Thursday, September 01, 2005

Reviews: 12 Angry Men (1957 & 1997)

In 1957, a young television director named Sidney Lumet was given a stage play to adapt for the screen that was to star a cross section of superior actors. This became 12 Angry Men, one of the finest films ever made. It's certainly one of my all time favorites, and is one of the few DVD's in my collection that I'm in danger of wearing out.

Lumet went on to director a number of other classics, including Dog Day Afternoon, Network and The Verdict. Flash forward forty years and we change from a young director whose best is yet to come to an older one whose best is a bit behind him. William Friedkin, famous for The French Connection and The Exorcist, was tapped to direct a new version of 12 Angry Men for the Showtime channel, this time updating the script and adding a lot more color to the cast.

I had fond memories of first watching this back in 1997. Having recently purchased a VHS copy and watched it again, I found that I still liked it, though there are some elements that are less admirable upon second viewing. In detailing these, I'm breaking down the films into the two dozen actors featured and comparing each pair that played the same role. So here we go. (Spoilers abound for those who haven't seen either version)

Juror #1 (Martin Balsam & Courtney B. Vance) - With #1, also known as the Foreman, we have a pair of very steadfast characters. Both are assistant coaches for High School Football and, though never mentioned, seem to be upstanding family men. Their patience is worn thin in both versions by the rudeness exhibited by #10, and they offers up their position as Foreman to him perhaps with the thinking that presiding over intelligent discourse is going to be rough going with some in this group.

Other than this exchange, the biggest moment for this character is a monologue concerning a cancelled football game to #8. The original simply uses this as some slight character development to flesh out #1 a bit more since he does very little arguing in the film. In the 1997 version, the story is lengthened to describe one player who remains on the bench in the rain. Vance strikes an emotional chord of hopelessness in his telling of this story, and perhaps is echoing his position as Foreman over some members of the jury.

Juror #2 (John Fiedler & Ossie Davis) - There was a tonal change with this casting. Though it is perhaps not the original's fault, #2 ended up being more of a comic character in the original. Fiedler, who recently passed away, will forever be known as the voice of Piglet in the "Winnie the Pooh" cartoons. Piglet's voice is not an affectation either, but rather Fiedler's own. So when we hear this voice amongst the chorus of jurors in the midst of deliberations, we cannot help but smile a little. Other than this detail, Fiedler effectively plays the role of the wimpy little guy that nobody listens to.

The also recently deceased Davis, on the other hand, plays the role more as the "easily dismissed old man", which is the role ostensibly for #9. Of course, Davis is over forty years older in this film than Fiedler was in 1957, so one cannot help but notice the age difference when comparing the two. It should also be noted that Davis exhibits a timidity that Cronyn does not, so there is that distinction between the old timers. Yet as good as Davis is, I have to wonder how much better it would have been to keep the original character concept by casting, perhaps, "Mr. Cellophane" himself, John C. Reilly.

Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb & George C. Scott) - It seems that when it came to this pivotal character, the directors and actors had different opinions on how to approach him. In a stroke that seems to be drawn from the modern mentality that audiences need things spelled out for them, Scott's character is very vocal about his estrangement from his son in the beginning. Cobb, on the other hand, reveals this detail quietly in a conversation with #2. Director Lumet lets this information kind of float out and merge with all the other character development that is done in these small preliminary conversations before the first vote. Director Friedkin, on the other hand, emphasizes this moment as Scott bellows louder than Cobb. It is a strong declaration that practically screams at the audience "THIS WILL BE SIGNIFICANT LATER!".

The final moment for #3, and for the film, is handled much in the same way. Scott is a little over the top in his performance. Cobb, even while raging, is understated. So is Lumet, as we get a nice shot of the picture that falls on the table as Cobb empties his pockets of notes. He rips up the picture in anger and then is immediately regretful of his action. Friedkin decides not to emphasize the photograph, perhaps from fear that he would be accused of too closely following the original. I suppose it may be unfair to ask even greats such as Scott and Friedkin to match the power of Lumet and Cobb's work, but one cannot help but see their update as a pale imitation of the original.

Juror #4 (E. G. Marshall & Armin Mueller-Stahl) - The erudite businessman that is #4 has always been a favorite. Though he is one of the last to yield to #8's arguments, it's for all the right reasons. The other "Guilty" diehards such as #3 and #10 respect #4 while simultaneously not quite connecting with him. Mueller-Stahl's heavy accent reminds one of #11 in the original, but this aspect of the reimagined #4 never comes into play story-wise. As it is, Mueller-Stahl is highly effective in this role and easily the match of E.G. Marshall.

Juror #5 (Jack Klugman & Dorian Harewood) - Aside from #10, #5 is the only racial change of white to black that makes an impact on the proceedings (Indeed, the only time that #1 and #2's race are ever an issue in the newer version is when #10 prefaces an appeal to their sympathies with an emphatic "Brothers,"). In the original, Jack Klugman plays #5 as a quiet man of a lower economic class than the rest. Harewood, on the other hand, also plays a character of a lower economic class, but also has his race become an issue in terms of his confrontations with #10. Harewood brings a little more intensity to his role than Klugman exhibited, and does a lot for the tension at key moments in the film.

Juror #6 (Ed Binns & James Gandolfini) - A self described "workin' man", #6 is a blue collar stiff who is a decent guy and is willing to reprimand even the fiercest of other jury members when they are rude to #9. #6's defense of the old man immediately marks him as a sympathetic character. Binns and Gandolfini both play him well, though Gandolfini is given an extra scene with #10 which provides a nice humorous touch to the film.

#6 is notable for being given one of the more memorable and haunting lines in the script. The line is given to #8 during a casual conversation in the bathroom and remains the same in both versions:

Juror #6: "Well, I'm not used to supposin'. I'm just a workin' man. My boss does all the supposin' - but I'll try one. Supposin' you talk us all out of this and, uh, the kid really did knife his father?"
In both versions, it's the only argument by any of the other eleven jurors that give #8 pause. Our justice system is a flawed one, but it does work. One of the chief drawbacks is how reasonable doubt could send a killer loose. Though it is often said that it is better to let a killer go free than imprison an innocent man, the choice can be seen as a "lesser of two evils" problem. One can imagine that playwright Reginald Rose thought he would be remiss for not mentioning this fact, and it gets it's the attention it deserves in both versions.

Juror #7 (Jack Warden & Tony Danza) - Ladies and Gentleman, the textbook definition of "Jerk". This was more or less Mrs. Mosley's sentiment when we watched the remake recently and it holds true for both versions. Being at the head of the table directly opposite the Foreman, one could argue they are painted as polar opposites: One who takes his job very seriously and one who endeavors to be serious as little as possible.

Both actors play the role well, though there is a difference in their final words. It seemed to me in the original that, after changing his vote and being confronted by #11, Warden does not legitimately feel a change in his opinion but rather is tired of it all and wants it over with. Danza, on the other hand, relents and repeats his Not Guilty vote in a way that communicates he really does believe it. My guess is that he became convinced early on that there was reasonable doubt, but imagined that staying with the guilty plea (i.e. the majority) would end the proceedings sooner. Both versions of #6 are reprehensible, but in their own distinct way.

Juror #8 (Henry Fonda & Jack Lemmon) - And now to the star of our show. Though this is an ensemble drama, we are immediately put on the side of #8 for a number of reasons. First, by virtue of the fact that we enter the story knowing nothing of the case, we are automatically interested in a discussion of it instead of automatically sending the boy to the electric chair. Second, well, the character is played by Henry Fonda and Jack Lemmon; actors who have both secured reputations through the professional lives as decent men.

#8 is a bit more complex than simply a "devil's advocate". As much as we are inclined to side with him, he does not initially make it easy. He does not argue for something noble like innocence, but rather argues for something nebulous like doubt. There are a lot of "I don't know's" and "maybe's" to his speech patterns, and he can sometimes be as frustrating to the audience as he is to his fellow jurors. His is a tough role in the beginning, as it's supposed to be, but his arguments are only half his function. The other half is his ability to stoke the others into thinking for themselves into new directions. This process is part of what makes the character, and the movie itself, great.

Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney & Hume Cronyn) - As I mentioned with Juror #2's description, Juror #9 is the frail old man who almost instantly shares sympathy and respect with #8 and stands by him even amid the shouting down inflicted on him by other jurors. There is remarkably very little difference between the performances of Sweeny and Cronyn. I particularly like that little smile and twinkle in his eye when he says "20/20" to #4. This is wonderful work by both actors.

Juror #10 (Ed Begley & Mykelti Williamson) - Here's where we get into the most striking and daring changes made with the new version. In the original, #10 is a white bigot who cannot see past the suspect's race when passing judgment. This culminates in a racist monologue where, one by one, the other jurors turn away from him, ignoring his comments. Begley reacts to this with a sort of sad desperation. #4 gets in the last word as he tells #10 calmly, "Now sit down and don't open your mouth again." #10 then goes to at a small desk in the corner where, when the final vote is called, he nods his head in defeat for "Not guilty". There is a sense that, through the rejection of all the others, #10 has come to some realization about the way he views things. Some might say that such a drastic change in point of view is a little too tidy and quick to be realistic, but that's the movies for you. In the end, it works well enough.

When we get to the remake, #10 has been changed to an angry black Muslim who takes a dim view of other races, and perhaps some of his own as well. (See the description of Juror #5). In his diatribe, the monologue is punctuated with swearing (a modern touch that is a bit more realistic. Besides, this is Showtime!) and, more disappointingly, shouts back from the other jurors. When #10 gets to the end of his monologue and #4 delivers the same last line, #10 retires to a corner desk as well, but to brood rather than compose himself. When the last vote comes, #10's "Not Guilty" comes not from a changed man, but a man who simply acknowledges defeat in this small battle. There is no change of heart, but rather a man who has said his peace and refuses to budge in his essential opinions.

This change in #10 marks a more cynical take in this remake. An additional set of lines given by #8 as a comment on #6 confirms this viewpoint. When #9 gets flustered, #8 gently pulls him back into his chair and tells him, "He can't hear you. He never will". It's a reflection of a time when things have gotten angrier and more coarse in terms of public discourse and, for better or worse, Friedkin makes special note of it.

Juror #11 (George Voskovec & Edward James Olmos) - Again, we see a significant change in ethnicity between the two versions. The original had Voskovec as a German or Slavic immigrant. Olmos, who has sometimes played different ethnicities (and in one instance, played four or five simultaneously in the role of "Gaff" in Bladerunner) than his own, seems to be sticking with a Hispanic character this time out. Both are described as watchmakers and both place an emphasis on politeness.

The change in ethnicity is significant. Though the original presented #11 as an immigrant who serves as the idealistic voice of America (and, consequently, it's legal system), the new one retains this aspect and adds another layer. In the original, there were no jurors who shared the race of the defendant (I've actually read the theory that Klugman as #5 could be Hispanic, but I personally can't see it). In this new version, in which the defendant remains Hispanic, we now have a juror in the person of #11 who shares something in common with him. This presents a new dynamic with #10 as his remarks on the defendant now cut into #11 (Hispanic) as well as #5 (born into slums). It's one of the many changes Friedkin made that works very well.

Juror #12 (Robert Webber & William L. Petersen) - Aside from his goofy monologues about life in the advertising industry, #12 is defined by not being able to make up his mind and being bullied by #3. His lack of backbone doesn't even draw the favor of #4 when he changes his vote to his side, and he is forced to recognize the seriousness of the situation he's in. The character who starts off as wishy-washy and shallow soon is engaged in the debate along with everyone else, and ends this episode slightly more mature than when he started. Both Robert Webber and William "C.S.I." Peterson do some subtle work here.

There are other differences between the two versions. As I mentioned, this one does have a fair amount of swearing as the tensions get high, along with the slamming of doors that was not present in the original. The judge, who only appears in the very first scene, is changed from a seemingly bored white male (Rudy Bond) to an earnest white female (Mary McDonnell). Thought the best version remains the original, I would recommend either to anyone, especially if they have never seen the story before. It's simply too damn good to miss.

The 1957 Version: Ten out of Ten
The 1997 Version: Eight out of Ten

(This can also be viewed at Blogcritics)


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