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The Firm Review

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by Casimir Harlow Dec 4, 2011 at 2:12 PM

    The Firm Review

    The word ‘unputdownable’ has somehow made it into common usage, and is now a frequent label for any new bestseller, but I cannot think of a better word to describe John Grisham’s now twenty-year-old sophomore success, The Firm. Barely a teenager, it was passed down by recommendation from my Uncle, and I devoured it faster than anything else I had ever read (or, thus far, have read since). Certainly my chosen profession was massively influenced by it, and by the subsequent movie, made in 1993 not long after I had read the book.

    The story follows a young hotshot law student, Mitch McDeere, who is about to graduate from Harvard Law School, and is accepting competitive bids for his first job. Made an offer over and above anybody else’s – a offer he cannot refuse – Mitch takes a place at Bendini, Lambert & Locke, a small Memphis Firm who believe in loyalty and ‘family’. Moving down to Memphis with his beloved wife Abby, Mitch gradually becomes aware that there is something not quite right about ‘the Firm’, and when two partners in the company die in mysterious circumstances, the FBI come to pay him a visit and further fuel his growing doubts, telling him a tale about the firm having ties to the Mafia, and putting pressure on him to give evidence against them through intimate knowledge that could only be revealed through breaking attorney-client privilege. With the firm’s claws deep into his and Abby’s lives – they own the house and they bought the car; they also installed the phones and ensured the house is bugged – and their futures, and even their very lives on the line, Mitch has to use everything he has ever learnt both on the streets and in law school to stay one step ahead of the corrupt firm, the manipulative FBI and the deadly Mafia.

    “Let me get this straight: you want me to steal files from the firm, turn them over to the FBI, send my colleagues to jail... Breach attorney-client privilege, thus getting myself disbarred for life, then testify in open court against the Mafia... Let me ask you something: are you out of your f**king mind?”

    The Firm was a massive bestseller, catapulting John Grisham into, at the time, the big leagues. Indeed, Grisham is still one of only three authors whose first pressings have exceeding 2 Million in sales (the other two being Tom ‘Hunt for Red October’ Clancy and J.K. ‘Harry Potter’ Rowling). Although not his first book – that was the reasonably successful A Time To Kill, in my opinion his only almost comparably excellent work – it was The Firm that put Grisham’s name on the map, and also the one that set the mould for many of his novels from then on. The Pelican Brief followed suit, attempting to tell a different story to The Firm, but essentially feeling like the same tale of a young hotshot lawyer out of their depth and up against the odds with corrupt authorities and deadly mafia hitmen on their tail, all as a result of them finding out secrets that they weren’t supposed to find out. The only (in)significant difference was the lead character’s change from male to female. Against the odds tales pitching underdogs against heavy-hitters would follow suit in the somewhat underwhelming The Client, the fairly involving death-penalty fare, The Chamber, and the return to young-lawyer-versus-the-world in The Rainmaker (although both that – which was a shameful rip-off of the Paul Newman thriller The Verdict – and his subsequent The Runaway Jury were, in many ways, reasonably successful attempts at doing something slightly different). Having read and enjoyed them all, there’s no doubt in my mind that Grisham was at his freshest and most striking with his first two works.

    After the bestselling success of The Firm (in 1991) and The Pelican Brief (in 1992), almost back-to-back productions were done for film adaptations of both, with A-list stars Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts in the respective leading roles. Ultimately, both were released in 1993, and both proved to be highly successful. After the success of these productions – and with the books still going strong – the 1993 novel The Client was adapted in 1994, with Susan Sarandon, and then, eventually, in 1996, they returned to Grisham’s debut novel, the underrated A Time to Kill, to give us an equally underrated adaptation starring Matthew McConaughey (who would later return to the legal field he so clearly suits in The Lincoln Lawyer, based on one of a series of books by Grisham contemporary, Michael Connelly). Steadily decreasing successes, however, saw a distinct tailing-off of film productions – perhaps Studios were worried that audiences would feel overwhelmed by getting a different legal thriller every year – and, indeed, over the last decade we have only had one Grisham film adaptation, Runaway Jury, and even then that was back in 2003 (in the preceding decade we got no less than seven Grisham films).

    However back in 1993, the lawyer-turned-novelist could do no wrong, and his breakthrough tale of a working-class-background Harvard graduate who discovers that the prestigious new law firm that he has joined actually has ties with the mob will likely be remembered more so than any other story.

    The late, great Director (and sometimes supporting actor) Sydney Pollack was not averse to tales of legal injustice; to this kind of thriller-drama – both his Robert Redford vehicle Three Days of the Condor (1975) and his Paul Newman drama Absence of Malice (1981) had explored the notion of ‘one man waging a political war against overwhelming odds’ – but with The Firm he managed to efficiently blend an almost epic tale (the film was over two-and-a-half-hours long) with intelligent twists and genuine thrills. It was one of his most fast-paced efforts, and yet he cleverly allowed the first hour to play out quite slowly, taking his time to thoroughly establish the key players so that you then had a genuine interest in their subsequent plight.

    “Are you saying my life is in danger?”
    “I am saying that your life as you know it is over.”

    Of course it helped no end that Tom Cruise was signed up to play the lead character, Mitch McDeere. Cruise was prime property back then, arguably the A-list star, and was clearly looking to do increasingly serious productions – more R-Rated fares and less cheesy Days of Thunder / Cocktail-style cheese-vehicles. He must have been disappointed that he didn’t quite get the Oscar for his tremendous performance in Born on the Fourth of July, and that Far and Away did not get better acclaim. Thankfully he had already broken into the legal thriller realm with 1992’s A Few Good Men, where he famously stood his own (“You can’t handle the truth!”) against Jack Nicholson, so the groundwork was already laid for The Firm.

    Honestly, I think that he was a great choice for McDeere. Whilst totally at home playing the young cocksure hotshot graduate, he is also superb in the more stressful moments where it looks like the whole world is against him and he is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and he brought unparalleled intensity to the action sequences as well; the Director, Sydney Pollack, commenting that he had never see an actor run that fast – like a jack-rabbit. Despite his star power, it certainly lent weight to the production to have some bigger players on-board to support Cruise, and The Firm actually turned out to have a series of acclaimed supporting performances that are often better remembered than that of the lead himself.

    Veteran character actor Gene Hackman – who would go on to feature in two further Grisham adaptations: The Chamber and Runaway Jury – brought so much to such a relatively insignificant part (certainly it was almost irrelevant in terms of the novel’s narrative) as Mitch’s mentor at the firm, a man who had long since been corrupted by the same tactics that the company were now employing on Mitch. Hackman, against the odds, managed to actually make the character remarkably sympathetic, in one heartfelt moment explaining to Mitch’s wife why he flagrantly cheats on his wife and yet, somehow, in the very same sentence, coming across as the victim.

    “Why do you fool around?”
    “I think it’s because my wife understands me. The fact is: I love my wife. And she’s...well I guess she’s just lost interest in me. I know I have. And I haven’t cared for anyone since.”

    Ed Harris (The Abyss, The Rock) also gets a juicy part as the vociferous FBI Agent who is hounding Mitch to testify against the firm and the Mafia, his shiny shaved bald head and glasses lending him a particularly distinctive look in what would be yet another memorable supporting role in the film. David Strathairn (Sneakers, Good Night and Good Luck) would also prove to be endearing as Mitch’s elder brother, and Holly Hunter would earn her second Oscar Nomination in the same year (winning Best Actress for The Piano) for just a few minutes of extended cameo as a kooky secretary. Gary Busey (Lethal Weapon, Point Break) also had a surprisingly effective cameo, energetic eccentricities abounding as a passionately enthusiastic private detective.

    And although Jeanne Tripplehorn’s earlier supporting role in 1992’s Basic Instinct would overshadow her performance in The Firm (and indeed probably overshadow her entire career – the only other film I remember seeing her in is Costner’s 1995 Mad-Max-on-water, Waterworld), she still does well in the role of Mitch’s beleaguered wife.

    “I've loved you all my life. Even before we met. Part of it wasn't even you. It was just a promise of you. But these last days... You kept your promise.”

    In terms of outright villains, The Firm was peppered with memorable villains from times passed: Hal Holbrook (the corrupt chief of police in the first Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry sequel, the remarkably effective Magnum Force) makes for a great senior partner in the firm; Saw franchise mainstay, Tobin Bell, plays one of the firm’s more distinctive contract killers; and Wilford Brimley (the excellent cameo actor who director Pollack used to comparable effect in Absence of Malice) makes for a bulldog of an opponent as the firm’s ‘head of security’ – “You've got nothing to be suspicious about.” / “I get paid to be suspicious when I've got nothing to be suspicious about.” Indeed almost every actor, no matter how small their part, gets at least one or two absolutely great lines.

    Pollack also used many of his regular collaborators, behind-the-scenes, to bring the production to life: the father-son partnership of Fredric and William Steinkamp on-board for the editing (indeed, they edited pretty-much all of Pollack’s films) and John Seale would return to score the piece (having also done most of Pollakc’s film scores). Seale was a bit of a mixed-bag composer, often quite predisposed towards piano-dominated compositions, and also fairly classically-influences – resulting in some very dated scores (Absence of Malice) and some remarkably effective scores, like that for The Firm, which, despite being almost entirely piano-work, manages to efficiently traverse action, drama, tension, playfulness, mystery, tragedy and ambition (its only miscue appears to be with the early-on romantic interludes, which sound terribly dated – even though the very same musical cues work so much more effectively at the very end of the movie).

    Less regular collaborators would bring their own acclaimed talents to bear: John ‘Rain Man’ Seale would do the cinematography, utilising some excellent settings, particularly for one of the tense foot-chase scenes in the final act; and Robert ‘Chinatown’ Towne would also makes some serious changes to the screenplay – and to surprisingly great effect.

    (For those who have somehow read this far despite never having seen the movie, hopefully enough has been said to sell you on picking the title up – and this is just a warning that I now venture into spoiler territory)

    Grisham’s original novel was surprisingly devoid of legal impact or, indeed, legal legitimacy. Whilst I’m not expert at US Law, it would seem likely to follow the logic of UK Law in the notion that there is no such thing as ‘attorney-client privilege’ when it comes to knowledge of crimes which are currently being committed (or that will be committed in the future). Thus the whole notion of McDeere being afraid of being disbarred for testifying against the firm does not necessarily hold up) although it is just about strong enough to suspend disbelief over in the movie). Interestingly, however, the novel does not focus too much on this; instead it has McDeere steal the Mafia files, steal $10 Million from the firm, provide the relevant evidence to the FBI (knowing that he will, apparently, be disbarred) and escape to the Caribbean.

    “What’s going to happen? What will they do to you?”
    “Whatever it is, they did it a long time ago.”

    Robert Towne’s excellent screenplay took things in a different direction – and a much more legally satisfying one: rather than risk being disbarred, McDeere chooses to steal the Mafia files only for personal security (in case anything happens to him they will be sent to the authorities), and helps the FBI go after just the firm itself, using overbilling as the grounds for prosecution. As Cruise’s McDeere remarks: “it’s not sexy, but it’s got teeth!”, as, with this evidence of overbilling, they can indict the firm under racketeering legislation and send them all to prison for a long time. Openly paying tribute to the real life fate of Al Capone himself (caught for tax evasion), Towne’s screenplay ending was, in my opinion, a great ending for a legal thriller.

    Indeed, the overbilling theme – which was barely mentioned in the novel – would turn out to have a massive impact in the real legal world in the late nineties. Overbilling was, of course, a very real issue – albeit one which had been going on for so long that pretty-much everybody took it for granted: clients assumed legal fees were high, and trainee lawyers would be taught at an early stage about meeting billing targets and basically billing for anything. Indeed new lawyers were taught exactly what was stated in the film:

    “It’s all about billing. Billing includes how long you spend thinking about a client. I don't care if you're in traffic, or shaving, or sitting in a park.”

    The trouble was that the popularity of The Firm – the movie – suddenly put a spotlight on the sensitive subject of overbilling and, gradually, over the next decade, huge legal bills were slowly eradicated in favour of more and more fixed fee arrangements. Again, I can only vouch for this plight in the UK legal world, but I suspect there may have been a similar effect in the States, and I find it ironic that the overbilling theme, which had an actual effect on the real world, was not one which emanated from Grisham’s undoubtedly great original source novel. I guess sometimes changes can be for the best.

    Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed both the novel and the film, even if they did take different paths at the end: both have the same fiery legal spirit – telling a tale of an underdog battling the odds against powerful, corrupt forces that surround him. It’s certainly a good Cruise vehicle, with an excellent supporting cast, some memorable performances and great quotes – and it’s also quite a pacy thriller, despite the protracted setup, relying on clever twists and well-staged setpieces to ramp up the tension with very little need for guns and absolutely no need for explosions (almost unheard of when it comes to such big blockbuster thrillers). Ultimately it is my favourite adaptation of a Grisham novel, and, of course, my favourite Grisham novel.

    The Firm also looks like the one that is most likely to stand the test of time. Although there is, purportedly, a new production being planned for The Last Juror, one of Grisham’s latest books, renewed interest in his breakthrough sophomore novel and characters has seen a 2012 TV series of The Firm commissioned starring Josh ‘Stealth’ Lucas as Mitch McDeere. The narrative is supposed to pick up ten years down the line from the end of the movie/book, although it is difficult to tell which ending they went with since there is talk of McDeere being in witness protection (which is not part of either the novel’s or the movie’s endings). Indeed, the film vaguely suggested the possibility for a sequel – where the book did not – as McDeere’s final exchange with FBI Agent Tarrance explains:

    “There are hundreds of other Bendini Lamberts out there, how are you gonna’ get them all?”
    “One at a time.”

    This would seem to imply that McDeere was on a mission to go after every corrupt firm that he came across, although it’s probably just a slip in the script, as his very next line is “I’m a lawyer; I got mine. You’re the cop; you get the rest” which immediately contradicts the preceding statement. Either way, news of a new sequel/TV series has certainly piqued my interest, and fans of The Firm will hopefully be similarly intrigued.

    If you fondly remember The Firm and would quite like to be reminded of its effectiveness as a superior legal thriller, then now is definitely the time to revisit it. Amidst the all-time greats of the legal thriller sub-genre, including Clooney’s powerful Michael Clayton, the underrated Richard Gere-Edward Norton vehicle Primal Fear, Harrison Ford’s Presumed Innocent and the aforementioned other Cruise legal drama, A Few Good Men – as well as all-time classics To Kill a Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men (which I am looking at next) and Anatomy of a Murder – sits Pollack’s The Firm, a superb blend of informed legal corruption and atypical Hollywood justice all wrapped up in a thoroughly thrilling package. Recommended.

    “You want to know something funny? You actually made me think about the law. I managed to go through three years of law school without doing that.”