Fordham Law

Legal Themes Dominate the Lineup at Fordham’s Annual Film Festival

Professor Thane Rosenbaum in The New York Law Journal, October 21, 2009

Lights, Camera, Law.

Legal themes have long been a staple of the movies, a fascination with courtrooms and lawyers highlighted by a film festival now under way at Fordham University School of Law.

This year’s event, the fourth for the school, showcases several films, including the dramas “Anatomy of a Murder,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Mississippi Burning,” “The War of the Roses,” “Sleepers” and a documentary, “Shouting Speech: Stories From the Edge of Free Speech.”

Attorneys and law school professors, filmmakers and authors have been enlisted for post-screening discussions. The programs, which began Friday, are free and open to the general public.

“So much of the way that we understand law is through popular culture,” Fordham dean William Treanor said in an interview.

The festival sends a message that the law school “exists as a place of larger ideas,” said Thane Rosenbaum, head of the school’s Forum on Law Culture & Society, which arranged the programs.

On Saturday night, some 200 film buffs jammed the school’s McNally Amphitheatre to munch popcorn and watch the 1959 classic “Anatomy of a Murder,” followed by a discussion with director and film historian Peter Bogdanovich.

Directed by Otto Preminger and nominated for seven Academy Awards, the film depicts the trial of a loutish Army officer for the murder of an innkeeper who allegedly raped his wife.

The film—which is based on a novel written by a Michigan judge who based it on a case he tried as a defense attorney—focuses on a shrewd advocate, Paul Biegler, who convinces a jury that the defendant acted out of an “uncontrollable impulse” and thus is not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.

The 50-year-old film “played as well, if not better,” than when it was first released, Mr. Bogdanovich said after the screening.

The “ambiguity” of “Anatomy of a Murder” is “really what makes it so modern,” Mr. Bogdanovich, wearing a signature ascot in navy and blue, said in an interview before the screening.

“Nobody is what he seems to be, including Jimmy Stewart who comes off as a country lawyer,” but who is actually “crafty and manipulative which he has to be,” the director explained.

Throughout the trial, Mr. Stewart, playing the part of a “humble,” small-town lawyer pitted against a big-city prosecutor, depicted by George C. Scott, continually introduces and then retracts inflammatory or irrelevant testimony, which the judge instructs the jury to disregard.

“Casting Jimmy Stewart in that part is perfect because he’s such an all-American trusting fellow. So when he’s duplicitous, you forgive him,” Mr. Bogdanovich said.

At the end, the viewer is left wondering whether Mr. Stewart’s client is truly innocent.

The “hip” score by Duke Ellington also allows the film to withstand the test of time, as does the fact that it was shot entirely on location, which was “not a common practice” in 1958, Mr. Bogdanovich said.

Asked what he thinks of films today at the post-screening discussion, Mr. Bogdanovich, who said the golden age of filmmaking ended in 1962, quipped, “Not much.”

“We’re in a period of decadence in the arts,” said Mr. Bogdanovich, who grew up in an intellectual, artistic family in New York City. His father was a painter and pianist.

“Directors today don’t know what they want. They shoot everything and make a decision in the cutting room,” he said.

The director also lamented the shift from linear to fragmented narratives. It is “fashionable for people to tell stories sideways and backwards. The poor audience is forgotten. I feel sorry for them,” Mr. Bogdanovich said.

The festival continues at 7 p.m. tonight with “The War of the Roses,” the 1989 depiction of a no-holds-barred divorce case. Post-screening guests will be Warren Adler, the author of the novel on which the movie is based, and noted New York divorce attorney Raoul Felder.

The festival concludes tomorrow night with “Sleepers,” a 1996 film about former juvenile detention school residents who seek revenge against the guard who brutalized them.

Director Barry Levinson will appear to discuss his movie and Lorenzo Carcaterra, the author of the book on which “Sleepers” is based. Rounding out the panel will be Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, who also is the author of the novel “Triple Homicide.”

The festival is sponsored by HBO, The Double-R Foundation, TimeWarner, Lincolnshire Management, The Davis Firm and Whole Foods. For more information, go to

Note: Erin Brockovich was ill and unable to fly, so the classic Billy Wilder film "Witness for the Prosecution" was screened, with Annette Insdorf, Director of Film Studies at Columbia University, and her husand, the actor Mark Ethan.