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Film / Reversal of Fortune

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Alan Dershowitz: You are a very strange man.
Claus Von Bulow: You have no idea.

Reversal of Fortune is a 1990 drama Based on a True Story, directed by Barbet Schroeder.

It's about Claus von Bulow (Jeremy Irons), a British aristocrat of Danish-German extraction living in Rhode Island at the time, who was tried and convicted of attempting to kill his wife Sunny (Glenn Close) by injecting her with insulin, which put her into a coma. Von Bulow, who maintained his innocence throughout, hired law professor/lawyer Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver), who successfully appealed the verdict.

The film was very well reviewed when it came out, and Irons won an Academy Award for his performance (the film itself received two other nominations for Best Director and Adapted Screenplay).

This film contains examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: While the book the movie is based on (written by Dershowitz) covers both the appeal and the second trial (where Von Bulow was found not guilty), the movie concentrates only on the appeal, some names were changed, and some details were compressed (as well as invented), but overall, it's pretty faithful to what happened during the appeal process.
  • Affably Evil: Klaus. Possibly. Whether he's actually guilty or not is never revealed but being played by Jeremy Irons means he's got plenty of charisma and sinister charm that make him impossible not to enjoy.
  • The Alcoholic: Sunny.
  • All Men Are Perverts: Von Bulow sees a lot of other women, which is discussed by members of Dershowitz's legal team:
    Sarah: He (Von Bulow) had a gorgeous mistress and he went with an ugly whore?
    Raj: You know, there are some things even mistresses won't do.
    Alan Dershowitz: Like what?
    Raj: I am not telling.
  • Ambiguously Evil: Claus. Pretty much everyone, including Dershowitz, thinks he's guilty but Jeremy Irons plays him with just the right mix of charisma and sinister wit that you're left wondering if his claims of innocence are genuine or just another manipulation tactic.
  • Army of Lawyers: In Dershowitz's case, an army of current and former law students, a couple of colleagues, and a former prosecutor. Justified in that overturning the conviction means attacking the evidence in detail and figuring out a precedent to do so, and he can't do it alone.
    • Avengers Assemble: There's a brief Montage where we see Dershowitz calling on those colleagues and former students, telling them why he needs them (the prosecutor because he's better than the D.A. who tried Von Bulow, one of the colleagues because he knows the State Supreme Court, the former students because they're great at assimilating details).
  • Big Applesauce: Since Von Bulow lived in New York City during the appeal, a good portion of the movie takes place there.
  • Crusading Lawyer: The other case Dershowitz is dealing with in the movie is of two African-Americans on death row for a crime he believes them innocent of, and he's working that case pro bono. In real life, the boys were white, but the trope is better served with the crusader saving poor oppressed minorities rail-roaded by the justice system. The movie doesn't mention that alongside their father they busted an unrelated convicted murder out of prison, and that the escapees killed not 2 people but 6.
  • Driven to Suicide: Claus may or may not have been trying to do this to Sunny, depending on whether you think, for instance, that he deliberately left all of his love letters to Alexandra lying around for her to read. He denies this, of course.
    Sunny: How could you leave me there alone with all those beautiful letters?
    • Sunny is actually annoyed that Claus prevented her first attempt.
      Sunny: I would have been better off. You would have been better off.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Dershowitz gets one of these during a pick-up basketball game, when he realizes what Sunny's maid said about the insulin she found wasn't what he thought it meant at first.note 
    Maid: Insulin? For what, insulin? My lady is not diabetic!
  • Face Framed in Shadow: The iconic moment of the film.
    Dershowitz: You're a very strange man.
    von Bulow: (face half hidden in limo) You have no idea.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: When it's realized that Sunny's children framed Claus, Minnie exclaims that means Claus is innocent. Alan and Raj reply that they could have simply framed a guilty man.
  • Gallows Humor: Claus Von Bulow is fond of telling jokes about his alleged crime ("What do you give a wife that has everything? A shot of insulin." "How do you call a fear of insulin? Claus-trophobia."). Also, at the end of the movie, Claus goes into a drugstore to buy something, and when the cashier notices his face on the front page of a newspaper, Claus adds he'd also like a shot of insulin, before admitting he was just kidding about the last part.
  • Good Lawyers, Good Clients: Averted with Von Bulow; Dershowitz doesn't care about Von Bulow's guilt or innocence (though he does care about the constitutional principle involved; see "The Reason You Suck" Speech below), and he knows clients always lie to their lawyers, so he doesn't want to hear Von Bulow's claims of innocence. Not only that, but Dershowitz becomes freaked out when it looks like he'll have to present his case as if Von Bulow was innocent. Finally, Dershowitz and the others on his team believe at the end while Von Bulow might have been legally innocent of the crime - certainly, they see enough reasonable doubt - he was at the very least morally guilty.
    • Played straight with the two African-American kids he's defending; however, Dershowitz does explain most clients are guilty, and lawyers pray for a client who's actually innocent.
    • Subverted with the dream he tells his son Elon about:
    Alan: Reminds me of my Hitler dream. You know, Hitler calls up, he's alive... needs a lawyer. I say, "Sure, come on over." Then I have to decide: do I take the case, or do I kill him?
    Elon: You? No question.
    Alan: I would take the case.
    Elon, Alan: (in unison) Then kill him.
  • Idle Rich: Invoked by Alan on Claus and Sunny's marriage, saying that a good marriage takes work, and those people don't like to work. Strictly speaking, Claus is an aversion; he works for oil magnate J. Paul Getty and is seen managing mundane business tasks like accounting in a few scenes. He and Sunny certainly live the extravagant lifestyle associated with this trope, though.
  • Imagine Spot: Alan and Sarah each give their own take on what really happened - Alan weakly explaining how Claus could have been innocent, Sarah giving a stronger scenario with Claus culpable.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: When Claus first meets Alan, he tells the lawyer that "My rights have been egregiously violated!" Considering that he's walking free while appealing his conviction, his comment initially seems preposterous, especially since Alan is defending two poor murder suspects on death row. But Alan realizes that Claus isn't wrong; Sunny's family has hired both a private prosecutor and a detective to perform illegal searches to convict Claus, which gives him a strong hook for his defense strategy.
  • Laughing Mad: Sunny, when she brings up whether she was put in a coma by Claus or not, laughs madly, then invites viewers to enjoy the circus trial.
  • Murder by Inaction: Sarah's scenario of how Claus killed Sunny is that he noticed she was in yet another drug overdose, and instead of helping, opened the windows wide during winter and let the freezing cold finish her off as he walked the dogs.
  • Parental Favoritism: Claus' youngest daughter is his favorite, and the only one of his children (or step-children) who believes his innocence.
  • Posthumous Narration: Well, narration while in a coma, but it amounts to the same thing.
    • In real life, Sunny never woke up from her coma, and died in 2008 after being in a coma for 28 years.
  • "Rashomon"-Style: We see events happening from the maid's point of view, from Sunny's children's point of view, and from Claus' point of view. As Sunny herself says in the narration, no one will ever really know what happened, now that Claus himself passed away in 2019.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: When Dershowitz is telling his former students about working on Von Bulow's case, one of them, Minnie (Felicity Huffman) becomes outraged. She's offended Dershowitz would even consider the case because Von Bulow's so obviously guilty. This is how Dershowitz responds:
    Alan Dershowitz: Look, you're my student, you, you have a choice. You don't have to do anything you don't want to do; that is your choice. The reason I take cases - and here, I'm unlike most other lawyers, who are not professors and therefore have to make a living - I take cases 'cause I get pissed off, and I am pissed off here. The family hired a private prosecutor: unacceptable! They conducted a private search! Now if we let them get away with that, rich people won't go to the cops any more. You know what they're going to do? They're going to get their own lawyers to collect evidence, and then they are going to choose which evidence they feel like passing on to the DA. And the next victim isn't going to be rich, like Von Bülow, but it's going to be some poor schnook in Detroit who can't afford, or who can't find, a decent lawyer. (Beat) I think it's a little more complicated than your simple moral superiority, no?
    • He later gives a short one to von Bulow himself.
      Alan Dershowitz: One thing, Claus. Legally, this was an important victory. Morally - you're on your own.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Wheter Claus really did the deed or not is never revealed. Given that both Sunny and Claus have since passed away, it's unlikely we ever will know either.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: This is the foundation of Dershowitz's defense and how he convinces others to join. He has no doubt whatsoever that Claus is guilty and never disagrees when others say it but the prosecution broke numerous laws of trial conduct and sets a frightening precedent for other cases of prosecutors acting in a similar way and saying it won't be a rich aristocrat like Claus who suffers next time.
  • Shout-Out: Von Bulow's children are watching The Crimson Pirate at one point.
    • While driving him to see David Marriot, Sarah asks Dershowitz if he thinks he's Perry Mason.
  • The Stoic: Von Bulow is extremely emotionally reserved, to the point where he often seems callous and uncaring to others. Flashbacks to his marriage make it clear that it's not a front or (in and of itself) anything sinister; Claus just isn't very good at expressing his emotions. Which doesn't stop Dershowitz from calling him out on this a few times.
    Alan Dershowitz: (after Von Bulow calls Sunny's second coma "more theatrical" when the team asks him about it) Theatrical? What is this, a fucking game? This is life and death; your wife is in a coma. You, you don't even make a pretense of caring, do you?
    Claus Von Bulow: 'Course I care, Alan. It's just, I don't wear my heart on my sleeve.
  • Stopped Caring: Sunny, because she's dead. Instead, she laughs about the circus her death caused.
  • Sycophantic Servant: Claus believes Maria, Sunny's maid, is this.
  • Teacher/Student Romance: It's implied the relationship between Dershowitz and Sarah was like this before, though they're trying to keep things on a professional level here.
  • The Unreveal: The film never reveals if Claus really did poison Sunny or not.
  • What You Are in the Dark:
    Alan: One thing, Claus. Legally, this was an important victory. Morally - you're on your own.
  • Wicked Stepmother: Intially, this was averted as Claus got along very well with Sunny's kids from her previous marriage and his own daughter was welcomed into the family, coming to see them as her siblings. But it was played straight after Sunny's coma where her kids maintain, not unjustifiably, that Claus is responsible.