Writing Lessons from the 1949 Film Adam's Rib, Starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy

In A Lawyer's Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms, we cover the in's and out's of trials, lawyers, courtrooms and a whole lot more, including a section dedicated to ten of our favorite legal films, and what they can teach writers.

Below is an excerpt about the classic film Adam's Rib that featured Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn as married lawyers who face off as opposing lawyers in a murder trial.

Book Excerpt

Top Ten Legal Films: Adam's Rib

Adam's Rib (1949): Starring: Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn; directed by George Cukor. A courtroom comedy, with a dose of drama, featuring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as husband and wife attorneys who are on opposite ends of a criminal prosecution: Hepburn is defending a woman who shot her husband; Tracy is the prosecutor.

Note: It’s highly questionable that a district attorney’s office would allow one of its prosecutors to try a case if his wife was the defense attorney. More likely, the DA’s office would cite a conflict of interest and have another prosecutor try the case. Nevertheless, Hepburn’s and Tracy’s opposing counsel roles provide wonderful story conflict. 

Oh, what are you gonna do, object before I ask the question?
— Tracy confronting Hepburn in the courtroom

Adam’s Rib, interestingly enough, was based on the real-life story of actor Raymond Massey and his wife Adrianne Allen's divorce. They had hired married lawyers William and Dorothy Whitney, who, after the divorce was finalized, divorced each other and married their clients! Keep in mind that William and Dorothy Whitney were divorce attorneys in private practice— unlike the setup in Adam’s Rib where the husband represented the government, and the wife was in private practice. 

To prepare for the role, Katharine Hepburn and the director, George Cukor, spent time in different Los Angeles courtrooms to pick up details to help make the acting and story authentic. 

Judge's bench Jury box, Howard M. Metzenbaum U.S. Courthouse, Cleveland, Ohio by Carol Highsmith USE THIS.jpg

Tip for Writers: In general, court hearings are open, which means the public may attend. This is an excellent way to learn about the court system, and watch lawyers, judges, witnesses and others in the course of a trial. At times, the court might close a court proceeding to the public if the judge wishes to protect someone’s dignity, such as a child’s or a distressed witness’s. 

Historical Perspective on Adam’s Rib

In 1940, 9 years before Adam’s Rib was filmed, the United States Census identified only 4,447 female attorneys in the US, or 2.4 percent of all lawyers in the country.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the US entering WWII, many male lawyers enlisted in the military, which created a void in American law schools. The sudden need for students was filled by women. By 1942, women law students were 4.35 percent of all law students; by 1943, the number of women had increased to 21.9 percent. During WWII, some law firms began hiring women lawyers for the first time, such as the New York firm of Cahill Gordon in 1943, and Shearman & Sterling in 1944. 

According to the article “Adam’s Rib as an Historical Document: The Plight of Women Lawyers in the 1940s,” the number of women in law school began decreasing significantly after WWII, and many female lawyers lost their employment positions to returning American solider-lawyers who were given back their former jobs. Also, many returning serviceman obtained funding via the GI Bill for law school, and by 1947 law schools were again churning out a much higher number of male rather than female attorneys.

So by 1949 when Adam’s Rib started playing in movie theaters, female lawyers like Hepburn’s character Amanda Bonner were already vanishing in the US.

 Click on image to go to book's Amazon page

Click on image to go to book's Amazon page

Article by Colleen Collins, All Rights Reserved. Do not copy, forward, or otherwise distribute without written permission by the author.

Remembering Mike Nichols: From Comic to Director

vintage typewriter on sepia.jpg

Today is Mike Nichol's birthday. He would have been 86 years old. What a mega-talent and inspiration he was to writers, actors, directors, and others.

He directed some wonderful films, including The GraduateSilkwoodWorking GirlWho's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Heartburn. And he directed plays, from what I believe was his final one, Betrayal (which sold out for all performances before the play even opened), to years ago directing a young unknown named Whoopi Goldberg in her one-act play that took her from obscurity to being a star.

He Grew Up a Loner...

Later in life he said that growing up a loner gifted him with the ability to know what people were thinking. I think he likely meant that he could easily, and often correctly, interpret people's emotions and motivations, which makes me think of "truth wizards." This is a term coined by research psychologists about people who have an uncanny way of detecting liars, as well as other emotions/motivations within a person. Truth wizards have typically grown up in difficult environments where, as children, they learned to carefully observe people as a means of survival, really. I know about truth wizards from researching them years ago for an article, and later a murder-mystery novel featuring a character who was a truth wizard (Mistletoe and Murder in Las Vegas).

From Loner to Famous Comic

 Elaine May and Mike Nichols, 1960 (image is in public domain)

Elaine May and Mike Nichols, 1960 (image is in public domain)

After Mike Nichols started college, he said he was a loner no more. His first success as an artist was as part of the two-person comedy team with Elaine May. After that came directing plays, then film. He won every award as a director: the Emmy, Oscar, Tony...I may have missed one in that line-up.

What I like about reading his quotes on directing film and plays is that his words apply to writing, too.

A Few Favorite Nichols' Quotes

Here's a few of my favorite Mike Nichols' quotes. As I mentioned above, he was talking about film-making, but his thoughts on technique and process apply to crafting stories and characters as well.

"There are only three kinds of scenes: a fight, a seduction or a negotiation." 

"A movie is like a person. You either trust it or you don't."

"I've always been impressed by the fact that upon entering a room full of people, you find them saying one thing, doing another, and wishing they were doing a third. The words are secondary and the secrets are primary. That's what interests me the most." 

"I think the audience asks the question, 'Why are you telling me this?'...there must be a specific answer."

Self-Publishing: Tips, Resources, and Recommendations

 Woman writing on laptop (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

Woman writing on laptop (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

By Colleen Collins, All Rights Reserved

Since 1996, I have sold over two dozen novels to traditional publishers who handled the editing, proofreading, formatting, packaging, distribution, and at times some promotion, too. Since 2011, I have also self-published seven books in the romantic-mystery and nonfiction genres, which means I handled, or retained services for, all those same tasks.

In this article I share lessons I learned (some the hard way) in self-publishing, as well as my recommendations for publishing services. (Obviously my personal recommendations are not meant to be all-inclusive—they are simply a handful of talented people and companies I've had the privilege of working with, and whose results have been outstanding.) 

Recommendations in General

Before you hand over your hard-earned money to any publishing service, ask ahead of time for three or four recommendations from writer-friends or check qualified resources, such as Preditors and Editors.  Also, publishing attorney Susan Spann (@SusanSpann) offers insightful publishing tips and warnings on Twitter.

Let’s start with a look at the editing process.

Developmental Editors, Copyeditors, and Proofreaders

 Side-stepping copyediting & proofreading invites frustrated readers (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

Side-stepping copyediting & proofreading invites frustrated readers (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

In general, a developmental editor helps shape a story; a copyeditor fine-tunes the story by correcting grammar, smoothing out syntax and so on; and a proofreader reads through the book to catch any errors before it goes into production.

Lessons Learned

With my first indie novel I skipped the proofreader step, figuring my background as a technical editor meant I could edit my own writing. Ha! After readers contacted me with typos they found, I humbly corrected them and forwarded my book to a professional proofreader.

Recommendations

The Blood-Red Pencil Check the Meet the Blogging Team page for more information about editing services.

Judicious Revisions, LLC Proofreading services for indie authors, specializing in romance genre. (Also, one of the nicest, most diligent proofreaders I've ever worked with).

Moonshell Books, Inc. Award-winning author Shelley Bates offers copyediting services to independent authors. The “Other editors and resources” page lists additional developmental editors and copyeditors.

Book Covers

As the old saying goes, first impressions count! Invest in potential readers’ first impressions of your book by hiring a professional graphic designer.

Lessons Learned

For my first nonfiction book, How Do Private Eyes Do That?, I decided to save money and create my own cover. Let’s just say some people have design talents, but not yours truly. Recently, I hired talented graphic designer Kim Killion to create a new and vastly improved cover for the second edition, to be released August 2016. Before and after thumbnail versions, below (mine on left, Killion’s in middle).

The cover on the right, Mistletoe and Murder in Las Vegas, was created by another of my favorite graphic designers, Dave Fymbo of Limelight Book Covers.

(Book cover images copyrighted by Colleen Collins)

Recommendations

The Killion Group, Inc.: http://thekilliongroupinc.com

Limelight Book Covers: http://www.limelightbookcovers.com

Formatting

I used to pay for third-party formatting services, but for the past three years I've been spoiled by using Vellum, available for Mac OS X 10.9 or newer. The creators of Vellum are former Pixar film software gurus who bring their knowledge, expertise, and creativity to Vellum. The product is intuitive to use, with real-time previews of how the book will look in a variety of formats (such as Kindle, Nook, and others). Being former Pixar guys, they know how to make graphics look amazing, too.

I've also saved a heap of money using Vellum—for example, one third-party formatting company (recommended by Amazon) charged me $450.00 to format a nonfiction book, claiming the sticker-shock price was due to the number of graphics and links I had in the book. Having been a technical editor for years, I can certainly understand how much time it takes to double-check links & graphics, but the book didn't have that many links and graphics, which was around 45,000 words (novella-sized).

Below is a screen shot of a page in Vellum, pre-generated ebook.

 Vellum page from my book  A Lawyer's Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms  (co-written with Shaun Kaufman; image is copyrighted by Colleen Collins)

Vellum page from my book A Lawyer's Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms (co-written with Shaun Kaufman; image is copyrighted by Colleen Collins)

When I switched to Vellum, I re-formatted that same book in less than a day for $10.00, minus my time. Even adding my time, the cost was way less than what that third-party formatting company had charged.

Last time I spoke to one of the Vellum creators, the company doesn't have plans to make a PC version. If you're a PC user, once again I suggest asking other writer-friends for their recommendations.

Promotion

Self-publishing inevitably includes book promotion. I recently read a wonderful self-published murder-mystery that a friend loaned me. When I looked up the book on Amazon, it had only 3 reviews! Excellent reviews, but I was surprised there were so few. The ranking of the book was 1,427,618, which is very low. What a shame the author didn't invest more time and money into promoting her book because she wrote a very entertaining, well-written story, which unfortunately isn't getting the attention it deserves.

Lessons Learned

For my first indie novel, I paid $200 for a book blog tour that never materialized. I count myself lucky as some writers have lost much more money to bogus/ineffectual promotion services. How did I lose $200? I didn't get 3 or 4 recommendations ahead of time; instead, I selected the first service I found. I tried to use common sense—the business owner was a multi-published author so I figured that person had the right background; the website was appealing...but I should have done my homework and asked for more recommendations.

Recommendations

Tasty Book Tours specializes in the romance genre (which includes the subgenres romantic suspense, romantic mystery, and so forth). Self-Publishing Review named it one of the top 10 book tours. Lisa Filipe, the owner, is one of my favorite people in "the book biz." When I sign up for one of her promo tours, I know the book is in excellent hands. 

BookBub isn’t cheap, but book promotions reach a vast audience. It's not always easy to get your book accepted, but when it is, you'll enjoy the benefits. My romantic-mystery The Zen Man, which I gave away for free via BookBub, got thousands of downloads...and over 100 reviews on Amazon. 

Kindle Nation Daily offers pay-for services similar to BookBub, but the options are in general less costly. Just like BookBub, Kindle Nation Daily submissions pass an editorial review for appropriateness, but their guidelines for acceptance aren't as stringent as BookBub, plus you meet the people behind the scene at Kindle Nation Daily (BookBub is more mysterious in that way). My personal experience has been that I usually get 25% (at least) more downloads at BookBub vs. Kindle Nation Daily, but the latter is friendlier, nicer, even easier to work with.

 Writer-Director Billy Wilder's headstone "I'm a writer, but then nobody's perfect" (image is in the public domain)

Writer-Director Billy Wilder's headstone "I'm a writer, but then nobody's perfect" (image is in the public domain)

Colleen Collins is a private investigator and award-winning, multi-published author in the romance, mystery, and nonfiction genres. Her next release is How Do Private Eyes Do That? (Second Edition), August 2016.

Real-Life Nicks & Noras: What It's Like to Be Married Sleuths

My article about being a real-world Nora Charles (the wife-sleuth in Nick & Nora) is live at mystery writer Marilyn Meredith's blog.

Below is an excerpt with a link to the full article at the end. At the end of the article, I offer additional resources about real-life married PI teams, as well as a link to Pursuit Magazine, a free online magazine for professional private investigators that is managed by a real-life husband-and-wife team—handy info for writers crafting sleuth tales and characters!

Nicks & Noras in the Real World: The Thin and the Thick of It

by Colleen Collins

Shaun and Colleen: Husband-and-Wife PI Team (image is copyrighted)

Most of you know about Nick and Nora Charles, the husband and wife private detective team in Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. William Powell and Myrna Loy played Nick and Nora in the 1934 movie of the same name, the first in the popular six-film series. While wise-cracking, canoodling, and imbibing martinis, they also managed to solve a murder or two.

 1934 The Thin Man poster (in public domain)

1934 The Thin Man poster (in public domain)

Before my husband returned to being a criminal lawyer, we worked together for over a decade as a real-life private eye team. Even today we sometimes still work cases together for his law practice.

As much as I like to think we held our own in the Nick-and-Nora wise-cracking department, only one of us drank martinis, and we never solved a murder, although we investigated and solved a few attempted murder cases. However, just as Nick and Nora had their terrier Asta, we worked cases with our Rottweiler Aretha, who has sat on innumerable surveillances, helped serve legal papers, and once climbed part way up a mountain where we investigated the scene of a “ski” crime.

HOLLYWOOD VS. REAL-LIFE: GLITZ VS. GRUNGE

Hollywood movies often show the sparkling highlights of a case, whereas the day-to-day digging for evidence can be a grind, sometimes with no viable clues surfacing for weeks at a time. And the film version of surveillances is fiction at its finest—it’s rare that a sleuth-mobile can follow a subject’s vehicle for hours on end. Yours truly has been a PI since 2003, and only once did I successfully follow a subject’s vehicle for hours...and I credit that singular success to the subject not being the brightest mental-bulb on the planet.

Pros and Cons of Being a Married PI Team

For the most part, both my husband and I found sleuthing together to be fun. We had our tense moments, but we enjoy each other’s company and like to make each other laugh, plus there’s nothing like the thrill of cracking a case.

DIFFERING WORK STYLES: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE ARE YOU CRAZY?

My husband and I fit the “opposites who attract” category. He’s a big-picture person, I focus on the details. He can wing it on little data, I like to be overly prepared. Our strengths can work amazingly well together; other times, we can drive each other more than a little nuts.

Here’s one example of how our traits mesh well...

Click here to read entire article

 

This article is copyrighted by Colleen Collins—if you wish to re-post or use elsewhere, please contact the author. Also, do not copy, distribute, or otherwise use any images noted as copyrighted or licensed. Images in the public domain are free to use.


 Book Cover  How Do Private Eyes Do That?  by Colleen Collins (image is copyrighted)

Book Cover How Do Private Eyes Do That? by Colleen Collins (image is copyrighted)

June 2016 release: How Do Private Eyes Do That? (2nd edition)

"If you're looking for the lowdown on private investigations, this is it."

~Bill Crider, author of the Truman Smith mystery series


A LAWYER'S PRIMER FOR WRITERS: The Steps Of A Trial - Part II

One of the best resource books I’ve found for writers.
— Lynn Chandler Willis, Winner 2013 Minotaur Books-Private Eye Writers of America Best First PI Novel

Last week, I started sharing sections of the chapter "The Steps of a Trial, From Jury Selection to Verdict" from A Lawyer's Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms, a nonfiction book I co-wrote with Shaun Kaufman, my husband and criminal defense lawyer. This chapter provides a high-level overview of the steps of a trial.

In Part I, we discussed some history of trials and provided a glossary of common trial terms. This week we continue with jury selection and opening arguments. Other chapters in A Lawyer's Primer for Writers go into more depth about topics such as jury experts, the players in the courtroom, trial preparation, criminal charges, the courtroom setting, and more.

Chapter 15: The Steps Of A Trial - Selecting a Jury and Opening Arguments

All Rights Reserved. Copyright Colleen Collins

1. Selecting a jury

 Jury box, Howard M. Metzenbaum U.S. Courthouse, Cleveland, Ohio by Carol Highsmith (image is in the public domain)

Jury box, Howard M. Metzenbaum U.S. Courthouse, Cleveland, Ohio by Carol Highsmith (image is in the public domain)

The voir dire, or jury selection process, requires input from attorneys for both sides, as well as the judge.

The judge and attorneys, after being given limited information about each potential juror, ask the potential jurors questions, the goal being to eliminate those who might be biased toward one side or the other during the trial.

After questioning is over, the attorneys and judge meet privately to pick the jury for the trial. Some of the jurors are removed for cause, which means a juror has something in his/her past experience that may not allow them to be fair and impartial to both parties. Example of cause include if a juror personally knows one of the lawyers, or has been a victim of a crime similar to one being tried, or has a personal interest in the outcome of the case. Each side has an unlimited number of removals for cause.

Other potential jurors may be removed by peremptory strike, meaning each side can remove a certain number of jurors from the pool without giving a reason, although they cannot be eliminated based on race or gender. The number of preemptory strikes depends on the jurisdiction and type of crime. 

As an example, the following defines the number of strikes in federal trials:

  • Federal civil trial: Each side is allowed 3 peremptory strikes.
  • Federal criminal trial: The government’s prosecuting attorney gets 6 strikes and the defense attorney gets 10 strikes. In capital cases where the death penalty is considered, both sides get 20 strikes.
  • Federal misdemeanor trial (a minor crime punishable by a fine or less than a year in prison): Each side gets 3 strikes.

After all potential jurors have been removed via cause and preemptory strikes, the jury is selected, which is often referred to as the jury being empaneled. After the courtroom deputy clerk swears in the jurors, and the judge gives them initial instructions, the trial can begin.

There might also be one or more alternate jurors, who are selected in the same manner as regular jurors, and hear the evidence in a case along with the regular jurors, but they do not participate with the regular jurors when they decide the case unless called upon to replace a regular juror.

Note: Jury research has become more common, especially in high-profile trials, as attorneys retain professional jury experts to aid assessment of appropriate jurors. Chapter 14, Jury Experts, provides more information on this subject.

2. The lawyers present opening arguments

 "The Jury" by John Morgan, 1861 (image is in the public domain)

"The Jury" by John Morgan, 1861 (image is in the public domain)

During opening arguments, each side tells the jurors about the case they will be hearing. Opening statements must be confined to facts that will be proven by evidence and cannot be argumentative.

Whichever party brought the case to court — the government in a criminal prosecution or the plaintiff in a civil case — is the first to give its opening statement. Either lawyer may choose not to present an opening statement, or may reserve to give it during the defense’s presentation of evidence.

In a criminal trial, the burden of proof rests with the government, which must prove beyond a reasonable doubt — meaning, the jurors must be solidly convinced, or have a moral certainty — that the defendant is guilty. 

In a civil trial, the plaintiff has the burden of proof, and in general must prove liability and damages by a preponderance, or a greater weight, of the evidence — meaning, there is evidence that is convincing in its probable truth or accuracy. The degree of proof required in a civil case is far less stringent than in a criminal case. 

Tip for Writers: An opening statement is supposed to only contain a preview of what the lawyers think the evidence will be. However, a clever lawyer might push the envelope to make his or her opening statement as dramatic and compelling as a closing argument. The most powerful opening statements are those that employ common human themes and fables — think tropes in storytelling — which provide a framework within which the evidence will be arranged. 


This ends Part II. The next post covers witnesses and evidence, closing arguments, the verdict, and additional online resources.

All rights reserved by Colleen Collins. Any use of the content, including images owned by Colleen Collins, requires specific, written authority. Please do not copy or distribute any images noted as licensed; any images noted as being in the public domain are yours to use.

Click on book cover to go to Amazon page

A LAWYER'S PRIMER FOR WRITERS: The Steps of a Trial - Part I

For the next few posts, I'll be sharing sections of the chapter "The Steps of a Trial, From Jury Selection to Verdict" from A Lawyer's Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms, a nonfiction book written by my husband, Shaun Kaufman, and myself. Since we co-owned a private investigations firm for over a decade, Shaun has returned to the practice of law, specializing in criminal defense, family law, and personal injury. I currently work as an investigator for Shaun Kaufman Law and several other law firms, as well as write fiction and nonfiction.

In this chapter we discuss a bit of trial history, common trial terms, and the following steps of a trial:

  • Selecting a jury
  • Opening arguments
  • Witnesses and evidence
  • Closing arguments
  • The verdict. 

For today, we'll touch on some history, then list common trial terms.

Chapter 15: The Steps of a Trial - Common Trial Terms

All Rights Reserved. Copyright Colleen Collins

 Fig. 28. “Trial of a Sow and Pigs at Lavegny” from “The Book of Days,” 1863 (image is in the public domain)

Fig. 28. “Trial of a Sow and Pigs at Lavegny” from “The Book of Days,” 1863 (image is in the public domain)

Yes, figure 28 shows a pig, the defendant, in a trial. Throughout Europe, from the Middle Ages into the nineteenth century, animals could be tried in court for crimes, exactly the same as humans. The trials were conducted formally: Juries were selected, witnesses testified, evidence was admitted and so on. Lawyers were appointed, at tax-payers’ expense, to represent the animals. 

So kicks off our discussion on the formal steps of a trial, which like a story has a beginning, middle and end. 

Let’s begin with an alphabetical listing of common trial terms.

Common Trial Terms

Accessory: A person who knowingly and intentionally contributes to a criminal act (before or after the crime, but not necessarily during the commission of the crime). An accessory after the fact is someone who knows that a crime has occurred and helped to conceal it. 

Accomplice: A person who assists in, advises or encourages the commission of a crime

Acquittal: A finding by a judge or jury that a criminal defendant is not guilty of the charges brought by the government. An acquittal is not a declaration of the accused's innocence but rather it is a verdict based on the prosecution’s inability to prove the accused's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A person may be acquitted of a crime but found civilly liable in a civil case regarding that same crime because civil cases have a lower burden of proof than criminal cases.

Admissible: A term that describes evidence that may be heard or seen by a jury and/or considered by a judge or a jury in civil and criminal cases.

Answer: The formal written statement by a defendant in response to a civil complaint. The answer establishes the grounds for defense.

Bench Trial: A trial without a jury, in which the judge alone weighs the facts to reach a decision.

Bench Warrant: An order issued by a judge for the arrest of a person.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: The standard required to convict a criminal defendant of a crime. The prosecution must prove the guilt so that there is no reasonable doubt to the jury that the defendant is guilty.

Burden of Proof: The level or quality of proof that a party needs to prove his or her case. In civil cases, the plaintiff has the burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence, which means the plaintiff’s proof must outweigh the defendant’s at least slightly for the plaintiff to win — if the two sides are equal, the defendant wins. In criminal cases, the prosecution has the burden of proof, and must prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt for a guilty verdict.

Capital Offense: A crime punishable by death. 

Challenge: An objection, such as when an attorney objects at a hearing to the seating of a particular person on a civil or criminal jury.

Circumstantial Evidence: All evidence except for eyewitness testimony. One example is physical evidence, such as fingerprints, from which an inference can be drawn.

Closing Arguments (see also Opening Arguments): Also called closing statements, summation and summing up, which are the concluding statements by both parties at the end of a trial. A closing argument may not contain any new information and must refer to evidence already presented throughout the trial. Usually the plaintiff gives the first closing argument, and the defense is second. In some cases, a judge's presentation of the jury instruction is also known as summing up.

The only cases that can be won in the final argument are those that have not been previously lost. On the other hand a good case can be lost in those fatal, final moments.

The only cases that can be won in the final argument are those that have not been previously lost. On the other hand a good case can be lost in those fatal, final moments.
— Gerry Spence, renowned defense lawyer, on closing arguments

 

Contempt of Court: Willful disobedience of a judge's command or of an official court order. A person who is in contempt of court can be fined or jailed. 

Conviction: The result of a criminal trial which ends in a judgment or sentence wherein the prisoner is guilty as charged. 

Corroborating Evidence: Supplementary evidence that strengthens or confirms the initial evidence.

Counsel (also called counselor): A term that refers to the lawyers in a case. Counsel is often used as a plural; counselor as singular.

 Pitkin County Courthouse, Aspen, CO, photo by Carol Highsmith (image is in the public domain)

Pitkin County Courthouse, Aspen, CO, photo by Carol Highsmith (image is in the public domain)

Court: A state or federal entity authorized to resolve legal disputes. Also, judges often refer to themselves in the third person as the “court.”

Cross-Examination: The questioning of a witness by the other side. 

Direct Evidence: Proof of facts by witnesses who saw acts done or heard words spoken.

Direct Examination: The first questioning of witnesses by the party on whose behalf they are called.

Exhibit: A document, photograph or object introduced as evidence during a trial.

Expert Witness (also referred to as professional witness or judicial expert; see also Non-Testifying Expert). Someone who has the knowledge, training, skills or educational background to present their opinion about evidence or a fact in a legal case.

Hearsay: Statements by a witness who did not see or hear the incident in question but heard about it from someone else. Hearsay is usually not admissible as evidence in court.

Hostile Witness: A witness whose testimony is not favorable to the party who calls him or her as a witness. 

Hung Jury: A jury whose members cannot agree on a verdict.

Impeachment of a Witness: An attack, via evidence, on the believability of a witness.

Inadmissible: That which, under the rules of evidence, cannot be admitted or received as evidence. Inadmissible evidence cannot be considered by a judge or jury in considering their verdict. 

Judgment: The final disposition of a lawsuit. 

- Consent Judgment occurs when the provisions and terms of the judgment are agreed on by the parties and submitted to the court for its sanction and approval.

- Default Judgment is a judgment rendered because of the defendant's failure to answer or appear.

Jury Instructions: Rules that the judge reads aloud to the jury before their deliberations begin. These instructions explain the law that applies to the case the jurors have just heard, and their role in deciding the facts of the case.

 First woman jury, 1911, Los Angeles (image is in the public domain)

First woman jury, 1911, Los Angeles (image is in the public domain)

Leading Question: A question suggesting the answer that the questioner — the defense lawyer or prosector — desires of the witness. A party generally may not ask one's own witness leading questions. However, leading questions may be asked of hostile witnesses on cross-examination.

Mistrial: When a judge throws out a verdict. When a mistrial is declared, the trial must start all over again, beginning with jury selection.

Motion: A formal request, either verbal or in writing, made to the court. If a motion is in writing and filed with the court, a hearing is typically scheduled to review the motion. In general, motions may be filed at any time before, during or after trial, although in a civil case motions are only allowed at certain phases in the case. Below are several types of motions:

- Motion in limine: A request to the judge to prevent certain pieces of evidence from being brought up during the trial. These requests are typically made when the jury isn’t present, often before the jury pool is even brought into the courtroom, so that jurors are not influenced by evidence that is improper or irrelevant. The phrase in limine is Latin for at the threshold, so a motion in limine symbolizes the stopping of certain evidence at the door of the courtroom before it gets inside and infects the case.

- Motion to compel: A request that the court order a party to a court case or a third person to do something, such as produce documentation or other evidence, or it might be a request to sanction the other side for failing to do something. Motions to compel are frequently used to settle disputes that arise during discovery, such as when one side refuses to turn over documents. Motions to compel must include a promise that the person or attorney previously made a good-faith attempt to resolve the problem before asking the court to intervene.

- Motion to dismiss: A legal document that requests the court to throw out a case, typically filed by the defendantafter the plaintiff has filed a complaint.

Non-Testifying Expert (see also Expert Witness): Either side in a case can hire an expert whose role is to help the attorney evaluate something in the case. For example, a plaintiff in a civil case might hire an electrician to test if the electrical wiring in a vehicle was faulty. This type of expert is protected from discovery (unlike an expert witness whose identity and documents are discoverable).

Opening Arguments (see also Closing Arguments): Also called opening statements, which are the introductory statements made at the beginning of a trial by each side. It offers a summary of the case to the jury, including case facts and legal theories, as well as the anticipated proof that will be presented throughout the course of the trial.  Some studies claim that 80 percent of jurors' verdicts are based on the opinions they form after hearing opening arguments. 

Overrule: A judge's decision not to allow an objection. Also, a decision by a higher court in finding that a lower court decision was in error.

Parole: Serving the remainder of one’s sentence outside of prison under the supervision of a government agency. 

Preponderance of the Evidence: Greater weight of the evidence, the common standard of proof in civil cases.

Probable Cause: Guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment, probable cause is the standard used by a police officer to make an arrest, obtain a warrant or conduct a search.

Probation Officer: The court-appointed officer who supervises criminals on probation.

Relevance: Testimony and evidence presented at trial must be relevant to the case.

Restitution: A monetary payment ordered as part of a judgment in negligence and/or contract cases to restore a loss. In criminal cases, it may be one of the penalties imposed and may require return of stolen goods to the victim or payment to the victim for harm caused. Restitution is often a condition of probation or a reduced sentence.

Sentence (see also Suspended Sentence): All fines, community service, restitution or other punishment, or terms of probation, given to a person convicted of a crime. The sentence, based on the jury’s verdict (or the judge's verdict if there was no jury), is ordered by the judge. Often, the term is used more loosely to mean jail or prison time, as in “He’s serving a ten-year sentence in federal prison.”

Summing up: See Closing Arguments.

Suspended Sentence (see also Sentence): After a judge issues a sentence at the conclusion of a case, he/she may then make it a suspended sentence, which means the punishment is delayed as long as the defendant fulfills certain conditions, such as community service or attending a substance abuse program. Judges often enter suspended sentences if they believe a defendant has a high potential to be a productive citizen. However, if a defendant violates the terms of a suspended sentence, the judge can impose that the original sentence, such as incarceration, be fulfilled.

Verdict: The jury’s formal decision after a trial. Although most verdicts are upheld by the judge presiding at the trial, the judge also has the discretion to set aside a verdict under certain circumstances. Also, the number of jury votes required to render a verdict differ for criminal and civil cases.

Verdict Form: Question-and-answer forms, often in paper format, designed to aid jurors in reaching a verdict after a civil or criminal trial. These forms are not the same as jury instructions, but instead are guidelines to help the jury determine if legal standards have been met by the facts in the case. 

Each side in a case creates its own verdict form, tailored to its precise case details, and then submits these forms to the judge before trial. Because lawyers write verdict forms with maximum benefits to their side of the case, the judge will meet privately with both sides to combine their forms into the final verdict form that the jurors will actually use. Therefore, the final verdict form a jury receives is typically the result of compromise from both sides.

Voir Dire (which means to speak the truth). The jury selection process.

Witness List: A list of witnesses a party expects to call to testify at trial. Each party must submit a witness list to the other side. Witnesses might be someone who observed a crime, who worked for a business that is part of the trial, a friend or family member of the defendant or plaintiff, or a police officer.


Next post will be about selecting a jury and opening arguments.

All rights reserved by Colleen Collins. Any use of the content, including images owned by Colleen Collins, requires specific, written authority. Please do not copy or distribute any images noted as licensed; any images noted as being in the public domain are yours to use.

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DOUBLE INDEMNITY: Making an Audience Love a Killer

 Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson and Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (Image is in public domain)

Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson and Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (Image is in public domain)

Noir at Its Darkest and Finest

Some view Double Indemnity (1944), the dark, suspenseful adaptation of the James M. Cain story, as one of the best, if not perfect, noir film. A June 1944 film review in Time magazine called it the "nattiest, nastiest, most satisfying melodrama."

Chandler and Wilder: A Tumultuous Writing Team

Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler wrote the screenplay over approximately 12 weeks, a volatile writing partnership that Wilder thought drove Chandler back to drinking. However, Wilder believed their discord enhanced their collaboration. "If two people think alike," he said, "it's like two men pulling at one end of a rope. If you are going to collaborate, you need an opponent to bounce things off."

Billy Wilder also wrote and directed other film classics such as NinotchkaThe Lost WeekendSunset BoulevardSome Like It Hot, The Apartment, Sabrina and The Seven Year Itch.   

Stanwyck and MacMurray Turned Down the Roles

Barbara Stanwyck, at the time the highest paid actress in Hollywood as well as the highest paid woman in America, at first turned down the role of the psychopathic killer Phyllis Dietrichson. In a later interview, she said after reading the script: "I went to his office, and I said to him, I love the script and I love you, but I’m a little afraid, after all these years of playing heroines to play the part of an out–and–out cold–blooded killer." Wilder responded, "Are you an actress or a mouse?" She answered that she hoped she were an actress. He said, "Then take the part." Years later she said she had been grateful ever since for taking the role.

Numerous actors turned down the role of Walter Neff, the bored insurance salesman tempted to commit murder: Alan Ladd, Gregory Peck, Spencer Tracy, James Cagney and others. Eventually Wilder realized he needed an actor who could play a cynic and a nice guy. In 1943 Fred MacMurray was the highest paid actor in Hollywood, known for playing easy-going, happy-go-lucky characters. When Wilder asked him to play Neff, MacMurray said, "You're making the biggest mistake of your life!" Later MacMurray said, "I never dreamed it would be the best picture I ever made."

Wilder Changed the Sweet Boy-Meets-Girl Situations

Wilder broke the mold early on with the standard, sweet boy-meets-girl situations. In the 1941 film Hold Back the Dawn, the suave French actor Charles Boyer played a refugee who marries a woman so he can enter the United States. He wrote a sweet-sour romance in The Apartment, where a young woman (Shirley MacLaine) has an ongoing tryst with an executive at her office, where a young man (Jack Lemmon) also works. He has a crush on the Shirley MacLaine character, and has no idea she's the one warming his bed with his boss. Critics called it a "dirty fairy tale," and audiences loved it.

Double Indemnity: Making an Audience Love a Killer

 Billy Wilder chose a cheap wig to emphasis Barbara Stanwyck's character, Phyllis Dietrichson's, "sleazy phoniness" (Image is in public domain)

Billy Wilder chose a cheap wig to emphasis Barbara Stanwyck's character, Phyllis Dietrichson's, "sleazy phoniness" (Image is in public domain)

How did Wilder make the mysterious, deceiving, insidious Phyllis sympathetic to viewers? He added a dash of sympathy, offered deeper glimpses into her character, and cranked up the heat:

  • Phyllis is trapped, unprotected in a marriage where her emotionally-distant husband prefers the well-being of his blood-family daughter over his trophy wife.
     
  • She is more than a one-dimensional cold, calculating murderer. She is driven, at times charming, tarnished yet eerily beautiful and diabolically shrewd.  If she had only been cold and calculating, viewers would have been bored.
     
  • Phyllis and Walter have a complicated, compelling chemistry that drives the story.

A Film About Relationships

The late film critic Roger Ebert had an interesting take on Wilder's characterizations in Double Indemnity:

[Wilder] doesn't go for the obvious [character] arc. He isn't interested in the same thing the characters are interested in. He wants to know what happens to them after they do what they think is so important. He doesn't want truth, but consequences. 

Wilder showed us how a couple of psychologically shallow people betray, cheat and murder, but he fascinated us by revealing the repercussions of their acts.

He also made sure Phyllis and Walter didn't come across as one-dimensional by such techniques as:

 Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, confessing into Dictaphone (Image is in public domain)

Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, confessing into Dictaphone (Image is in public domain)

  • A nasty spin on dialogue. Don't forget we have Chandler co-writing this story, and if anybody can write cynical, sharp, memorable dialogue, it's Chandler. Roger Ebert wrote: "Chandler turned up drunk, smoked a smelly pipe, didn't know anything about screenplay construction, but could put a nasty spin on dialogue."
     
  • High stakes conflict of emotions. This film pits the fixation of passion versus the enticement of evil.  
     
  • The probing of human weaknesses. Neff and Dietrichson are driven by the dark side of their weaknesses: greed, desire, even helplessness.

Other Articles About Billy Wilder and Double Indemnity

The Paris Review: "Billy Wilder, the Art of Screenwriting No. 1"

An Analysis of Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity" by Kathryn Blakeney

10 Tips from Billy Wilder on How to Write a Good ScreenPlay (Open Culture)

All rights reserved by Colleen Collins. Any use of the content (including images owned by Colleen Collins) requires specific, written authority. Please do not copy/distribute any images noted as copyrighted or licensed. Images noted as in the public domain are copyright-free and yours to steal.