Film School

Once again my alma mater, Northwestern, is on the cutting edge.  The September 8 National Law Journal reports that this fall CLE credits can be earned at NU by attending discussions about 3 lawyer movies:  To Kill a Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men and Judgment at Nuremberg.  The lawyers will be mailed a DVD when they sign up for any of the three classes, and then they will all talk about the movie in a group.  1.5 Illinois professional responsibility credits. Go WIldcats.   

I will refrain from saying more about this general concept for gathering CLE brownie points.  Just sitting around yakking about a movie doesn’t seem to me to be the most educationally demanding use of time, although I can see where using a film or tv show as a tool could, if framed properly, lead to hard work.  For example, I’ve often thought that a great ethics course would take one of those ridiculous shows like Boston Legal, and, like a game of Where’s Waldo, make the student identify all the ethical breaches, citing the rules, etc.  Given the sheer numbers, that would amount to dizzyingly hard labor.

But no, what I want comment on here is that they have missed my favorite lawyer movie, and the only one I know of worthwhile from a substantive perspective.  Yes, every lawyer secretly thinks s/he’s Atticus Finch, and don’t Henry Fonda and Spencer Tracy look noble in the other movies, but these 3 films really don’t have much to do with the law substantively. 

On the other hand, there’s Anatomy of a Murder.  It was on Turner Classic Movies a couple weeks ago, and it was just as good then as when I saw it for the first time. 

First of all, this is the only movie I’ve seen where, yes, they take some liberties, but the law is accurate.  This is because the book was written by an ex-Michigan Supreme Court Justice, John D. Voelker, and, amazingly, the movie hewed to the plot. I mean, this is a case where the big moment is the hero lawyer (Jimmy Stewart) finds an old decision allowing him to argue irresistible impulse in his insanity defense, instead of the M’Naghten test.  While the movie does get the cite wrong, the book doesn’t – the decision exists, and it’s cited (People v. Durfee, 62 Mich. 487, 29 N.W. 109 (1886)).  The rules of evidence are generally followed, the objections make sense — it’s basically all correct.        

If that weren’t enough to make this one great movie, the trial judge is played by Joseph N. Welch.  Remember him standing up to McCarthy – "Have you no sense of decency?"  He’s just delightful.

And as icing on the case, the movie has a fabulous Duke Ellington soundtrack (with Duke Ellington in a small role, too), that includes some of the best-riding-in-a-car jazz the world has ever heard.  There’s lots of Cat Anderson and Cootie Williams trumpet and if you want, you can just listen to the movie and be happy.

Voelker wrote a few more novels (and some fishing books — he was an expert).  I’ve read one of his other novels, and it was pretty good.  But none of them were big sellers or came near Anatomy in terms of plot, dialogue etc.  Both the movie and the book version of Anatomy of a Murder are not only good fiction, but good law, too.

I’m admitted to practice in Illinois.  If they added Anatomy to the CLE class, maybe a quick trip to Chi-town for some credits would be worth it….

To top