Posts Tagged ‘E.G. Marshall’


A matter of liberty.

 

 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Directed by Frank Capra. Screenplay by Sidney Buchman, from a story by Lewis R. Foster. Starring Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Harry Carey, Claude Rains.  129 minutes. *** 1/2

Billy Jack Goes To Washington (1977). Directed by Tom Laughlin. Screenplay by Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor, from the prior screenplay by Sidney Buchman and Lewis R. Foster. Starring Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor, Dick Gautier, E.G. Marshall, Sam Wanamaker, Luci Arnaz. 155 minutes. *

Other Notable Versions: Too many films were inspired by the original to list, but the only other notable remake was a loose one, Eddie Murphy’s The Distinguished Gentleman.

This much is going to be hard to anybody born before or after a certain date to understand.

Once upon a time, Billy Jack was hot shit.

If you saw that movie when you were twelve and the social environment of the early sixties and early seventies were still part of the air which you breathed, it was possible to watch that movie and consider it deep. It was possible to completely miss the impressive non-acting of several of its principals, the troubled “half-breed” hero spouting native indian philosophies while looking like the whitest of all white men ever to set foot on this planet, and the martial arts sequences that – to put it mildly – cheated tremendously on the protagonist’s behalf, and feel that you were watching a movie that dared to tell the truth. It was possible to hear the narrative-fable theme song, “One Tin Soldier,” and grow absolutely and totally addicted to the special chill that ran down your spine at the point in the lyrics when the village that has just slaughtered another village for its great treasure turns over the stone that allegedly hides it to find the chiseled words, “Peace on Earth.” I know this. I had the single, and for a while there listened to it obsessively.

(Nowadays I ask some tough questions of that fable. Why chisel an inspirational slogan on a monument, and mount it dirt-side down? Why invite the bunch of aggressive assholes in the next village to “share” in your “great treasure,” thus inviting their raid, when you can just tell them, “Sorry, guys; it’s not money, it’s just a philosophy?” Isn’t it really fucking stupid to build an impressive-looking vault, call it your “treasure,” make sure everybody in the neighborhood knows about it, and not also take the pains to make sure that everybody knows it’s monetarily worthless? What’s the matter with you? Do you want to be slaughtered in your sleep?)

Billy Jack (1971), second and best of a series of action-oriented films that began with the much inferior Born Losers (1967),  did have a perfect formula for audience identification: posit a bunch of young, likeable outsiders, living near a town of bigoted dirtbags. Establish that they’re bullied and harassed every time they show their faces. Give them a protector – another outsider, albeit one who can take care of himself and kick ass. Keep pushing him into positions where he has to bruise up dirtbags who badly deserve it. Make sure the bullies are not interested in peace, and that they keep escalating the violence. Make sure that tragedy ensues and that the hero pays the price.

It’s impossible to not root for the hero in a circumstance like that, even if one right-wing acquaintance of mine was so permanently bruised by the film’s suggestion that beating up hippies for no reason might not be a good thing, that almost forty years later  he angrily cited Billy Jack as the sole proof of his major grudge against liberal Hollywood, that (in what I assure you is a direct quote), “long-haired maggot-infested dope-smoking FM types {are} the de facto saviours in every flick.” He honestly believed this. Because of one movie, Billy Jack.

(My written response at the time was so baffled that I’ll indulge myself by digressing at length to provide it.

“I know very few movies that fit this rather demented description, which for me crosses the border into hate speech. Especially the “maggot-infested,” unless you’re talking about zombie movies. Maybe you mean “lice-infested”, which is your desperate projection and something I’ve ONLY seen in one movie hero, Toshiro Mifune in THE SEVEN SAMURAI.

And, ummm, the hero of EVERY flick? Really? Including forty years of cop movies? And ummm, all the science fiction movies, and all the romantic comedies, and all the gangster movies, and all the horror movies, and all the historical dramas?

And, ummm, when even the one example you came up with is forty years old, a breakthrough indie and not a studio-produced mainstream film, and…

…boy, this is like shooting fish in a barrel…

…not at all how you represent it?

I’m not defending Billy Jack, which is a pretty slanted piece of work by design, but I will characterize that film properly. And I will point out that the only real narrative difference between that film and that conservative favorite championed by Uncle Ronnie, Stallone’s adaptation of David Morrell’s First Blood — both being films about Vietnam war heroes who return home as outsiders with hair-trigger tempers, and who are hassled by local authorities about their long hair until they erupt into violence — is that Billy Jack, unlike Rambo, had friends. Those friends fit some of the adjectives you provide, except for two: the absolutely bugfuck “maggot infested,” and the far more central “de facto saviours.” Because if there’s one thing that distinguished the counterculture types in BILLY JACK, it was that they were barely even capable of protecting themselves; they required the unstable Billy Jack to intervene, and thus contributed to the eventual bloodbath.

So what else is there? EASY RIDER? Sui generis. Maybe a few other films from way back when, and those historically set then. Beyond that you have a whole lot of gun-wielding law and order types, who I guess you would call conservatives; a few idealistic liberal types who are rarely presented as action heroes, who appear in issue dramas; certainly damn few of the sort you present.

Let us be honest. You don’t see characterizations of the sort you decry in “every” film for thirty years. You saw liberal positions in SOME films. But you resent seeing them in ANY films so much that it drove you to a sweeping statement that doesn’t even come close to reflecting reality. It’s the logical equivalent — and THIS IS A METAPHOR — of a gay-basher being so panicked by seeing two guys holding hands on Castro Street, and being so offended by having had that vision pass his retinas, that he tells everybody, “I hate San Francisco because they’re all faggots!”)

Anyway, Billy Jack led to The Trial Of Billy Jack (1974), which ended with the beleaguered hero at the center of another bloodbath initiated by establishment forces, and from there to one of the films under discussion today, Billy Jack Goes To Washington (1977). It’s a remake of the Frank Capra classic, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939), and is surprisingly faithful to the original’s screenplay, as well as its overall plot structure.

In both, a powerful senator dies just as his help is needed to force through a bill much-desired by powerful business interests back home. The wealthy kingmaker wants the governor to appoint a cooperative non-entity to fill out his term; the governor shows just enough backbone to reject the names provided him and appoint someone else, a popular local figure who knows nothing about politics and can be trusted to not try to accomplish anything while warming his Senate seat. Alas for them, he wants to create a national youth camp at the very site the bad guys have invested in; he refuses to play ball; and so they frame him for high corruption, a charge he fights with a grueling filibuster while their stranglehold on the media prevents any word of his fight reaching the people. It all ends with the freshman Senator’s sponsor, a man he once respected, driven by conscience and self-loathing to reclaim his better self and reveal the conspiracy before a startled America.

The story skeleton does lead to some pressing questions: to wit, how could a “national youth camp” (only for boys in the original), possibly not be a boondoggle? Exactly how many kids, out of how many applicants, will be able to attend – maybe one in a thousand? Even if the fund-raising efforts of the nation’s children do come up with enough money to pay for the damned thing, who decides what counselors get to run it? Who secures their travel? Who provides the insurance? Whose neck swings if a kid falls off a rock into a canyon? These are all things that need to be considered, and frankly, neither movie does; nor do they have to. The “youth camp” is just there to be something so wholesome and natural and inoffensive that nobody except a bad guy could possibly be against it.

But in terms of effectiveness, the two films could not possibly be more different.

Jimmy Stewart

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)

It’s easy to laugh at this film, in the wrong way, today. It’s easy to laugh at many of Frank Capra’s great films, in the wrong way, today. They really do come from a simpler time – or, if you prefer, a time that liked to think of itself as simpler.

Jefferson Smith is a perfectly designed protagonist for this story. He’s not just an idealist, not just a fundamentally decent man, and not just – excuse me – a yokel, but an overgrown boy, in that he is driven by enthusiasms and by his perception of the world as a place that generally runs the way idealists wish it would. He is not totally unacquainted with evil, as he knows that his father was murdered at his desk for standing up against a venal corporation, but he still has the capacity for wonder. It makes sense, in a way that it does not make sense of Billy Jack, for him to be tapped as a seat-holder Senator; nobody without a personal axe to grind could possibly disapprove of him. It would be like trying to dig up dirt on Captain Kangaroo. It makes sense, therefore, that his first act when he arrives in Washington is to slip away from his handlers and spend hours gaping at the town’s many great monuments, overwhelmed by a sense of  history that the people seeking to exploit him have lost.

(The montage, like most sightseeing montages in the movie, suggests an insane itinerary if taken in strict chronological order; the actual physical placement of the various sights is ignored, and we are made to believe that Smith leaves the mall, treks out to Arlington, returns to the mall, and while at the mall zigzags from place to place without doing the reasonable thing and seeing what he has to see in order of proximity. Almost every movie tracking a city by its landmarks commits this sin – the remake sure does, in a different context — but it’s jaw-dropping here. The miraculous thing is that Smith manages this miracle of tourism, which would take a couple of days even if conducted with reasonable efficiency, in only about six hours. They grow them fast in the state he comes from.)

(Another point: just how long do you think Jefferson Smith would remain in office, as even a place-holder Senator, if one of his first acts upon being appointed is stomping around town decking all the reporters who wrote mocking stories about him? It feels good on screen, but it’s not the kind of thing the gentlemen of the fourth estate can be expected to shrug off. I’m just saying.)

In any event, James Stewart is perfect as this paragon in a way that he never would be, after his service in World War Two. (He has a reputation, today, for playing paragons of decency, and in his career only played one outright villain, but his roles actually took a turn for the dark with the films he made for Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann in the 1950s.) He can indulge himself in gee-whiz optimism, pretend that he really doesn’t have any idea how the world works, and be surprised when he encounters honest-to-gosh corruption. He can do all this without irony, in a way that few movie stars could today, and make us believe that a tough girl like Jean Arthur’s Clarissa Saunders would have her own idealism rekindled via close proximity with him. The soft focus of the close-up at the moment when she falls for him is a now-laughable 1940s cliché, but damned if it doesn’t work here.

The key thing to note, though, is something rarely recognized: he’s not the guy the story is about.

He’s just the protagonist. He’s a fine role model and a good man, but – aside from a few moments of doubt, and an increased level of resolve – he’s the same guy at the end that he was at the beginning.

The main character? Senator Joseph Harrison Paine (Claude Rains), who sees in him the kind of man he once was, and who is still so co-opted that for a long time he goes along with destroying Smith. The entire movie is a wait for the moment when Paine has had enough, when he has endured so much of Smith’s filibuster and seen so much strength in his character that he cannot bear any further painful reminders of the man he used to be. There is a reason why the movie ends with his surrender, even before we find out whether it makes a difference. Because that’s where the story’s been heading all along, the release we have been waiting for. It only works because it is character evolution refracted against Jefferson Smith as catalyst.

It’s a cynical film about politics with as idealistic a core as could possibly be imagined, and it works to the extent it works in large part because it has the correct Jefferson Smith at its center.

Billy Jack Goes To Washington (1977)

By comparison, the first major problem with the remake is that this makes absolutely no sense as a Billy Jack vehicle.

It really doesn’t. Billy Jack is a guy who has been convicted of a number of assaults and at least one vengeance killing; he was once the instigator of a massive hostage situation. Granted, many people in his home state see extenuating circumstances in all his crimes and even see him as a hero for what he’s done, but that support runs strictly along partisan lines; everybody else will see him as a contemptible criminal who should still be in prison. It makes no sense for a governor, even one played by the same guy who once played Hymie the Friendly Robot, to pardon him all his past crimes and choose him as nice, inoffensive seat-warmer guaranteed not to cause any trouble. Seriously – huh?

Even allowing that, it makes no sense in terms of Billy Jack’s character. He may be an outsider, but he’s also been in the armed forces, been in prison, and on several occasions seen local corruption lead to tragedy for the people he’s sworn to protect. How then does he suddenly become the polite, respectable, starry-eyed innocent this movie requires him to be, when he goes to Washington and takes his seat among the sharks? He may be an idealist, but he knows, because he’s learned hard, that the system’s fucked up. For him to suddenly become James Stewart circa 1939 requires a form of retroactive amnesia. If nothing else, it simply isn’t in him to be that polite to power even before he realizes the nature of the scam that’s going on. Any charisma he might have disappears into the background.

The second major problem is that the movie is pretty shoddily made. It’s not that Laughlin didn’t have a budget; swooping helicopter shots capturing your hero with the Grand Canyon as backdrop cost money to film, and even if he blew all he had with that, Washington D.C. remains one of the world’s great movie sets, and can lend a movie class even when the catering table has a hand-written sign advising crew members to take only one plate. No, it’s shoddy in terms of staging. Capra’s staging may have been designed to be invisible, but it was also very conscious: he always knew where to place his camera, where to cut, how often to cut, and how to stage actors so that the way they inhabit a setting, in relation to one another, built tension and excitement. Laughlin’s understanding of this, as evidenced in this film, is only rudimentary. For the most part, people sit around stiffly and recite dialogue at one another. The setups make even the gifted veteran actors, like E.G. Marshall and Sam Wanamaker, look like amateurs in some of their scenes. The staging and performances of some of the very lines that the 1939 cast made crackle are so amateurish that the result looks like what you’d get if a bunch of not-very talented high school students tried to re-enact the original screenplay on YouTube.

One example of this takes place during the opening credit sequence, which follows the ambulance carrying the previous Senator through the streets of Washington. It is an extraordinarily dull ride, as filmed, but there is a particularly awful moment at the midway point, when the ambulance disappears behind a sewer works van parked in the middle of the street, and the camera remains fixed on that van, in the center of the screen, for a disturbingly long time as the ambulance makes a left turn in the distance. Oh, sure, we follow the ambulance again as soon as it comes back into view. But the sewer works van remains in sight for so long that viewers are invited to believe that it’s somehow important and that we should pay attention to it. No. It’s just a fucking sewer works van.

Another example would be the opening narration, over aerial shots of the National Mall. We are literally looking at the Capitol dome when the narrator intones, “This story takes place in the nation’s capitol.” Gee. Thank you ever so much. 

The third major problem is the presence of Delores Taylor, who – in a statement I truly hate making – is, as an actress, a great producer’s wife. It’s not just that (god, I hate being reduced to this), she was not an attractive woman; in Hollywood terms, she’s pretty worn-looking, with a drawn face and deeply sunken eyes. It’s not even that she can’t act very well, though that’s true  It’s that she’s been established as Billy Jack’s girlfriend and that for more than half its running time, the movie has no idea what to do with her. The character arc of the cynical Washington insider who gradually comes to believe in the fresh young Senator still belongs to Saunders – (played by Hollywood royalty Luci Arnaz, who gets an “introducing” credit in the cast list)  — and Taylor is for much of the first half of the film reduced to reaction shots where she nods sagely or utters an approving line, just to remind viewers that she’s still there. It is a fine indulgence of viewers who saw the earlier films, but  this movie falls prey to a common failing of sequels in general and cannot be bothered to even introduce her and establish again just who she is.

Taylor does eventually get a decent scene or two, but before that we have an ugly interlude where assassins, apparently sent by the villain Bailey, corner her and a female aide in a warehouse, intent on gang rape. It’s an all-black group, which is both Bailey’s attempt to pin the crime on a street gang and Laughlin’s cynical cinematic shorthand giving Billy Jack an excuse to beat the crap out of them. Taylor’s character, showing off some martial arts moves she must have learned from Billy, joins in the fight. We won’t question the likelihood of this, even though her character was in previous films a committed pacifist; after all, she’s also a pacifist who has been raped and had several people she cares about beaten, brutalized, and murdered. Maybe she stopped being a pacifist between films. It would make sense. But a persuasive martial artist, even one with limited skills, she is not. She manages to raise her foot about as high as her knee and big scary black men go flying.

Admittedly, you can’t have a Billy Jack film without him beating up a few people, and they might as well be black guys, since the previous films all featured rednecked white guys as his targets du jour. Even counting this scene, James Stewart punches out more people in Capra’s version than Laughlin does in this one. But it’s a terrible scene.

Fourth major problem: Luci Arnaz. She’s terrible. She is no Jean Arthur. She is not even Lucille Ball. I cannot think of any movies or TV appearances where she was better, but it’s hard to imagine any where she’d be worse.

Fifth major problem:  a subplot about a “top secret” file of nuclear secrets, which gets a blackmailer assassinated in the dead of night at Arlington National Cemetery. This goes nowhere. It’s there so this movie can claim some of the same narrative logic as its predecessors.

That said: everything that happens after Billy Jack begins the climactic filibuster is staged as the same events were staged in the Capra film, and we must report that, as Billy Jack receives the telegrams telling him to step down, the telegrams that are meant to destroy him, something magical happens. For almost five full minutes, the inherent power of the material sets fire to whatever flows in Laughlin’s veins, and the man pulls out a performance. It is unexpected and it is electrifying. It is also not worth sitting through the film for. If that’s what you want to see, watch the Capra film again and you’ll get a version that was terrific from the beginning.

The film was only barely released, allegedly because of threats from a sitting Senator. Laughlin said, “At a private screening, Senator Vance Hartke got up, because it was about how the Senate was bought out by the nuclear industry. He got up and charged me. Walter Cronkite’s daughter was there, [and] Lucille Ball. And he said, ‘You’ll never get this released. This house you have, everything will be destroyed.’ [I]t was three years later, he gets indicted for the exact crime that we showed in the movie.” We’re not saying that the implied causality  is impossible. Threats from powerful politicians have sandbagged movies before; certainly, a complaint from supporters of President Nixon helped get a song removed from the film version of 1776.  But the movie’s terrible quality could not have helped. (We have also been informed, by a reader, that lawsuits between Laughlin and his investors were also involved.)  As recently as 2004, Laughlin was working on yet another sequel, which he actually intended to call Billy Jack’s Crusade to End the War in Iraq and Restore America to Its Moral Purpose. (Sanity prevailed, and he shortened the title, though he didn’t succeed in finishing the movie.)

Report From The Committee 

The 1939 film, a historical curio and genuine classic. The 1977 film, a near-total misfire, that achieves its needed level of quality in only a few minutes of performance from the wooden lead.

And now, the wife starts her filibuster…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Directed by Frank Capra. Screenplay by Sidney Buchman, from a story by Lewis R. Foster. Starring Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Harry Carey, Claude Rains. 129 minutes. **1/2

Billy Jack Goes To Washington (1977). Directed by Tom Laughlin. Screenplay by Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor, from the prior screenplay by Sidney Buchman and Lewis R. Foster. Starring Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor, Dick Gautier, E.G. Marshall, Sam Wanamaker, Luci Arnaz. 155 minutes. 1/2*

Other Notable Versions: Too many films were inspired by the original to list, but the only other notable remake was a loose one, Eddie Murphy’s The Distinguished Gentleman.

I approached these films with a bit of trepidation.  I had never seen either movie, but I was very well aware of the 1939 “classic”.   I also, had vague memories of the Billy Jack series about a guy who kicked people and hung out with hippies.  So, did I really want to venture into this rather rocky territory?

So we began by viewing the 1939 Capra film.  And yes, it very much is a Capra film.  Doesn’t matter who wrote it, this film hits on all the Capraesque qualities I’ve come to know and grow tired of.  Yes, I am going to say a few bad things about the Capra characters.  Naivete is not a virtue!  Redemption doesn’t ever come about via wordsmithing. Good and evil are two sides of the same being.  And, bad girls aren’t fixed by the love of a good man!

Ok, so the big bad politibosses need a chump to placehold for two months.  Get a party man they say, but accept a gosh golly gee Boy Ranger troop leader with ideals.  what does this guy do on his first trip to DC?  While he should be trying to learn what will be expected of him in the Senate, he wanders off on a sight seeing tour.  Right!  He doesn’t even seem aware that he may be inconveniencing people who are waiting for him.  His first task is to attempt to write a bill to present, which he manages overnight.  Amazing!  He has no clue of procedure or law and yet is allowed his piece.  PUHLEEZE! And the very idea that he would attempt a filibuster, just to make a point…Never woulda happened! Never would have been allowed.  Politibosses play a lot rougher than that.

Would the corrupt senior Senator ever have taken the Grinch-like turn if not for the need of a hopeful Capra ending?  Oh come on, the man had already agreed to sacrifice the lamb, led him to the slaughter and even gave the butcher the knife while he held him down.  Not really true to life eh?

I know many “good” folks, but even they have their gray moments.  No human being is pure unto death.  Even Mother Teresa had a PR team for spin on a few things she said (check out the article by Christopher Hitchens).  So how can Capra decide that the black and white approach is all there is?And, gee, come on!  The secretary/girl friday who states early on she’s only there for what she can get, even she gets Capra’d and has a change of heart over the character assassination tango she’s a major player in.  Never gonna happen.  Not back then, and definitely not today.

Now, all this said, the film deserves its classic status.  It’s enjoyable, watchable, incredibly well acted and directed.  With all its flaws, and good view.

This can’t be said of the Billy Jack remake.

Billy Jack is a war veteran with anger issues.  He’s a convicted criminal with anti establishment sympathies.  who would EVER put him in the Senate?  How?  He’s not stupid, he’s run up against corrupt government before, and again I say HE’S A CONVICTED FELON!  Geesh!  Absent a brain, couldn’t anyone in his production company come up with a better classic fit for the man? Well, at least I got to hear One Tin Soldier again.  That was a plus. Or the plus.

All in all, I was right to fear this column.  I found one really good reason to avoid rewatching the Billy Jack films (they stink like a used litter box).  And, I watched a classic film, and found that even if I enjoy the basics, I no longer have a tolerance for the more innocent age that never existed.


Can we just talk about this a little more? Please?

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Twelve Angry Men (1957). Directed by Sidney Lumet. Screenplay by Reginald Rose, from his prior teleplay. Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, others. 96 minutes. ****

12 (in Russian with Subtitles Available; 2007). Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. Screenplay by Nikita Mikhalkov, Alexander Novotsky-Vlasov, Vladimir Moiseenko, based on original screenplay by Reginald Rose. One third of the actors on the jury have the first name Sergei, and two others are named Alexei; it must have been fun whenever one got a phone call. 157 minutes. **

Others Mentioned Here But Not Discussed At Length: Twelve Angry Men (TV-movie directed by William Friedkin, 1997).

Other Known Versions: The original TV production (1954); Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (Hindi, 1986); many many other parodies and imitations.

*

The boy is on trial for his life. He has been accused of the brutal stabbing death of his father, and though he maintains his innocence, almost no exculpatory evidence has been introduced, and he is almost certainly facing a trip upstate. It’s a foregone conclusion. For the most part, the all-male jury looks forward to a quick vote, an immediate return to the courtroom,  and from there a quick return to their everyday lives. But one juror isn’t so sure. He thinks that the matter is too serious for such casual disposal…and as he persuades his resentful fellow jurors to take a second look, more and more cracks appear in the prosecution’s case. It begins to look like the boy might be innocent after all. But some members of the jury are emotionally invested in a guilty verdict…and it becomes unclear whether justice, of any kind, is at all possible.

This was the premise of Reginald Rose’s 1954 teleplay Twelve Angry Men, and of the classic 1957 film directed by Sidney Lumet. A financial disappointment for star and co-producer Henry Fonda, it built its reputation with later TV showings and is now considered a major, influential classic. It was also the first theatrical film of the towering Sidney Lumet, who was among other things one of the great New York City directors and who, over the next fifty years, managed the admirable feat of directing at least one, and sometimes more than one, capital-G Great film per decade. (That list of one great film per decade would, according to this lifelong admirer, include Twelve Angry Men in the 1950s, The Pawnbroker and The Hill in the 1960s, Serpico, Murder On the Orient Express,  Dog Day Afternoon, and Network in the 1970s, Prince of the City in the 1980s, Q & A in the 1990s, and his last movie Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead in the 2000s…and that’s before you start listing films that miss greatness by a hair or those like Fail-Safe or The Verdict that are merely very, very good.) It is part of our culture, and the latest word has it that it’s about to be remade again. We therefore take this opportunity to discuss both the original, which can be seen as a dramatization of what’s so great about America…and a recent version that can be seen as a dramatization of everything that’s gone wrong in Russia.

One point before we continue: readers of these essays always risk being exposed to plot spoilers, but this is especially true of what follows, and particularly in its coverage of the 2007 film. Beware.

Twelve Angry Men (1957)

Movie fans who want to know the difference between what a screenwriter does and what a director does could be profitably directed to this film.

The story, essentially a two-hour argument where the jurors supporting a not guilty verdict gradually break down and overcome the opposition of those who want the kid to go to jail, was all on paper long before Sidney Lumet ever got involved; what he added in this, his very first theatrical film, was a superb mastery of the form that over the course of 96 grueling minutes gradually moves the POV of most shots closer and closer to table-level, increasing the tension and the sense that all of the jurors are stuck with one another. He’s the one who makes this an astonishingly fluid and stylish film for one largely set all in one room, and it manages the trick long before the days of queasy shakicams and swooping, spinning, 360 degree pans. That is all Lumet, with his cinematographer Boris Kaufman and his editor Carl Lerner. Please note that it is not showy direction; the average moviegoer will never be consciously aware of Lumet’s craft. But it’s there. It can be felt, and it ratchets up the suspense to the breaking point.

Similarly, movie fans who want a primo demonstration of the importance of star power need look no further than the introduction of Juror #8 (Fonda), initially the only one who even wants to subject the evidence to discussion. He is the last one whose face we see, after the jury files into the room and everybody else expends the next few minutes in idle conversation and joking around; at the moment when he’s called to the table for deliberation, having spent the last few minutes gazing out the window in silent contemplation, he turns around and reveals himself for the first time as Fonda, from The Grapes Of Wrath and The Ox-Bow Incident onward an icon of American rectitude, and instantly the guy the movie audience wants to win. (Jack Lemmon, who played the same role in William Friedkin’s 1997 TV version, played decent men as often as Fonda did, and for all his talent couldn’t match the impact of Fonda’s big turn-around.)

The movie also benefits from being superbly cast. Any list of who’s superb here will amount to a simple recitation of the entire jury, but special attention should be paid to Lee J. Cobb, as the bullying juror #3, who is just as quickly the guy the audience will want to see lose; and to E.G. Marshall, as Juror #4, another antagonist who happens to be the most level-headed, logically-driven person in the room; he never raises his voice and, until a memorable moment late in the film, never sweats. (There’s also Jack Klugman, who just a few years later played tribute to this movie with another deadlocked-jury story on an episode of his sitcom, The Odd Couple.)

The movie is filled with cheer-worthy moments. What audience doesn’t feel tremendous satisfaction when the old man changes his vote to support Juror #8?  What audience doesn’t cheer when  Juror #4 interrupts another’s bigoted rant by telling him to sit down and not open his mouth again?

One of the best shut-up moments in any movie, ever.

Really.  It’s like an action movie, with arguments instead of gunfights, so pleasurable with every frame that some viewers, this essayist included, can see it dozens of times with undiminished appreciation.

It’s so very terrific, in toto, that just making this next observation is extraordinarily painful.

It is also incredibly contrived.

It has to be. All courtroom dramas are. It’s one thing if they’re based on actual court cases, where the transcripts exist; but if concocted, they by necessity compress into an hour or two or at most three the high points of what is, in real life, often a mind-numbingly dull process, with testimony given in monotones and long stretches spent in wrangling over evidentiary minutiae. Creating an effective courtroom drama almost always depends on the careful concealment of, and timely unveiling of, straw men:  obstacles that seem fatal but aren’t, evidence that seems iron-clad but isn’t, a closing argument that seems to put the final nails in the opposing side’s coffin but nevertheless leaves room for a rhetorical flourish that makes everything before it seem flimsy and stupid. In Twelve Angry Men, it’s the pile of evidence implicating a kid in the stabbing-death of his father – a case that Reginald Rose carefully designed to look air-tight at first, but to which he also carefully attached serious reasons to doubt.

Everything depends on the writer’s deliberate placement of these straw men; if Henry Fonda’s character had not been able to buy an identical switchblade after the police failed, if the elderly witness had not been dragging a leg, if the woman across the street not rubbed the bridge of her nose in court, or even if the jurors had not changed their minds with the regularity that they did, the defendant would be on the first train upstate.  In that sense, at least, Twelve Angry Men functions not as  an indictment of our legal system, but as a fond tribute to the efficacy of having the case against you designed by an omnipotent screenwriter who wants it to fall apart at the first gust of strong wind. This has been discussed, at length, but Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who as an educator also characterized the independent investigation of Juror #8 as likely grounds for a mistrial. (And, by the way, if you want another case of a courtroom drama artfully hiding the fact that it all depends on a screenwriter carefully hiding straw men – in this case evidence that’s been squirreled away by the culprits, that the defense attorney protagonist uncovers at the last minute — look no further than that other Lumet drama, The Verdict.)

None of that matters all that much. The case may be designed to fall apart, but it’s designed to fall apart in a suspenseful manner, driven by the characters of the jurors; and it’s designed to fall apart in a manner than remains inconclusive at the end, leaving open the possibility that the kid might have killed his Dad after all.

William Friedkin’s 1997 version pretty much hits the same story points, with a just-as-impressive cast that included in addition to Lemmon such powerhouses as George C. Scott and Ossie Davis; it is effective enough, but lacks Lumet’s brilliant staging. On the plus side, we are no longer talking about Twelve Angry White Men, and indeed one of its more audacious touches is casting a young Black man, Mykelti Williamson, in the role of the film’s vengeful bigot. On the negative is the one reason we bring it up, the odd casting glitch that presents us with a large number of elderly men among the jurors, not just Lemmon and Scott but also Ossie Davis and Hume Cronyn. This is only an issue because, as in the original, much is made of Juror # 3 being scolded failing to show the proper amount of respect toward the frail and lonely retiree, Juror # 9. That makes a small degree of sense when Lee. J. Cobb, circa 1957, is being upbraided for the way he treats the “old man,” Joseph Sweeney;  less so when George C. Scott, circa 1997, is told off for the way he treats old men like Hume Cronyn. They’re both old men, and it’s downright surreal when another old man, Ossie Davis, makes noises that  seem to regard Cronyn, who’s admittedly somewhat older, as ancient by comparison. Look around you, people. If you count Armin Mueller-Stahl, who was 67 at the time and the youngest of this group by several years, almost half the jury is eligible for social security.

12 (2007)

This award-winning Russian remake, which intends to be not just an examination of the elusiveness of justice in a system that depends on the fairness of human beings serving on juries, but also a harsh examination of the current state of Russian society, is a full hour longer – and a slog even for those of us who normally have little problem with lengthy films. Things just take longer they need to, and many of the jurors stop everything in order to regale everybody with long, dramatic soliloquys about their backstories, a number of which end with the jaw-dropping conclusion, “And that’s why I’m changing my vote to Not Guilty.” (Really? You rip off mourners at the cemetery where you work, use the money to fund schools, and that’s why you’re changing your mind? Really? That’s…um….different.)

Nobody in the film reacts to these extended personal monologues the way human beings would. Oh, sure, the other jurors ask leading questions like, “Why are you telling us this?”, but that just gives the speakers an excuse to continue talking. In real life, one or two of these might be tolerated, but as the tension level rose, somebody would react to the latest with an exasperated, “Oh, great. Now he’s starting.” Instead, everybody always freezes and allows the soliloquys to play out. I can’t be any clearer than this: in real life, eventually, they wouldn’t.

Also taking up time: a substantial number of flashbacks to the childhood of the young defendant, a Chechen orphan accused of killing his Russian stepfather.  It is a past that includes huddling in a dark basement filled with corpses, and for what it’s worth these war scenes are both horrific and well-staged…but even the best-staged scenes can be tiresome if they interrupt the story we care about, and these serve to dilute the overpowering narrative momentum of the original, which takes place in something resembling real time. In 12, we leave the jurors regularly to  catch up on some more images from the defendant’s tragic life, and return to clear indications that substantial time has passed for the members of the jury and that we’ve missed some of their deliberations. (If what we’ve missed amounted to more monologues, then this can be counted as a mercy.) As an extra added treat, we are shown a skirmish from the war in Chechnya, where many rounds of automatic weapons fire are exchanged between two buildings while the boy presses himself flat in the rubble-strewn street between them;  thus making this the last thing anybody ever expected in this universe, a somewhat defensible remake of Twelve Angry Men with explosions in it.

That deserves repetition. This is a defensible remake of Twelve Angry Men with explosions in it.

Not exactly claustrophobic.

That’s a remarkable achievement. I guess.

The sacrifice of the original’s claustrophobic setting extends to this film’s jury room, the gymnasium of a run-down high school. The jury members have plenty of room to move about, and sometimes wander far from the central table. This, surprisingly, works, and not just because the basketball tossed by one near the beginning, that refuses to fall through the netless rim and instead just lodges against the backboard, as clear a symbol of the belated verdict as anybody could have ever arranged. Much is made of the exposed heating pipe in the ceiling, and the broken window temporarily blocked off by a cement bag that, one juror discovers, has been there for decades. All around them sit manifestations of a nation’s crumbling infrastructure, and the widespread corruption that permits it. One juror, screwing around, discovers a hypodermic needle in a kid’s locker, while another discovers and oohs over an abandoned brassiere, and yes, both discoveries are part of it. There’s another nice touch involving the school’s upright piano, which is stored behind iron bars, and which a couple of the jurors manage to play anyway; you couldn’t buy more potent symbolism than that.

We must also give props to this film’s bailiff, who unlike the glorified prop of the original film is actually a living and breathing personality, who uses the jury’s confiscated cell phones to make his own calls, and reacts with open, comic, and a precisely modulated level of confusion to the antics going on in the jury room. We don’t get any more of the him than the film needs, just enough. And that is a plus.

The murder, and the means by which the various members of the jury poke holes in what had seemed an airtight case, are similar to the ones originally posited by Reginald Rose. We get the supposedly unique knife used in the crime, the limping old man from downstairs who says he witnessed the boy’s flight but couldn’t have, the unlikelihood of the boy blithely returning to the scene of the crime hours after the killing, and even the woman with compromised eyesight who claims to have witnessed the murder from across the street. There is no passing elevated train, but that’s a difficult story element to translate to Moscow and a loud construction site works just as well. The unlikelihood of a boy used to handling knives stabbing a much taller man with a downward thrust also comes up, and that scene is, here, wonderful; the proper method of knife-handling is demonstrated by a surgeon among the jurors who happens to be a Chechen himself and who turns out to be a frightening wizard with a blade. Some of the dramatics work identically, as well; for instance, the main antagonist is a bully of a juror who has issues involving his relationship with his own son, though the details are very different (and are related in the last and best of the film’s many extended monologues).

Some of the character stuff is genuinely hilarious. The cemetery guy is eager to get back to his hot 21 year old wife, who according to him looks like Angelina Jolie. He has had three wet dreams in three consecutive nights, thinking of her. He demands to know of his fellow jurors whether they still have wet dreams at their age. (To the film’s credit, this results in helpless laughter on the part of everybody.)  The film’s bully keeps attacking the film’s elderly Jew, who just takes it with a knowing amusement that would infuriate any bigot more than any tirade. This is good stuff.

But that’s all before we get to some of the strangest and most extreme departures from Reginald Rose’s original story.

You have already been provided with a spoiler warning. Proceed past this sentence at your own risk.

One juror puts together the evidence and comes up with an alternative theory that not only fits the facts, but seems to be the story’s objective truth: i.e. the father was murdered, the boy framed, and the elderly witness downstairs paid off, by the construction company working on the building next door, that wanted to force them all out of their homes. The police and the prosecution have been paid off to see to it that the boy is railroaded.

Again, that deserves repetition.

This is a version of Twelve Angry Men where the jurors actually solve the crime.

Subsequently, the foreman, a retired ex-intelligence officer who has said almost nothing during the film, reveals that he put together this theory almost immediately and still intends to vote guilty, as the boy has nowhere to go and will certainly be assassinated by the true culprits if freed. In prison, at least, he will live longer. He asks the others if they’ll take responsibility for the boy’s future now, knowing what they know. They all demur, as they all have lives to live. He reluctantly joins them in a Not Guilty verdict. At the end, post-trial, he not only tells the defendant that he knows what really happened and that he will not rest until the true killers are exposed…he tells the kid to come home with him.

That also deserves repetition.

This is a version of Twelve Angry Men where the foreman of the jury adopts the defendant.

I can’t be any clearer than this. 12 is a well-meaning and in many ways admirable version of the basic story, that tries to adapt the story skeleton for its own entirely defensible purposes. But  The film’s several cogent observations about life in modern-day Russia notwithstanding, these touches make 12 about as ludicrous a re-imagining as we’ve seen at any point, even in the age of remakes.

The Verdict

Twelve Angry Men: an incredibly contrived, but brilliantly told film. 12: a lumpy and ludicrous but frequently powerful report on the state of life in Russia today.

And now, the wife produces an identical switchblade from her jacket pocket and stabs it into the table…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Twelve Angry Men (1957). Directed by Sidney Lumet. Screenplay by Reginald Rose, from his prior teleplay. Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, others. 96 minutes.****

12 (in Russian with Subtitles Available; 2007). Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. Screenplay by Nikita Mikhalkov, Alexander Novotsky-Vlasov, Vladimir Moiseenko, based on original screenplay by Reginald Rose. One third of the actors on the jury have the first name Sergei, and two others are named Alexei; it must have been fun whenever one got a phone call. 157 minutes.**1’2

Other Known Versions: The original TV production (1954); the William Friedkin TV-movie remake (1997); Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (Hindi, 1986); many many other parodies and imitations.

In my nearly 30 years working in and around court rooms and juries, I could never imagine a juror able to bring a weapon into the jury room.  That being said, I have seen many odd bits of evidence in both civil and criminal trials. (OK, for you dying to know, everything from a human leg to a 1960’s era VW Beetle, not to mention a life size replica of a male plaintiff’s genitalia with removable parts to demonstrate his injuries!)  But, after viewing these films, I wonder if screenwriters have a clue how juries really work.

I have seen the group who just want to get it over with, the group who want to sock it to the insurance company, the group who actually care and the jury that can’t understand a darn thing!  The twelve men in our tales all begin as the primary and in the 1957 actually come full circle back to that with only their verdict changed.  The jurists in the Russian film not only want the whole deal over with, they obviously also want group therapy.  It seems the 2007 theme was we can heal ourselves by freeing the boy.

The Lumet-directed piece plays tight and tense, the climate in the room mirroring the temperament and tenor of the deliberations.  The claustrophobic conditions only add to the exquisite morality play we witness.  But, alas, it feels like a play.  In my reality, the single hold out would have either been abused verbally and possibly physically, or requested to be excused before the abuse could begin.  Seldom will one person be persuasive enough to sway eleven others,  and in this case his opening gambit would never have been able to work.  This is an idealization of the jury process, not the truth of the fallibility of our justice system.

The Russian piece, while hitting all the salient points, doesn’t have the edge to make it work.  Again, we are dealing with prejudice and poverty, but this version needs to show us the depravity that the accused boy has lived through and the ongoing horror of his continued existence.  Ok, great, but that’s not the story of justice served.  The added sequences (including the repetition of the wet dog) do nothing to move the story forward and in my opinion bogs it down enough to cause serious  breaks in what should have been some decent dramatic scenes.  Yes, we are dealing with these twelve guys trying to work out their own problems through this deliberation, but the sense of urgency, the need to get this right, just doesn’t feel present here.  The very fact that life or death is not only based on the verdict, but what happens afterward, blows the premise of the play to shreds.

I have been the fool left “babysitting” the jury.  Hours spent sitting, running questions to the judge, getting evidence and meals. But, I have also been a juror. These idealized versions of courts and juries just don’t cut it, but then, truth is much more boring than fiction (in most cases).