Hidden Gem: ‘And Justice for All’ (1979)


Photo Courtesy of IMDB

Al Pachino and Christine Lahti star in the movie “And Justice for All”. The movie was released on the 19 of Oct. in 1979.

By Syd Slobodnik, staff writer

Most filmgoers know that Al Pacino has been one of the finest screen actors for nearly the past 50 years.  Since the 1970s, he has been nominated for Oscars nine times and won the 1992 best actor award for “Scent of a Woman.”

While many would agree his finest performances were achieved in his early outings like “Godfather I and II,” “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” fewer seem to remember him in Norman Jewison’s 1979 satire on the Baltimore legal system called “And Justice for All.” Using an original screenplay by Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson, the film tells the hilarious story of an idealistic lawyer Arthur Kirkland who has dedicated 12 years in his profession.  

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Biographer William Schoell calls Pacino’s Oscar-nominated performance as Kirkland “one of his most winning performances, with the actor at his most assured, confident and charismatic.” He adds that, while humor isn’t always Pacino’s forte, he is very funny in many key scenes.  

In one situation, a fight breaks out in one early court scene as Judge Francis Rayford (Jack Warden) enters with a sidearm under his robe. When the court doesn’t come to order, he pulls out his pistol and shoots into the air, demanding order in his courtroom. Days later, the same judge takes Arthur for a reckless helicopter ride for Sunday afternoon’s recreation. The erratic judge tempts fate by calculating just enough fuel for an undetermined joy ride so he can come back safely, but sometimes he underestimates.  With Arthur aboard, they land 90 feet short of the helipad crashing into the shallow bay nearby.  

For the most part, Pacino plays Arthur seriously, lashing out at the hypocrisies and the legal bureaucracy. His clients include whiplash victims, a cross-dresser charged with armed robbery, an amnesia victim and many accused of aggravated assaults. Arthur is divorced but has begun seeing Gail Packer (Christine Lahti). She is a member of the police ethics board overseeing his assault charges on Judge Henry Fleming.   

The ever-versatile Canadian-born Jewison was always willing to try new things and take chances exploring different genres. While he never seemed to get the respect other directors of his age got, he often directed entertaining Oscar-caliber films like “In the Heat of the Night,” “Moonstruck,” “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”

While the satire of “And Justice for All” may not reach the potent strength of Paddy Chayefsky’s scripts for “The Hospital” or “Network,” this Oscar-nominated screenplay contains some very humorous situations and social commentary. We are first introduced to attorney Kirkland as he sits in Baltimore City police lockup with a slew of petty criminals after being charged with contempt of court and taking a swing at Judge Fleming (John Forsythe). Corruption at various levels of local society is explored cynically.  When Arthur visits his beloved grandfather Sam (Lee Strasberg) in a retirement home, he asks Arthur, “Are you an honest lawyer?” Arthur replies, “Being honest doesn’t have much to do with being a lawyer.” 

One day Arthur’s law partner Jay (Jeffrey Tambor) informs him that Judge Fleming was suddenly taken from the court and arrested.  He was charged with the sexual assault and brutal rape of a young city hall worker whom he had dated a couple of times. What is even more astonishing is that Fleming has requested that Arthur defend him. This political move is made knowing that even though Arthur despises Fleming, the court will note as his defense attorney he must certainly believe in his client’s innocence. But when two of Arthur’s clients die in prison and the Fleming case complexities add up, Arthur is near meltdown. 

“And Justice for All” also contains an outstanding blend of all-star supporting cast with old veterans, like Forsythe, Warden, Strasberg and Sam Levene, as well as newcomers like Lahti (making her feature film debut) and Craig T. Nelson. 

So if you enjoy “And Justice for All,” note that the now 81-year-old Pacino will soon be seen in a new courtroom drama to be released later this month, as World War II-era defense attorney James Laughlin, in the true story “American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally.”