Reasonable Doubts, Unspoken Fears: Reassessing the Trial Film's "Heroic Age"

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It has become a commonplace in criticism of American legal cinema (courtroom drama, trial films, etc.) that a short period from, roughly, the later 1950s through the end of the Kennedy administration marked a heroic high-point in the representation of American jurisprudence. During this “heroic” (Rafter, 2000, 2006) phase, bracketed respectively by Twelve Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957) and To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan , 1962), law films promoted a broadly affirmative vision of a pro-social legal system grounded in, and in its turn sustaining and improving, a far-from-flawless yet essentially robust and functional civil society. In the films of this period, the courtroom and its participants – pre-eminently the principled and determined individual lawyer, his apotheosis of course Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch – can be understood as, following Tocqueville, an idealised, formalised distillation of the process and promise of American democracy itself (see Clover, 1998). The broadly optimistic tenor of this passage of the Hollywood law film is typically understood in an expressive relationship to socio-historical contexts including, broadly, national self-confidence born of postwar US economic and strategic hegemony, and specifically the Warren Court’s role in advancing progressive social change within Constitutional frameworks. The ensuing social and political upheavals of the 1960s ensured that when the law film revived in the early 1980s, it did so in a new mode of scepticism if not outright cynicism that chimed with the era’s radical disenchantment with the American Dream generally, and crucially with the capacity of key institutions such as the legal system to deliver truth, justice and social progress (Rafter 2000, 2001; Asimow, 2000; Nevins, 2004; etc.).
While not suggesting this historiography be discarded, this paper will nonetheless propose a re-evaluation of the “heroic” era of US law movies, suggesting – in line with recent historical scholarship that challenges the received view of the Eisenhower era’s alleged complacent uniformity – that rather than taking straightforwardly affirmative positions these films enact ambivalences and uncertainties towards law and jurisprudence at the turn of the 1960s. Applying a critical methodology that sees film genres as mediating complex large-scale social and political phenomena and argues that for such readings lower-profile films can be as significant, if not more so, than genre classics (Langford 2005), and adopting Altman’s (1984) syntactic/syntagmatic model of film genre, the paper will examine how narrative content interacts with visual style in a wide range of trial films of the “heroic” era to instantiate complex attitudes towards the legal process. These will include as well as the classic films already cited and such notable contemporaries as Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959) and Judgment at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer, 1961), the auteur films Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (Fritz Lang, 1955), and lesser-known and/or less extensively-discussed genre entries such as Trial (Mark Robson, 1955) and The Young Savages (John Frankenheimer, 1961). Following Silbey (2001), the paper will pay close attention to the ways in which these films interpellate the viewing subject. Drawing parallels between law films and other key genres of the period (notably science fiction), I will argue that the generally undemonstrative visual style of law films in this period can be read symptomatically, as the textual assertion of a confidence in conventional procedures repeatedly belied by narratives that depict questionable legal practices and outcomes. A deep textual reading of these films suggests a profound ambivalence about the law in an era struggling to come to terms with the still-raw memory of legal abuses by McCarthy, Cohn et al. on the one hand – to say nothing of Hollywood’s own postwar difficulties at the hands of the courts – and the uncertain future being plotted by the judicial activism of the Warren Court on the other.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationTrial Films on Trial
Subtitle of host publicationLaw, Justice, and Popular Culture
EditorsAustin Sarat, Jessica Silbey, Martha Merrill Umphrey
PublisherUniversity of Alabama Press
Number of pages30
ISBN (Electronic)9780817392574
ISBN (Print)9780817320263, 9780817359294
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2019

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