JUDICIAL REVIEW: Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

In which I review movies with a legal theme

legal review of witness for the prosecutionj

Appearing:  Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton

Set a few years after the Second World War, a senior barrister, Sir Wilfred Robarts (played by Charles Laughton), is asked to represent a man accused of murder.  Initially the barrister sets out to test the accused man’s defence before taking on the case. During this process, he finds one witness’s evidence is too good to be true.  When that witness turns on the accused at trial, the barrister’s concerns are vindicated.

A peek at who got costs:
There’s no way to peek at costs without revealing the end, except to say that all goes well for everyone concerned, at least at one point or another.  (A quaint feature of the film comes after the credits, when the audience is reminded not to reveal the end for those yet to see the film.)

The facts:
Sir Wilfred returns to work after recovering from a heart attack.  He is counselled not to take on too many difficult cases when he is introduced to Leonard Vole (played by Tyrone Power).  Vole is the only suspect of murder.  It is explained to Sir Wilfred that the murder victim was merely an aged companion of Vole’s but that he had left her premises long before the time of the murder.

Sir Wilfred at first refuses the case but then decides he is the best person to defend Vole. Sir Wilfred questions Vole to find holes in his alibi and the facts of the case. He becomes convinced of the viability of the defence and agrees to take on it on.

However, Sir Wilfred is visited by the defendant’s wife, Christine (played by Marlene Dietrich). Although Christine says all the right things, Sir Wilfred is leery of her testimony because it is unconvincing.

Sir Wilfred is put at ease knowing that Christine cannot be called as a witness to testify against her husband. During trial, however, she does appear as a witness to the objection of Sir Wilfred, based on spousal immunity. It turns out Vole and Christine were not in fact legally married so spousal privilege does not apply. Her testimony on the stand is drastically different than what she explained to Sir Wilfred in his office. Her testimony is devastating to Vole’s defence.

After her direct examination by the prosecution, Sir Wilfred is encouraged to visit an unnamed and unwilling witness who has information about Christine.  The barrister is handed a number of letters purportedly written by Christine to a lover.

The cross-examination of Vole’s wife is eviscerating. Her credibility on all issues is annihilated but Vole becomes distraught with the callous testimony of his wife’s. Sir Wilfred’s defence is obviously successful, but at some cost to his client’s emotions.

It is only after the acquittal that the real mystery unravels.

The law:
There is some excellent discussion of law in this film. The title character herself raises the issue of spousal privilege and it is addressed in the movie. In short, a married (as opposed to a common-law) spouse cannot testify against the other spouse in a criminal proceeding.

In one of the earliest mentions of blood evidence in a movie, the victim was found to have blood type “O”, which was also found on the accused’s jacket.  That the accused’s jacket had that blood-type on it seems to show culpability – until Sir Wilfred asks if Vole’s blood type is “O”.  It turns out it had not been tested.

There is one other point worth noting.  A lawyer’s job at court is to examine, cross-examine and advance argument. A lawyer is not permitted to give evidence and is prevented from providing opinion. This is addressed by Sir Wilfred when the prosecutors make conclusions about facts not in evidence.

Witness for the Prosecution is an Agatha Christie thriller. Her short play was turned into an excellent movie featuring the titans of their day, Laughton, Dietrich and Power.

Christine realizes that her evidence is unconvincing simply because of who she is: Vole’s loving wife. She takes it upon herself to do the very opposite of giving good evidence and leads evidence which is devastating, both legally and emotionally, to the accused.

The best of the legal profession is portrayed in this movie.  Sir Wilfred agrees to take on the defence of an accused murderer only after he understands the viability of the alibi defence being proposed.  For instance, a lawyer is not ethically allowed to lead an alibi defence if he or she knows the accused was in fact present at the scene of the crime.

Some poetic license is taken during the trial to allow the plot to unfold. However, tactical changes are sometimes made during trial arising from the evidence that is heard and which may not have been anticipated.

Although it is seldom the case that a ‘mystery witness’ appears in the course of trial, it can happen (and has happened to me).  A court prefers to hear as much admissible evidence as it can, so allowances are often made, even if witnesses and their testimony are initially a secret to counsel.

The 1957 version of Witness for the Prosecution is a wonderful romp through the Ol’ Bailey, the historic London Courthouse.  The film has murder, romance, humour and suspense.

The introduction of characters, the facts of the murder and its defence, the arrest of the accused, the implausibility of a wife’s testimony in support of a husband and the ammunition to be used for the defence are all prologue to the final 30 minutes of the film. However, the final 30 minutes are what make this movie a classic.  It can be enjoyed by anyone who may be frustrated with the modern phenomenon of criminal investigations resolving everything without a trial.

Obiter Dicta:
Witness for the Prosecution was Tyrone Power’s last movie.  Billy Wilder, the director and its screenplay writer, had originally planned to become a lawyer but opted instead to become a newspaperman and eventually wrote screenplays for motion pictures.

So what did you think of the movie, or this this review?  Email me at office@sullivanlaw.ca and let me know if you have any suggestions.  Use “Witness for the Prosecution” in the subject line of the email.


Special thanks to

Movies ‘n Stuff
Ottawa, ON

Next on the Docket:  My Cousin Vinny (1992)





JUDICIAL REVIEW: Liar Liar (1997)


In which I review movies with a legal focus.

Timothy N. Sullivan lawyer Ottawa

Starring:  Jim Carrey, Moira Tierney, Jennifer Tilly, Justin Cooper, Swoozie Kurtz, Carey Elwes


Jim Carrey’s character “Fletcher” is a lawyer who places prestige, fashion, status and financial success above all other priorities, including his son (Justin Cooper as “Max) from a defunct marriage.  Fletcher is a good father – when he shows up.

Fletcher goes through a conversion of sorts as a result of Max’s birthday wish that his father not be able to lie “for one day”.

A Peek at who got Costs*

Fletcher becomes a new man and improved father, but at the very last moment he possibly can.

The movie is more character-driven than legal-oriented.  It is less about the stereotype of a lying lawyer than about the daily white lies and nuances adults rely on to get by.  Make no mistake, however.  Fletcher lies – as a father, an ex-husband to Moira Tierney’s character “Audrey”, a son, an employee, a boss and yes, in his day job as a lawyer.

The facts

The film opens with Max explaining to his teacher what his mother, Audrey, does for a living.  When asked about his father, Fletcher, he says he’s a “liar”, but when prompted, he explains he wears a suit and speaks to judges in court.  The teacher catches on and corrects the pronunciation from “liar” to “lawyer”.  Max appears indifferent to the distinction.

Fletcher, coming off a success in court, is asked to take on a divorce case for Jennifer Tilly’s character, Samantha Cole, as the original lawyer insisted on proceeding aggressively but within the bounds of decency and honesty.  Samantha wanted neither.  In comes Fletcher who explains to Tilly’s character how her “one” (which is actually 7) indiscretion was caused by hardship in the marriage, but which does not accord with the facts.  Winning Samantha’s case, at any cost, is a clear path to law firm partnership for Fletcher.  Tilly’s character is stuck with a marriage contract preventing her from receiving a property settlement worth about $11 million dollars, if she is found to have committed adultery.  There apparently is an offer on the table for $2.5 million with convincing evidence of infidelity.

Meanwhile, Fletcher misses many visitations with Max without a good excuse.  When they are together, bedlam, silliness and fun ensues, much to Audrey’s satisfaction.  The problem is always that Fletcher is always late or misses the access entirely, much to Max’s and Audrey’s disappointment.

Although he had promised to attend Max’s birthday party, he missed it for “professional advancement” purposes with a female partner of the firm.

Max wishes while blowing out the candles at 8:15 pm that “for just one day” his father cannot lie.

We know the wish takes effect immediately when Fletcher explains to the law partner that he’s had better experiences with others.  This makes his advancement to partner a rocky prospect.

Fletcher realizes he is incapable of telling a lie, be it to himself, in writing, or verbally, to his assistant or to anyone.  He realizes he has to request an adjournment of Samantha’s divorce case the following day, which is denied as he cannot provide a false reason.

Samantha’s case goes poorly since the premise Fletcher established when he could lie could not be followed through with evidence.  Samantha is an entirely despicable character.  When she brings her children with their nanny to the courtroom, yelling at the nanny all along, Fletcher asked why she brought the kids.  “For sympathy” she replied.  Fletcher’s response: “Well it worked.  I feel badly for them already.”

During one of his many attempts to see Max that day, Fletcher’s honesty gets him into trouble as he admits to a traffic cop all of his traffic offenses and his unpaid tickets.  As Audrey helps him get his car out of impound, he learns two things: Carey Elwes’ character, Jerry, whom Audrey had been dating for 8 months, has asked her to move with him to Boston with Max, and that Max had made the fateful wish.

Fletcher takes Max out of school so he can make a new wish to undo the old wish.  Fletcher admits to some truths children wonder about.  When Max stretches his face and asks if his face can stay that way, Carrey’s character says no, and “in fact some people make a good living that way.”  At every opportunity for Fletcher to lie but cannot, Carrey performs the facial and physical contortions for which he has become famous.

Fletcher explains to Max that “sometimes grown-ups need to lie … no one can survive in the adult world if they have to stick to the truth.”  He recites some examples of white lies and admits that everyone lies, including Mommy and Jerry.  When Max says “But you’re the only one who makes me feel bad”, Fletcher realizes he risks losing Max to Boston and that that would be a real loss.

The re-wish does not work and Fletcher is forced to carry on his day with the burden of having to tell the truth.  To this day I like the legal advice he provides to one of his long-time criminal clients when he’s called after “knocking over” (robbing someone) an ATM … with a knife.  Fletcher yells into the phone legal advice I am sure many lawyers have wanted to give: “Stop breaking the law, asshole!”

Fletcher plugs his way through the first (and apparently only day) of a complex divorce case.  He wins on a point of law (spoiler alert!) discussed below.

Knowing Samantha’s shear mendacity, the sympathy he has for her children and his knowledge that the father is in fact a good father, Fletcher lets loose on the court for the unfairness that exists in cases without merit proceeding premised on legal fictions and outright lies.  For his conduct, he ends up in jail on a contempt charge.

Once bailed out by his secretary, Fletcher makes his way to the airport to intercept Audrey and Max en route to Boston.  Hilarity and pre-9-11 airport security lapses ensue.

A year later, Max makes a wish at his next birthday and Audrey and Fletcher appear to be reunited after the candles go out.  Max wished for …

The law

There is very little law discussed in the film.  Sure, it is illegal to rob someone at an ATM with a knife.

Central to Samantha’s divorce case success is the question of the enforceability of the “pre-nup”.  Fletcher realizes that Samantha was under the age of 18 when she signed her marriage contract.  In Ontario and in most jurisdictions, one has to be 18 years old to enter into a contract for anything other than the necessities of life.  In California where Fletcher practices in Liar Liar, parental consent appears to be required for minors to sign contracts, including pre-nups.  There was no parental consent so the waiver of spousal support and property division is unenforceable.


The movie is not about the law and lawyers, but about mendacity.  Jim Carrey brings his physical comedy to the screen in his attempts to lie.

Fletcher’s frequent requests for a “continuance” lead him at one point to beat himself up physically to prevent him from proceeding.  When asked if he can proceed, he has to answer, regretfully “yes”.

In Liar Liar, Fletcher was brought on board as Samantha’s counsel to commence a multi-million dollar divorce the day before it was to start.  The portrayal of court cases without any paper in movies and television continue unabashedly.  Fletcher walks into court without the boxes of paper frequently needed on the smallest of procedures.  His trial was started in at 1:00 o’clock by the end of the day he had won over $11 million dollars after having met the client only the day before.

The premise that Fletcher cannot do as well as he is expected because he is incapable of lying is an unfortunate stereotype of lawyers.  Lawyers in Ontario are governed by a code of ethics which states in part that lawyers must treat other lawyers and the courts with candour.

But not too much candour, please.  Lawyers are not intended to be fonts of information for the public, opposing parties or the state.  Privilege and confidentiality are necessary elements for a lawyer to protect to do one’s job properly and solicitor-client privilege belongs to the client.

Timothy N Sullivan Ottawa lawyer family law


Liar Liar is funny.  I’d not liked Carrey in some films but Fletcher’s humanity, his love for his son and the respect he shows Audrey and her choices makes Liar Liar a realistic (excepting the effect of a birthday wish) tale of a separated family going through transition.

I have seen, to disruptive and harmful results, separated parents using their children in power-struggles to demonstrate control.  It saddens me.  Fletcher’s cavalier attitude regarding access with his son is not good, but he sees the errors of his way – eventually.

One thing at odds with my experience is a mother simply informing the father that she is moving with a child far away.  Even if the mother has custody and can make that decision, the father’s access, which is a right of the father and the child, is put into play and had to be negotiated or litigated to determine what changes, if any, are appropriate for the child.

Jerry is an admirable but minor character.  He admits he loves Max and wants to include Max as much as he wants to include Audrey in his life.  Somewhat disturbing, however, is his belief that his relationship with Max is on par with Max’s relationship with Fletcher.  Jerry is blind to Audrey’s apparently uncertain commitment to the relationship.  Jerry is too “Magoo” in Fletcher’s words, to which Audrey does not object as accurate.  He’d make a good and loving step-parent but he should know his role.  In my experience, the new additions to separated families play a very important role.  However, that role can be very positive if it is supportive, or have negative effects on the children if the role is too adversarial.

Obiter Dicta

Liar Liar was filmed principally in Los Angeles in 1996.  It was a scorcher and there were production problems arising from the intensive sun and heat.  Lighting was a frequent challenge to the producers.

Due to budget problems with a new prison at the time of filming, a local jail was available to film on location before inmates were housed.

Jim Carrey, who was born in Newmarket, Ontario, became one of the highest paid actors in the 1990s with frequent box office successes, including Liar Liar.  His physical comedy is legend and, true to the advice to Max, lots of money can be earned making one’s face stretch.

Carrey received a Golden Globe Award nomination for Liar Liar, and an MTV Movie Award and a Blockbuster Entertainment Award for this film.

For her despicability, Tilly earned an American Comedy Award nomination for best supporting actress and a Blockbuster Entertainment Award for Favorite Supporting Actress in a Comedy.

Young Justin Cooper as Max received a Blockbuster Entertainment Award nomination for his work in Liar Liar.

Moira Tierney, who is best known as “Lisa Miller” in News Radio, grew up in Boston.  Her father was a lawyer.


So what did you think of the movie, or this this review?  Email me at office@sullivanlaw.ca and let me know if you have any suggestions.  Use “Liar Liar” in the subject line of the email.


Special thanks to
Movies ‘n Stuff
1787 Kilborn Avenue
Ottawa, Ontario
K1H 6N1


Next on the Docket

Witness for the Prosecution

JUDICIAL REVIEW: The Paper Chase (1973)

In which I review movies with a legal focus.

I start this feature of my website with The Paper Chase because it represents the producers’ version of law school.

the Paper Chase movie Timothy Sullivan

Starring:  Timothy Bottoms, John Houseman, Lindsay Wagner

Timothy Bottoms’ character “Hart” is the first year law student at Harvard eager to make a good impression on one of his professors – a contracts professor, Houseman’s “Kingsfield”.  His goal to get through First Year in one piece.  His love interest, “Susan”, (played by Lindsey Wagner before she had bionic implants), is the once-scorned, twice cynical, life-grounding distraction for Hart from what may allow him to succeed with his goal.

A Peek at who got Costs*
Hart makes it.

The Facts
The film is about Hart making his way through Law School and not specifically about his challenges in Contracts class.  The confusion, despair and exhilaration he experiences in Contracts class, however, is emblematic of his is journey through his first year.

Hart is in awe that he finds himself among the students at a top tier Law School from whence came numerous US Supreme Court Judges, Presidents and other notables.

After blundering an answer to one of Kingsfield’s questions during the first day of class, Hart sets into motion his method to impress his professor.  Ultimately, his goal is to know the material so well that Kingsfield will feel compelled to learn his name.  However, his plan is in conflict with his desire to have some fun and to take a ‘bite of out life’.

Hart agrees to join a study group but is distracted by Susan’s ongoing attempts to point out the lighter side of life.

When he approaches Kingsfield after class with a poignant legal argument, Kingsfield, impressed (but wondering why Hart did not raise the point during class) asks Hart to do research for a treatise the professor is writing, and to have it on his desk early the following Monday morning.  His dilemma is that he had agreed to go away for the weekend with Susan.  He chooses the research project over Susan and loses her.

When he does not have the research in on time, Hart asks for an extension of time.  His request is not only denied but the project is handed to a more senior student and the research is no longer be required of him.

Hart combats this dichotomy throughout the film – love for life and interest in Susan, and his passion to excel at Law and for Kingsfield to know his name – throughout the film.

It all works out in the end, of course.  Susan comes around.  Hart becomes known as an excellent student, even if Kingsfield couldn’t name him if it was written on his forehead.  He receives in the final scene what the audience can only presume is a passing grade.

The Law
There is some discussion of actual law in the film.  The film is set at Harvard Law’s first year Contracts Class, after all.  Kingsfield’s teaching method is Socratic, meaning he asks questions rather than lectures.

The 1891 Carbolic Smoke Ball case is reviewed, as are concepts of auctioneer as agent, frustration of contract, and the difference between a ‘condition’ and a ‘condition on a promise’. The Statute of Frauds is mentioned briefly.  “Felony murder”, a concept to make the death of someone more serious in law if committed during the commission of a crime even if the death is accidental, is explained.

There is some illegal conduct in the film.  It occurs when Hart and a classmate break into the library to pour over archived notes.  Hart’s interest is to review Kingsfield’s own First Year Law contract notes.

The movie is dated, of course, but it seems to carry with it a timelessness.  Boy meets girl, boy meets Law Professior, Boy wants to impress both.  Boy makes a success out of himself through hard work.

Most, if not all, English-language law schools in North America require that the Law School Admissions Test be written with one’s grade to the “LSAT” factored into the admissions calculation.  When I was considering law, I once noticed an LSAT preparation course offered a viewing of The Paper Chase.  I had not seen the film until well into my years as a lawyer but I was impressed with much of the accuracy of it.  The Socratic method was a popular teaching technique where I was and the feeling of competition, stress at succeeding and of wanting to make an impression is similar to the environment I remember from law school.  The Contracts class of Professor Kingsfield bore a remarkably similar style to the Contracts professor of my first year.

The students alongside Hart bore a uncanny resemblance to my first year classmates.  They had come from many different backgrounds.  One character in The Paper Chase, who was married and considered Hart a close friend, had a photographic memory.  He could remember all the facts of the cases when questions were posed of him.  Kingsfield, however, pointed out that remembering facts did not make a good student. The Law demanded that facts be applied to the law through analysis.  The identification of issues and the resolution of issues requires much more than memory of the facts.

Kingsfield was not wrong.  The facts of a case are very often important in understanding the law, but it is merely the first of many steps in coming to a reasonable solution.  One classmate of mine could recite facts of a case quite readily, and impressively so.  However, the analysis of the law requires only relevant facts, which is a skill in and of itself.  To my knowledge, that classmate appears very successful in a career other than law.

The Paper Chase is a good movie and a fairly accurate portrayal of aspects of law school, in my experience.  The struggles Hart experiences are but a small element of the challenges law students go through.  The challenges of his classmates are a clear picture of the experiences of most, if not all, law students experience.  The study of Law is not like other academic pursuits.  Like Kingsfield tells his students on the first day: “”I train your mind … you leave thinking like a lawyer.”

One classmate from Hart’s study group cannot understand the material and relies on the group colleagues to see him through, although eventually he is dismissed from the group.  The internal dynamic of the group is very competitive, not given to collaboration or co-operation.  In the end, perhaps surprisingly, the group as a study tool fails.  Law school can be very competitive.  When I was in law school, at a time when electronic research was available but was not the norm, I was told of other classes and other law schools where pages were ripped out of books to keep classmates from finding answers or completing assignments.  Our class, conversely, was chastised for circling answers in library material.

In the film, one member of the study group quits law school because he cannot reconcile his former academic excellence (he had a photographic memory) with the rigours of law school.  Another member is domineering, heartless and crass.  Although he appears to have had excellent briefs for all his classes from which to study for finals, he loses them out a window while showing off how great his briefs are.  Ironic.

Obiter Dicta
The Paper Chase, surprisingly, was John Houseman’s first film.  He was 71 years old.  However, he was a well-known dramatic actor and teacher at the time.  He was approached by the producers while he at the Julliard School of Fine Arts for a list of good but unknown students who could audition for some of the roles.  Although Houseman refused to release any students during semester, the then 21-year-old producer, Roderick Paul, recommended that the teacher, whomever he was (it was Houseman), could play Kingsfield.

Houseman won two best actor in supporting role awards, an Oscar and a Golden Globe.  The film was also nominated for a best writing Oscar.

Bottoms and Wagner were largely unknown actors when they were cast.  Several of the students in the study group will be known to movie watchers who largely developed their respective careers after The Paper Chase.

(A hotel sequence to where Hart and a classmate escaped to study for finals was in fact filmed at the Windsor Arms in Toronto.)

Prior to The Paper Chase, Love Story (1970) had been filmed at Harvard.  Since the film met with some displeasure by the university brass, it refused to permit The Paper Chase to film on its grounds, although it relented and ultimately permitted three days for stock footage and one scene at the football stadium featuring Hart and Susan.

The final scene, set presumably at Cape Cod, was filmed in California.  It was too cold in Toronto and Boston for the actors to complete it where the rest of the movie was filmed.  Wagner at one point had been suffering from a serious cold during a winter scene when Hart fell through the ice of a pond.  While trying to rescue him, Susan, too, fell into the icy water.  The producers did not want to risk any further (ahem) discomfort and trotted off to California for the final scene.

So what did you think of the movie, or this this review?  Email me at office@sullivanlaw.ca and let me know if you have any suggestions.  Use “The Paper Chase” in the subject line of the email.


Special thanks to

Movies ‘n Stuff
1787 Kilborn Avenue
Ottawa, Ontario
K1H 6N1