“12 angry men” remember – and not a moment too soon

SETUP TO Rewatch Phil Rosenzweig’s captivating new book about a screenwriter and his movie, Reginald Rose and the Journey of 12 Angry Men, the first thing I did was download the long favorite movie to Apple TV for yet another review. Watching it this way had ahistorical relevance, in part because Rose was first and always a television writer, and the film was first produced on this medium in the 1954 anthology series. Studio One, but mainly because several aspects of its cinematic oomph might stand out better on the small screen: the strength, for example, of director Sidney Lumet’s abundant and artful close-ups, and the dramatic claustrophobia of the jury room in which the entire movie is made. , indeed, takes place.

But something else, quite unpredictable, added irony and, in the long run, meant that I had a fresh look: I did it on the day of Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal, both infamous, at least in my bubble. If ever there was a movie to shake you up, assuming real events haven’t already done so, in a critical engagement with the pros and cons of our justice system, especially with regard to juries, it was that film, released to acclaim and an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, albeit to a disappointing audience, in 1957.

Rose’s premise was elegant and simple. Initially, the jury withdraws into the trial of a young man for murder. It is part of the subclass, ethnicity not specified, which maybe not but very good could be able stabbed her abusive father to death. The verdict will have to be unanimous, of course, and the judge has declared that a verdict of “guilty” will result in a final execution. Once in the room, an immediate web of jurors returns 11-1 for Guilty. The only obstacle is Juror 8, played by Henry Fonda – the only Hollywood star in the cast, who produced the film with Reginald Rose himself. Gradually the 11 guilty votes are meticulously / drastically reduced, until at the very end a unanimous “not guilty” is reached. It’s a verdict that a new onlooker will likely like better than the “not guilty” in that all-too-real courtroom where Rittenhouse so effectively executed his remorse collapse.

But what gives 12 angry men his lasting interest, his intellectual finesse as well as his “twist”, is that the character of Fonda is by no means certain that the accused is innocent. “Maybe he did!” he declares, until the end. But he sticks to the idea that reasonable doubt is all the law requires to discharge: a more complex and slippery idea than we tend to realize. At this request, the film asks us for careful discernment, compares and contrasts winning entertainments such as A time to kill Where A few good men, where the race of the accused comfortably assures you in advance, if not of their innocence, at least of the favorable outcome of the film. Replacing Robert Cummings, who had played the role on television, Fonda’s low-key performance deserved (but did not receive) at least one Oscar nomination (okay, he would have faced Marlon Brando, Charles Laughton and Alec Guinness, who naturally won for The Bridge over the River Kwai). Nevertheless, it is the law and not the character of Fonda who appears as the real hero of the film. This is something Rose has seen in successive rewrites of what the title of the book calls the project’s “journey” from the television to the big screen. The direction of these changes is ably presented here, and will intrigue writers: with each pass, Fonda’s moral heroism increasingly diffuses to other jurors, primarily by stimulating their willingness to open their minds and question first impressions. . Justice-as-Fairness, as the philosopher John Rawls would have said a few years later, is the guiding principle of the film; Justice even more than Compassion; the mind and not the heart. The point is, this movie must be seen – and if you need some extra encouragement, you can get it by knowing the role it played in shaping the sensitivity of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, we are told, back to university.

I will come back to the forced relevance of the script after reviewing the other pleasures this book serves readers and moviegoers (or downloaders). Rose’s second best-known creation a decade later was the television series The defenders, starring EG Marshall and Robert Reed as father-son defense attorneys, a remarkable series, now streaming, that tells us nothing has diminished Rose’s ability to use television to hone civic virtues of its public. In the same vein, he had also written, for NBC in 1960, a docudrama on the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti. Operating from 1961 to 1965, The defenders was a remarkably pre-counter-cultural work of patriotic commitment to “the system,” promoting values ​​that we narrowly interpret as “liberal” on issues ranging from racial prejudice and abortion to the neo-Nazis among us , and defending ourselves above all from blows to our constitution lingering rights after that McCarthy era which had provided Rose with a target in 12 angry men, although Phil Rosenzweig seems strangely reluctant to say so. Soon after, he followed other designer series like East side / West side (with George C. Scott and Cicely Tyson), in the same socially conscious vein; but this book gives Reginald Rose credit for having paved the way for a long time. While briefly working on Steven Bochco LA law, I’ve heard Rose’s referenced series more than once – although in a later trend shows like David Milch’s NYPD Blue and that of David Kelley Palisades shift the focus – ultimately giving more importance to protecting ourselves from the uncondicted (and therefore innocent!) “systemic malfeasance” that now commands our attention. (Still later, it must be said, Kelley’s Boston Legal straightened the balance.)

A delightful feature of this book is to remind us of the generation of great television writers who provided original dramas every week for the many anthology series that have filled the air. There will indeed be few readers who, besides Studio One, remember Playhouse 90, the Philco Television Playhouse, Where the Aluminum Kaiser Time. But from the late 1940s onwards, the many sites of this type offered early, underpaid but welcome opportunities for figures like Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote Marty, later known for Hospital and Network; Abe Polonsky (Body and soul); and Rod Serling, author of Requiem for a heavyweight, of which later The twilight zone has proven to be indelible. The terms “The Golden Age of Television” and even “Television Writing” are often used, but they were certainly a highlight. Before 12 angry men premiered at the Paris Theater in New York, across from the plaza, Reginald Rose had written dozens of televised dramas, now languishing irretrievably on Kinescope, but the two undeniable masterpieces this book takes up show just how much he has benefited from this conservatory-type training. (Ironically, today’s increasingly typical route is quite the opposite, with writers fighting over a pilot and sneaking into the television…)

Of the filming itself, it is particularly noteworthy, as Rosenzweig shows us, that the film was Sidney Lumet’s first, in a career spanning more than half a century, including Dog day afternoon, Serpico, and The verdict. It turns out that it was not him but Franklin Schaffner who directed the television version of Rose’s telecast. But Lumet too, like Rose, had worked hard in the world of television drama anthologies. Now, as a crucial first step in the transition to cinema, he called on the big-screen talents of Boris Kaufman, director of photography at Elia Kazan’s stable, where he had filmed. At the water’s edge with a liveliness and topicality worthy of a documentary. An American of Russian origin who had worked in France with Jean Vigo on Zero Driving, Kaufman was downright good at black-and-white aesthetics and the use of lighting, and could assist Lumet in the revolutionary plethora of shots and drawings for film, a luxury that the limitations of time and space Lumet television studios had worked in around New York would never have allowed (one, strangely, upstairs from Grand Central Station). Although Rosenzweig avoids gossip and spends little time on personalities, there are several clues in the book of these natural and inevitable tensions among and between producers, directors, production designers, the film crew and the filmmaker. studio – especially when money is tight and the lead actor, along with the writer, are also the producers in charge.

It’s a cliché of the “business” that happy sets don’t work well on screen. 12 angry men functioned, in this respect, true to form, except in one respect: the cast, we are told, has bonded admirably – and what a cast! Lee J. Cobb, EG Marshall, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Jack Klugman, Ed Begley, and George Voskovec make up an incomplete list, and most are from the same television creation that gave us Rose and Lumet. A few of the 12 came out of the Actors Studio, which, along with Kaufman’s cinematography, gives some idea of ​​why Elia Kazan is, in my opinion, some sort of unseen presence in the film: something that we might have suspected if only because of the deep authenticity of working class male emotion and the passionate hatred of injustice behind Lee J. Cobb’s portrayal of bullying that marks Waterside and 12 angry men look alike.

Rosenzweig’s book offers in its final third, after discussing some of the many theatrical productions of the film material, an appreciation of its relevance, first to the legal world, and then to management theory and practice. Significantly, it is on the latter area that the earlier work of Professor Rosenzweig, who teaches business administration at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, has focused. These sections are less satisfying, maybe just less necessary for most of us, than telling the story. But we are indebted to him for once again presenting the virtues of this imperishable film – and not too soon.


John Romano is an Emmy-nominated writer and writer-producer for television. Its features include Lincoln’s lawyer and an adaptation by Philip Roth American pastoral. On television he has written / produced over 20 series of The blues of the hill street at Monk, and created three, of which sweet justice with Cicely Tyson.

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