“My father’s a lot of unpleasant things. A murderer’s not one of them.”
That’s how Robert Downey Jr. describes his father, the titular character in this weekend’s legal thriller The Judge. Robert Duvall plays the irascible old judge, who, when accused of vehicular manslaughter, must reluctantly rely on his estranged lawyer son for a defence in court. While he’s on the bench, he’s a no-nonsense justice who doles out old-fashioned common sense along with his judgments. In one case, he makes a deadbeat dad hand over his brand-new truck to his ex-wife, joining a long list of movie magistrates who have meted out law and order on the big screen.
Remember Fred Gwynne as My Cousin Vinny’s Judge Chamberlain Haller —his classic question, “What is a yoot?” may be one of the most famous movie lines delivered from the bench — but how about Judge Doom, the much feared judge of Toontown? As played by Christopher Lloyd in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, he presides over a town of cartoon characters, punishing lawbreakers with the dreaded Dip, a bubbling vat of turpentine, acetone and benzene that “erases” them. His mission is to pin the murder of Marvin Acme on Roger Rabbit. “I’ll catch the rabbit, I’ll try him, convict him and execute him!”
Everyone has heard the term “judge, jury and executioner,” but Judge Dredd adds one more title, police officer. Set in 2080, this Sylvester Stallone movie sees the justice system boiled down to Street Judges who enforce the laws and dole out instant justice. When Joseph Dredd is convicted for a crime he didn’t commit, he must prove his innocence. “The evidence has been falsified! It’s impossible! I never broke the law, I AM THE LAW!”
Finally, a more conventional judge is seen in Anatomy of a Murder, the 1959 Otto Preminger film about an army lieutenant accused of murdering a bartender who attacked his wife. The all-star cast — defence attorney James Stewart, George C. Scott as the prosecutor, Ben Gazzara and Lee Remick as the defendant and his wife — was presided over by real-life lawyer Joseph N. Welch as Judge Weaver. Welch made several pictures, but is best remembered as the attorney who represented the Army in the McCarthy hearings and scolded the Communist-hunting senator with the famous words, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” when he verbally attacked a member of Welch’s law firm.