lawyer
than he does. (Jeremy Irons, Ron Silver)
discovery is less important than the success of Dershowitz’s appeal.
Even the appeal – which Dershowitz, attired in a rumpled, ill-fitting
black suit, is shown arguing before the court – occupies one of the
film’s briefest scenes. Though Dershowitz’s arguments in court ought
logically to put the original trial judge on the defensive, the film never
even shows this judge, and the Harvard lawyer’s defense strategy
casts von Bülow in the role instead. Dershowitz succeeds in turning
the very qualities that make von Bülow powerful, remote, and dislikable
into arguments for his underdog status and his ultimate reversal
of fortune. For all his impenetrable sang-froid, the wealthy, powerful,
jet-setting socialite becomes, in Dershowitz’s narrative, a victim of
a system co-opted by greedy, vindictive relatives and a private prosecutor
hired to circumvent the system’s proper procedures.
How could von Bülow, who looked so transparently guilty at the end
of his first trial, be so rehabilitated by the appeal that a second trial
could find him innocent? That is the central question of Dershowitz’s
book, and one the book proposes to answer by “present[ing] the facts,
first as the prosecution successfully presented them at the initial trial.
Then it will introduce the dramatic new evidence that came to light
only after the verdict – new facts that cast an entirely different light
both on the prosecution’s version and on the dramatis personae in the
case. Finally, it will tell the story as it came out in the second trial.”3
In weighing the different versions of this story, Dershowitz, although
he has clearly come to believe in his client’s innocence, is at his most
In this book I leave it to the readers to decide what they believe the truth
to be. I will not try to tell the story of what happened. I don’t know for sure
what happened, though I have my strong suspicions based on a thorough
review of all the evidence and a close association with, and observation of,
most of the central characters. So I can only tell the stories that each side
claims are the truth. My own biases and hunches will surely filter through
any veneer of objectivity. Every reader will have to decide which truth
seems more compelling. This attitude may seem unduly nihilistic, but it is
simply the product of many years of experience with the adversary system
of justice.4
In fact, Dershowitz’s attitude seems anything but nihilistic. Nobody
but the von Bülows is ever likely to know the truth of Sunny’s comas
for certain, but the different stories told about those events can be
variously persuasive. In the absence of any absolutely authoritative
story, weighing the merits of different stories allows the closest reasonable
approach to the truth.

Because the question of how Dershowitz was able to rehabilitate Bülow
on appeal is far less central to the film, it comes to a more vertiginous
conclusion. As Sarah says in explaining the verdict to Elon: “All
we had to do was prove that the State made a lousy case. We didn’t
prove that Claus was innocent. We couldn’t. We didn’t have to. And –
he probably isn’t.” In his final meeting with von Bülow, Dershowitz
shows the extent to which the two men’s fortunes have becomes intertwined
in the unusually subdued white shirt and gray patterned tie he
is wearing with his tweed jacket. Yet he keeps his distance from his
client in his final conclusion: “Legally, this was an important victory.
Morally, you’re on your own.” Instead of a cathartic courtroom sequence
that establishes the truth once and for all, the film offers three
alternative flashbacks over Isham’s eerie music showing how Sunny
might have fallen into her second, irreversible coma. In the first alternative,
she combines barbiturates and insulin in a suicide attempt,
then collapses in her bathroom at Clarendon Court. In the second, the
hiked-up position of her nightgown is explained by her attempt to use
the toilet just as a fatal spasm wracks her body. In the third, her husband
finds her in bed after she has injected herself, but instead of
helping her or calling a doctor, he opens the window to the freezing
December air in order to ensure that she does not recover and drags
her into the bathroom, hiking up her gown in the process, to ensure
that she is not found until she is dead. Though the second and third
flashbacks seem to explain physical evidence the first leaves mysterious,
the film offers no guarantee that any of them shows the truth.5
By arguing that von Bülow deserved a new trial but stopping short
of showing that trial or endorsing its verdict of not guilty, the film
leaves loose ends that are largely, and paradoxically, the privilege of
movies announcing their basis in a true story. Although the end titles
announcing von Bülow’s continued marriage to Sunny, the Johnson
brothers’ continued tenancy on death row, and Sunny’s continued
death-in-life bring a certain degree of closure to the film, it remains
teasingly, flagrantly open-ended in ways Dershowitz’s hard-headed
book never is. Sunny’s voice-over, despite its formally privileged status,
repeatedly declines to settle important questions, not only about
her coma, but about her whole life with her husband. Instead of throwing
any further light on his personality, she keeps asking unanswerable
questions. Gradually, it becomes clear that Sunny’s voice-over is
Reversal of Fortune and the Lawyer Film 263
holding out the promise of revelations from beyond (or just this side
of) the grave for the express purpose of frustrating them. “Time moves
in only one direction – forward,” she muses as Dershowitz prepares
to argue the appeal. “It’s stupid and boring, and results in a lot of silliness.
Example: the legal process. In this particular case, a great deal
of time, effort, and money was spent trying to determine precisely
what happened on those two nights so close to Christmas. . . . If you
could just go back in time and take a peek, you’d know, and all this
would be unnecessary.” After the verdict, she adds a metaphysical
postlude – “This is all you can know. This is all you can be told. When
you get where I am, you will know the rest” – even though there is no
way of telling whether Sunny, who is only comatose, not dead, even
knows what happened to cause her second coma, especially since it
is never clear that she knows what caused the first coma, which her
husband was also convicted of inducing. The cumulative effect of all
these intimations of a harrowingly secular (and premature) afterlife is
at once to invoke and to deny any possibility of transcendental truth
or justice, sharpening audiences’ appetites for the last word on the
von Bülow case in order to dash them more completely.

Von Bülow himself remains a closed book to his lawyer to the end.
When Dershowitz lashes out at him in frustration, “It’s very hard to
trust someone you don’t understand. You’re a very strange man,” von
Bülow replies oracularly, “You have no idea.” The film’s determination
to rehabilitate the lawyer hero as a salt-of-the-earth defender of the
rule of law while declining to rehabilitate his client or present him definitively
as a moneyed monster utterly undeserving of his appeals
team’s heroic efforts suggests not only that audiences will not and
cannot ever penetrate beyond the film’s elegant opening shots to the
truth of the von Bülow case, but that it is not the law’s business to
know the truth: Lawyers, like police officers, are finally concerned
with power rather than knowledge. The dead-end indeterminacy of
the film, which makes Dershowitz into a proletarian hero by showing
the ways he protects his clients from the law’s power without ever
identifying him with that power himself, is brilliantly encapsulated by
its insouciant epilogue, a brief scene in which von Bülow, whose legal
ordeal has made him a more widely known celebrity than ever, stops
in a convenience store to buy a pack of cigarettes. When the wary
clerk (Connie Shulman) asks if he’d like anything else, he adds, in a
deliberate echo of his earlier joke to his now-comatose wife, “Yes. A
vial of insulin.” And then, after two beats: “Just kidding.”

Crime Films/Thomas Leitch/