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American Criminal Trial Films: An Overview of Their Development, 1930–2000

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The history of American trial films – and I am speaking of trial films in general at the moment, not of the sub-division of criminal trial films – has been shaped both by changes in public attitudes toward law and lawyers and by shifts in viewer tastes. These same factors have necessitated changes in the way we define ‘American trial films’. In earlier years one could recognize a trial film with relative ease: it was a drama in which a heroic lawyer or lawyer surrogate solved the film’s dilemmas in the course of a civil or criminal trial, usually a trial held within a courtroom. Contemporary movies, in contrast, are more interested in action than in debate and oratory, and they are more cynical about the effectiveness of legal processes. Thus they tend to embed a short trial scene in a longer adventure story, and they seldom depict lawyers as heroes on the grand scale or courts as places where fundamental social and moral issues are settled. In sum, the trial film genre is undergoing major change, if not dissolution.
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Document Type: Original Article

Publication date: 01 March 2001

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