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The whole trial is out of order!


…and justice for all


It goes without saying that Al Pacino’s Baltimore defence attorney Arthur Kirkland should never have become a lawyer. And it beggars belief that, with his uncompromising attitude towards fairness and decency, he would still be in the profession (the movie came out when Pacino was a whisky shy of 40). Co-screenwriter Barry Levinson commentedHe’s a guy who’s trying to practice his profession honestly and responsibly, without getting disbarred. Which is itself crazy”. Also crazy is director Norman Jewison approaching the movie as if he can alternate between satire, melodrama and broad comedy with untutored abandon, all of it doused in a suffocating Dave Grusin score. Paddy Chayefsky this is not (although, he wasn’t exactly known for his subtlety). …and justice for all is a mess, then, with insufficient distance to be the former (a satire) but too anarchic to justify the immediate latter (a melodrama). It is nevertheless, however, frequently highly entertaining and does succeed in making some lucid points amid its scattershot assault.

Arthur is ostensibly a bastion of rectitude, a moral compass in an inherently corrupt, or at least deeply amoral, arena. The one honest guy. Sure, pal Jay Porter (Jeffrey Tambor in near-enough his movie debut) takes a dent on learning the guy he got off a murder charge “on a technicality” has gone out and killed two kids, leading to the drastic measures of shaving his head and hurling plates down the corridors of justice, but his smiling, rug-doffing appearance on the courthouse steps at the end suggest he has come to terms with his ethical susceptibility and emerged victorious. Jay is cynical anyway; Arthur is, to reiterate, the one honest guy. Or that’s the idea.

Yet, for one who esteems his clients’ welfare (providing they’re decent at their core) so highly, Kirkland is shown to have made a series of worrying lapses. He failed to present evidence in a timely manner in respect of the Jeff McCullaugh (Thomas Waites) case. So, while he may be justified in reserving animosity for unfeeling, unblinking Judge Fleming (John Forsythe), it disguises that his own neglect preceded it (McCullaugh was pulled over for a faulty taillight and mistaken for someone of the same name who was wanted for murder; he has spent a year-and-a-half in prison, and Fleming won’t consider the appeal). 

So too, trans-indeterminate Ralph Agee (Robert Christian), pressed by his cousin into an armed robbery; Arthur arranges a probation hearing, but caught up in the repercussions of Jay’s plates meltdown, he requests colleague Warren Fresnell (Larry Bryggman) presents the appeal while he accompanies Jay to the hospital. Fresnell botches things, and Agee, terrified of prison life, hangs himself. Arthur takes out his rage on Warren’s car, but as Warren says to him “If you care so much, why weren’t you in the courtroom?

Arthur’s also remiss in making promises he doesn’t know he can keep – that Agee will make parole; that McCullaugh will be out in three weeks tops and just has to hang in there – and you can put this down to someone whose heart is simply too big, or someone who fails in his responsibility to deal truthfully with his clients. He also ethically compromised himself with another client a few years previously (informing the police about a matter where he knew his client was responsible for putting firecrackers in victims’ mouths). All of this is designed to evidence that the law is an ass – that a late submission shouldn’t condemn someone falsely to prison; that prison itself shouldn’t be such an unmoderated horror that someone would rather kill himself (two people, effectively…); that doing the right thing should have no limitation when it’s about preventing others from being hurt – but Arthur is no novice. As Gail says of Fleming’s refusal to consider the case “Legally – he’s going by the letter of the law”.

Judge Rayford: Mr Kirkland, you are out of order.
Arthur: You’re out of order. You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order! They’re out of order!

Accordingly, he has a choice. Attempt to change things from the inside and submit to the inevitable compromises that will entail (by telling himself the good he is doing is greater than the bad). Or bow out (“I’m a lawyer. That’s all I know”). Ultimately, he makes the conspiratorial threat of his disbarment (if he doesn’t represent Fleming) moot, because he blows up the court during his opening statement by announcing his client’s guilt. It’s a great scene (one Pacino initially attempted to rewrite, requiring Jewison to dissuade him and instead opt for what is now easily recognisable patented Pacino overacting: “Pacino came to me and said he had made a few changes, and he had totally rewritten the scene. And of course, it was boring! It didn’t work”).

 At the other end of the scale is Judge Fleming, who “hates scum almost as much as we [the police] do”. “I don’t give a shit about your client” he tells Arthur, and when – in a, shall we say, somewhat contrived set of circumstances – the latter is later representing the former, launches into a tirade in which he expands on the deficiencies of the justice system. Not complaints of the sort Arthur nurses. Oh, no. Rather, punitive measures aren’t severe enough, and “the idea of punishment to fit the crime doesn’t work. We need unjust punishment. Hang somebody for armed robbery. Try it. We’ve got nothing to lose… I tell you that the concept of rehabilitation is a farce”. 

Fleming has no empathy, not only because he is an elite judge, but also because he needs never fear the fate of those consigned to the prison system. He’s thus able to extol “Prison should be a frightening place. Let those criminals create their own hellhole” (which, even if that were valid, fails to consider the innocent man thrown into such a hellhole); McCullough, desperate after “They raped me. a whole bunch of times. And other stuff too” takes hostages, the incident culminating in his being shot dead by a police sniper. 

Arthur’s urban milieu seems unpleasant enough, but the prison system is emphasised as infinitely worse (we open on Arthur residing in a holding cell for contempt, and that seems grim enough). It’s notable that both the Seth and Ra Material emphasise the effects of the urban environment on physical, sexual, spiritual, emotional and mental health (the Law of One refers to a “great aura infringement among your crowded urban areas in your more populous countries”, while Seth suggests similar trends of “large social issues and challenges” where there is overpopulation). 

In particular, …and justice for all makes key points of deleterious situations relating to sexual scenarios, be it persecution for predilection or assault and violation (Pacino also explored this arena in Dog Day Afternoon and Cruising). Arthur’s first two clients are victims, though, whereas Fleming is a brutal rapist who believes he can get away with it and can (his lie detector is faked for him, and, by causing a mistrial, Arthur may have got the truth out there, but it’s debatable whether Fleming will face judicial punishment). 

Rayford: There’s some very powerful people in this town who could ruin your career.

Arthur presumably wasn’t a freemason, or that would surely have been a means of persuading him to take the Judge’s case. How many lawyers are freemasons? It’s speculative, probably in part dependent upon the firm’s expectations (Stephen Knight, author of Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, an inspiration for Murder by Decree, considered UK numbers were significant. Albeit less prevalent in London. The onus for UK judges to declare if they were freemasons was voided over a decade ago). You don’t have to be a freemason – and you don’t have to be a bad egg if you are a freemason, even if that’s an understanbdable, kneejerk assumption – to get ahead, but it helps. Fleming doesn’t need to be a freemason to call on “some very powerful people” in Baltimore; he’s clearly up to his eyeballs in elite depravations, so he’s ideal blackmail material even if he weren’t fully with the programme; we see an incriminating photo with Head of the Ethics Committee, doubtless similarly affiliated/pliable.

Arthur: You’re skimming the surface. You’re not going for the real power.
Gail: That’s scary. What real power. Arthur? 
Arthur: You don’t know?
Gail: No, why don’t you tell me.
Arthur: Well, now we know they’re definitely safe.

Ethics Committee member Gail Packer (Christine Lahti) is portrayed as both naiver than Arthur and more resolute when it comes to the legerdemain of the law. She bristles at the suggestion the Committee is “conning the public into thinking you’re doing something and you’re not”, but she’s sounder when it comes to personal values than state ones (as if teaching a recalcitrant child, she reminds Arthur, “A defence lawyer has to defend people who are guilty. You know that”, before adding “Look, you took an oath to defend your clients to the best of your ability. Now, if you can’t do that, then get out”). As such, she can rationalise the Committee looking into Arthur – “You mean to tell me, while we were sleeping together, you and the fellas were making decisions on my life?” – on the basis it’s an honourable body, until she’s shown it isn’t so immaculate.

Forsythe gives a commendably unrepentant performance in a picture that crosses the scale in pitch/over-pitch. But that unevenness is down to Jewison, ultimately. Jack Warden is great fun as suicidal Judge Rayford – shooting a pistol in court, sitting on his window ledge four stories up to eat lunch, going for devil-may-care helicopter jaunts and sticking a shotgun in his mouth before being called to court – but he’s something out of different movie to Forsythe’s. The only real crossover is his pressing Arthur on the consequences if he doesn’t do what he’s told. That may be part of Raynor’s malaise, but he expresses it as a relentless, daily diet of insanity (“Son of a bitch. Day in, day out, the same goddamn thing. Most of these people belong in a mental home, for chrissakes”).

Lee Strasburg as grandad Kirkland is the subject of a maudlin subplot that could/should have been excised. Craig T Nelson is a prosecuting lawyer eager for the kudos the head of a judge will give him. Joe Morton’s a prison doctor. Dominic Chianese is a client who slightly resembles a Larry David who can act. Tambor is highly entertaining as Jay, running off with the movie’s best scene, in which he leaves Pacino no choice but amusement (Jay’s hysteria at the irony of Arthur being asked to represent Fleming). But whatever highs there are here, and they’re frequent, the movie is continually undercut by the Dave Grusin Massacre – see also his scores for Tootsie, Into the Night etc– perforating eardrums at every turn. You have to wonder if he was a late-stage choice, but then, Grusin was unaccountably popular during this period.

Jewison had maintained a degree of tonal consistency with his previous pictures that decade, all of them successes, to a greater or lesser degree (Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar, Rollerball, F.I.S.T.) but something escapes him here, as if there was second guessing about how to treat the material. He hadn’t done satire since The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (great title, but otherwise thin on the laughs) and he wouldn’t again. Bleeding-heart social conscience was more his bag, like a less bludgeoning Stanley Kramer. 

As for Al, you look at his career following Dog Day Afternoon and give or take for the subsequent decade-and-a-half, and you wonder if he was seriously trying to capsize it. Revolution was just the icing on the cake of increasingly sturm-und-drang performances (he also seems to have aged a decade in half that time, between The Godfather Part II and this). 

Pauline Kael was on sabbatical, attempting to become a fish in the pool she’d made her career from critiquing (it didn’t last long). While reviewing Fort Apache, the Bronx, however, she suggested Heywood Gould was probably trying for “the comedy-in-the-midst-of-chaos feeling” of M*A*S*H or Dog Day Afternoonbut the movie comes out closer to and justice for all” (“A different director might have used this script for a visceral comedy of horror… But the storytelling is lax – some essential dramatic intuition seems missing”).

The movie was one of many law professionals Paul Bergman and Michael Asimow covered in Reel Justice – The Courtroom Goes to the Movies. They suggested it was “too broad a parody to serve as a reasoned critique of American social justice”, but “fair criticism lies beneath the exaggeration”, nevertheless. They highlighted the accuracy of how “the system could not possibly function unless most cases are plea-bargained before trial”, and that there are indeed “too many harsh and tyrannical judges”. They awarded it three gavels (good), their rating system reflecting “the entertainment value of the courtroom scenes, not their legal accuracy, or the aesthetic value of the movie as a whole”.

…and justice for all feels like it arrived slightly too late. Like it knows it has a good subject, but it’s been deflated by a nascent era that has little truck with such things. Hence the attempts to serve two masters. Still, Pacino may have misstepped hits- and zeitgeist-wise in picking this over Kramer vs. Kramer, but it stands as the more interesting of the two movies today. The main difference is that, for better or worse, Kramer vs. Kramer was clear about what it wanted to be.

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