Arts feature

'You can't handle the truth!' — the greatest courtroom dramas of all time

A new production of Twelve Angry Men opens in the West End. What's your favourite trial drama?

9 November 2013

9:00 AM

9 November 2013

9:00 AM

Our legal system is pure theatre and always has been. Many barristers stand accused of being failed actors and vice versa. Judges love the dressing-up box and a chance to give their gavel a good bang. With murmuring galleries, shocking verdicts, swooning witnesses, cries of ‘all rise’ and ‘take him down’, the flummery and drama of the courtroom has always supplied a rich genre for film, theatre and telly. Now there’s a chance to see one of the more serious courtroom classics in the West End.

Twelve Angry Men — originally written for the screen and directed by Sidney Lumet — is about a grumpy New York jury deciding on the fate of an ethnic kid accused of stabbing his father. If guilty, it’s the electric chair. There’s racism in the air as 12 men sweat it out in a heatwave, keen to get their verdict returned and to go home. But for one juror it would be a unanimous guilty vote.

‘Life is in their hands but death is on their minds!’ says the original film poster. But this sharp, pre-civil rights drama also comes with a nice howdunnit, Agatha Christie streak as the jurors are forced properly to sift the evidence. In this new stage version you’ll see the film star Jeff Fahey, Martin Shaw as the awkward juror, as well as the great Robert Vaughn (Napoleon Solo from The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) playing the sharp-eyed oldster.

What are the other enjoyable landmarks of the trial genre? I have omitted several classics — The Crucible and To Kill a Mockingbird, for example — as they now reek too much of the school syllabus. Here is my selection of fully legal entertainments, probably best viewed while crunching your way through a box of Maltesers.

Witness for the Prosecution. Billy Wilder’s 1957 film of an Agatha Christie play is a bewigged, thumbs-behind-the-lapels, courtroom paradise. Charles Laughton is a comic treat as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, an exceptionally rude silk with a dickie heart and a truth-detecting monocle. Marlene Dietrich is the German wife of the man accused of murder. As Sir Wilfred tells his defence team, ‘She’s a foreigner, so be prepared for hysterics.’ Top-grade Old Bailey hokum. Watch out for the shrivelled judge who briefly lights up at the mention of a pretty girl.

The Merchant of Venice. Drags a bit whenever Shylock is offstage but you can hear a pin drop when he sharpens the knife for his pound of flesh, to be carved from the chest of the Christian merchant who has defaulted on his debt. The smug Portia wins the day with her legal-eagle trump card. (In a recent modern-dress production, she was armed in court with the English barrister’s bible Archbold.) The defeated Shylock may have lost everything but he remains by far the most colourful plaintiff in theatre history.

Saint Joan. Bernard Shaw’s windy plays have many people running for the hills, but the trial scene in this is quality stuff. Joan thinks God’s messengers speak to her directly, the Church thinks they are demons. And, worse, she refuses to dress like a woman as long as she’s a soldier. T.S. Eliot complained that Shaw’s Joan of Arc was an annoying middle-class English suffragette in disguise. But the play is still very impressive even though we all know the outcome at the stake.

Paths of Glory. First world war: Kirk Douglas plays the French Colonel Dax (a lawyer in civilian life) ordered to lead a suicidal attack on a Boche position. It fails. Three enlisted men are arbitrarily selected to be punished for cowardice and Dax comes to their defence. The defendants don’t stand a chance against the immaculately tailored French top brass who want the executions pour encourager les autres. A tense court martial is conducted in a handsome château. The men are duly shot and Kirk lets the swine of a general have it: ‘You’re a degenerate, sadistic old man and you can go to hell…!’ A 1957 Stanley Kubrick masterpiece.

A Man For All Seasons. Robert Bolt wrote this with one of the great trial scenes of all time, in which a somewhat whitewashed Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) outsmarts the prosecution at his show trial with his wit, legal brilliance and godliness. The play is now better known as a (1966) film, one that featured Orson Welles the size of a sperm whale as Cardinal Wolsey. John Hurt, as the perjured Richard Rich, promoted to attorney-general for Wales, has never been creepier: ‘It profit a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales?’ purrs the pained Paul Scofield, the greatest British actor of the last century and no argument about it. Will the forthcoming stage versions of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels be this good?

A Few Good Men. Jack Nicholson is magnificently over the top as the charming but wicked Col. Nathan R. Jessup, who has sanctioned the killing of a soldier on his military base. The navy lawyer against him is the young Tom Cruise, wearing a faggoty white uniform (the colonel’s words) and a big winning smile. Nicholson completely steals the film with his ‘you can’t handle the truth’ speech as tempers flare spectacularly in the courtroom. Irresistible all-American codswallop.

The Verdict. Sidney Lumet (whose very first film was Twelve Angry Men) directs Paul Newman, on terrific rumpled form as the alcoholic ambulance-chasing lawyer who finally comes good on a medical malpractice suit. In the unlikely event that you don’t like Newman — who nearly won the Oscar — then Milo O’Shea is great fun as the bastard of a judge and James Mason is sleek as a seasoned attorney. You can smell the drink in the court. A slow-pace classic from 1982 and a gritty US antidote to the portwine charm of Rumpole.

The Winslow Boy. Terence Rattigan’s 1945 wheels of justice drama (based on a celebrated Edwardian case) never lets you down. The brilliant Sir Robert Morton KC examines a prospective client — a naval college cadet, expelled for stealing a five-shilling postal order, whose father believes he is innocent. The great barrister visits the house and accuses the little lad of forgery, lying and cheating in front of the appalled parents. It’s a shouting, ferocious cross-examination but Morton departs the room with the line ‘the boy is plainly innocent. I accept the brief’ — and down comes the interval curtain. You’re hooked. Pure joy!

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Twelve Angry Men is previewing at the Garrick Theatre and opens on 11 November.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • The Red Bladder

    The Caine Mutiny Court Martial?

    • Art Brogden

      Oh Hell Yes, Jose Ferrer vs Humphrey Bogart…Great Stuff!

  • Picquet

    The Caine Mutiny – better than one or two of the above, I’d say, for the court scenes. Bogart and his ball bearings…

  • dodgy

    …Judges love the dressing-up box and a chance to give their gavel a good bang….

    Er… what country are we in here? British judges do NOT have gavels…

    Perhaps a bit more research next time?