Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Reversal of Fortune (1990)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Reversal of Fortune (1990, US/Jp./UK)

In director Barbet Schroeder's semi-fictionalized crime procedural based on Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz's 1985 non-fiction book titled Reversal of Fortune: Inside the von Bülow Case, about the 45 days of preparation for the murder re-trial of a Newport, Rhode Island socialite's husband - the tagline: "The Case of Claus Von Bulow. An American Saga of Money and Mystery"

  • the startling opening scene, narrated (off-screen by the disembodied person) by the comatose, brain-dead American heiress-wife Sunny von Bulow (Glenn Close) as she recounted events (in flashback) leading up to her vegetative condition; her first words were: "This was my body"
  • Sunny then went on to explain how there were two attempted murder instances - the second led to her permanent comatose condition: "On December 27, 1979, I lay in bed all day. Whether I was asleep or in a coma later became a subject of dispute. When my breathing became obstructed, my husband, Claus von Bulow, finally did as my maid had been urging all day: he summoned a physician. I stopped breathing. My heart stopped beating. By this time, I was certainly in a deep coma from which I awoke several hours later. By the next morning, I was myself again....This first coma aroused suspicion and fear in the minds of my personal maid Maria, my son Alex, and my elder daughter Ala. From this time on, though they never voiced their suspicions to me, they kept a vigilant eye on Claus. A year later, just before Christmas, their darkest fears seemed justified....My husband did not want our daughter Cosima to see what he had found, so he motioned to his stepson Alex. Second coma. My pulse was 38, my temperature 81.6 degrees...All this activity was pointless. I never woke from this coma, and I never will. I am what doctors call 'persistent vegetative', a vegetable. According to medical experts, I could stay like this for a very long time, brain-dead, body better than ever..."
Sunny's Second Coma -
Resulting in a Permanent Vegetative State
  • acc. to continuing voice-over from Sunny von Bulow, her two children from her earlier marriage, Alex (Jad Mager) and Ala von Auersberg (Sarah Fearon), hired Robert Brillhoffer (Thomas Dorff), a former Manhattan district attorney, to investigate the case - finding out that "the hospital lab reported that my blood insulin on admission was 14 times normal, a level almost surely caused by injection. Insulin injection could readily cause coma - or death...Now they felt they had the murder weapon. All they lacked was the motive" - in the meantime, Claus von Bulow (Best Actor Oscar-winning Jeremy Irons) was vacationing with his mistress, the very beautiful daytime soap-opera actress, Alexandra Isles (Julie Hagerty), and von Bulow stood to inherit 14 million from his deceased wife
  • two guilty judgments were made against von Bulow on March 16, 1982, for attempting to murder his wife with two injections of a lethal overdose of insulin (on two different occasions: on December 27, 1979 and on December 21, 1980), and was sentenced to 30 years, but was out on bail; Sunny von Bulow described the reason for the film's title: "You are about to see how Claus von Bulow sought to reverse or escape from that jury's verdict"
  • the "proper lunch" meeting scene at a posh restaurant (Delmonico's) where the dissolute, cryptic, social-climbing, condescending, upper-class aristocrat Claus von Bulow spoke with driven Harvard defense lawyer/attorney Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver), a liberal Jew; the imperious von Bulow noted how the trial ("the unpleasantness") had elevated his seating status in the restaurant: "When I married Sunny, she was the most beautiful divorce in the world, and one of the wealthiest. Even so, we never got this table...Now, after all this unpleasantness, I always get the best table"
First Lunch Meeting: Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver)
with Claus von Bulow
  • the callous Claus von Bulow negotiated with Dershowitz to represent him in court - to serve as his retrial-appeal attorney in the high profile case - to overturn his two convictions for attempted murder of his extremely wealthy wife with an injection of a lethal overdose of insulin (although she was not diabetic); Dershowitz mentioned that contrary to von Bulow's professed 'innocence,' he had two other clients (poor black boys, the Johnson Brothers) who were truly innocent, but accused of capital murder: "I've got two black kids facing the electric chair for a crime they did not commit. They are innocent"; and then, Dershowitz bluntly admitted that most of the public disliked the haughty von Bulow and universally thought he was guilty: "You do have one thing in your favor. Everybody hates you"
  • while deciding to take the case, Dershowitz recruited and convinced many of his ex-law students, including his pretty ex-girlfriend Sarah (Annabella Sciorra), to assist him in the case - she insisted he keep it "strictly professional"
  • there were further meetings between Dershowitz and von Bulow in his study, where von Bulow asserted that he wanted the best people representing him, no matter what incriminating evidence they might find, vowing: "I'm not afraid, Alan. Let the chips fall where they may"; Dershowitz responded: "That's what an innocent man would say"; however, he kept insisting that von Bulow not divulge too many details that would hinder his defense case: "Can I explain something? The less I know from you, the more options I have. When you tell me 'the truth', you limit me to a defense that fits with what you say"; von Bulow kept insisting that he "did nothing"
  • the scene of Dershowitz's meeting with his contingent of law students where he explained their largest hurdle was that most people thought von Bulow was "guilty" - he affirmed: "Total victory, or we are dead in the water"; after asking for any opinions, law student Minnie (Felicity Huffman) stepped forward and argued about the idea of defending someone so obviously guilty: "I think this whole thing stinks. I think Claus von Bulow stinks. He's obviously guilty of something pretty despicable, and, if we free him, we become partners in his crime, accessories after the fact...why help guilty people get off?"; she challenged her fellow students to walk out with her and not serve on the case, although Dershowitz countered by arguing: "If lawyers only defended the innocent, there'd be just ten lawyers in the country...It's the basis of the whole legal system! Everyone gets a defense! So the system is there for the one innocent person who was falsely accused"
  • during Dershowitz's investigation into various possible witnesses, he met with David Marriott (Fisher Stevens), a disreputable individual who could testify that he knew of numerous package deliveries to Alex (Sunny's son) in the summer of '77 of "needles, syringes, white powder, nice selection of pills, Demerol, like a drugstore" - Dershowitz was wary of using him as a witness: "You traffic with drug dealers and drag queens, you have a part-time job, you ride around in rented limos. All in all, I would have to say you're probably the least impressive witness I've ever seen"; Marriott replied to the rejection: "You think I'm scum, don't you?"
  • there were efforts to smear Sunny, implicating her as abusively addicted to drugs and alcoholic who wished to lose weight by injecting herself with insulin, and that she was deeply unhappy, suicidal and depressed (and overdosed on aspirin) about her loveless marriage; there were suspicions that Claus was framed by his own children for killing their mother; however, Claus had his own issues - a rumor that he killed his own mother in England, and that he had injected Sunny with insulin so that he could have his way with her; Dershowitz stated point blank to Claus (with lover Andrea Reynolds (Christine Baranski) by his side): "What really happened. Who you are"
  • Sunny also provided another narrated flashback, implicating her own self-abusive and self-destructive behavior: "It's true that I took up to 24 laxatives daily, popped aspirin like M&M's, smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, had a problem with alcohol, took Valium and Seconal frequently and consumed large quantities of sweets, despite a medical condition, hypoglycemia, which made them hazardous. As for my state of mind, I had not had sex with my husband for years"
  • the sequence of the lengthy re-enacted flashback of Claus von Bulow's recollection of the events leading up to Sunny's first coma - at a time when von Bulow was involved with his "extracurricular" mistress Alexandra Isles; their marriage was disintegrating and they discussed the possiblity of divorce; after Sunny was revived, she asked why Claus had saved her: "Why did you do it? I would've been better off. You would've been better off"; after the second more permanent coma, Claus coldly affirmed to Dershowitz: "Of course I care, Alan. It's just I don't wear my heart on my sleeve...We can't all be you, Alan"
  • Dershowitz' contemptuous confession to Claus about the risk in taking his case: "This is the most dangerous case I ever worked on...The best way to win is to proclaim your innocence, and I have never done that for anybody. And the problem I got is I see who you are. You'd do anything to win...The more I believe that you are innocent, then more nervous I am. I go out on a limb for you, you're proven guilty, I look like an asshole. My reputation, my credibility, my career - destroyed...Well, f--k you. F--k you, man!"
  • the scene of Dershowitz' late-night meeting with some of his law students, when he debated with Sarah over defense strategy - and she asked: "You're debating me, personally. Why?...I thought this was professional"; he reacted vehemently: "You can make your argument better. Sarah. You know that! I know that! So why don't you just do it and cut all the bulls--t?"
  • the night before Sunny's second coma (in a second lengthy recollection by Claus), she argued violently with him about their awful marriage and challenged him to be a man, and not a coward who avoided confrontation: "Is your work really so fascinating? Or are you trying to drive me away? Because if you are, you're succeeding beautifully, because I don't want this. I didn't marry you for this. I could've had anybody. With my money? Anybody! Well? Say something! Do something! Be a man! I already have a butler. Do something! I don't want this! I don't! I don't want this! I don't - I don't want this!"; the next morning (after describing his early morning routine), he discovered her unconscious on the bathroom floor
  • at the end of his description to Dershowitz, as he stepped into his vehicle, Claus asserted: "I don't know the whole truth. I don't know what happened to her"; Dershowitz responded: "I wish I didn't believe you. You know, it's very hard to trust someone you don't understand. You're a very strange man"; Claus - with his face half-hidden in the back seat of his dark limousine (a brilliantly-shot exchange) responded: "You have no idea"
Claus: "I don't know the whole truth"
Dershowitz: "You're a very strange man"
Claus: "You have no idea"
  • in one of the few actual courtroom retrial-appeals scenes in the film (before the Supreme Court of Rhode Island), Dershowitz - without precedent - introduced 'new evidence' by referring to a ruling of the Presiding Judge himself: "Your Honors, you may not like Claus von Bulow. You may think he is guilty of something. But I am here to tell you he is innocent. Our new evidence -- " - he cited the presiding judge's own written case in Derek, and argued: "The only way to show a better theory is to present it" (the issue of the encrusted needle) - the judge and the prosecutor took the "bait"
  • a few other possible "far-fetched" versions of the "truth" were presented about the cause of her second coma ("Sunny wakes up miserable. Second marriage is over, children are leaving home. What's to live for?") - either Sunny took an overdose of drugs and passed out on the cold bathroom floor, or Claus in some way helped his wife's suicidal impulse to succeed; in any regard, the tantalizing film remained very ambiguous regarding Claus' guilt or innocence
  • due to uncovered irregularities, the revelation of Brillhoffer's notes, weak physical evidence from sloppy investigative work, faulty logic, and unreliable witnesses (especially star witness maid Maria), the case was decided 5-0 in favor of Dershowitz's team
  • the final scene - Dershowitz told von Bulow (with his mistress Alexandra) of his legal victory and acquittal in the appeals trial: ("It means that if there is a second trial, we can be reasonably confident - both the medical case and their witnesses are now highly suspect"), and then Dershowitz added pointedly: "Legally, this was an important victory. Morally, you're on your own"
  • from her comatose state, Sunny provided a final epilogue: "Claus von Bulow was given a second trial and acquitted on both counts. This is all you can know, all you can be told. When you get where I am, you will know the rest"
  • subtitles ended the film: "Claus von Bulow is still married to Sunny von Bulow. He is presently living and working in London. The Johnson brothers remain on death row. Sunny von Bulow has not spoken since she fell into her final coma. This film is based upon Alan Dershowitz's book Reversal Of Fortune and public records. Dialogue and certain events and characters contained in the film were created for the purposes of dramatization"
  • the darkly comic ending in a convenience store - Claus asked for two packs of cigarettes (Vantage) and a vial of insulin from a checkout girl (Constance Shulman) who recognized him from a NY tabloid cover news story - but then he added with a wink and smile: "Just kidding!"

First words: "This was my body"

Opening Scene: Sunny von Bulow (Glenn Close)

Unresponsive - CPR Performed

Sunny Revived After First Coma

DA Brillhoffer with Sunny's Two Children Investigating Their Mother's Case

Encrusted Needle with Insulin - the Suspected Murder Weapon

Claus with Mistress Alexandra

Claus Found Guilty on Two Counts of Murder

Lawyer Sarah (Annabella Sciorra)

Law student Minnie (Felicity Huffman): "I think this whole thing stinks!...Why help guilty people get off?"

Potential Witness David Marriott to Dershowitz: "You think I'm scum, don't you?"

von Bulow with Andrea Reynolds (Christine Baranski)

Sunny von Bulow (After the First Coma Episode)

Claus (coldly): "I don't wear my heart on my sleeve"

Dershowitz' Contempt for von Bulow

Confrontational Debate with Sarah

Sunny's Violent Argument with Claus the Night Before Second Coma

Trial: Dershowitz Introducing "New Evidence"

At Appeals Trial

von Bulow Informed of Legal Victory


Last Scene


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