Catching-Up With Two Courtroom Dramas: Suspect and 12 Angry Men


As a part of my continuing effort to get caught up with reviewing all of the movies that I’ve seen this year, here’s two courtroom dramas that I recently caught on This TV.

  • Suspect
  • Released in 1987
  • Directed by Peter Yates
  • Starring Cher, Dennis Quaid, Liam Neeson, John Mahoney, Joe Mantegna, Philip Bosco, Fred Melamed, Bernie McInerney, Bill Cobbs, Richard Gant, Jim Walton, Michael Beach, Ralph Cosham, Djanet Sears 

Suspect is a hilariously dumb movie.  How dumb is it?  Let me count the ways.

First off, Cher plays a highly successful if rather stressed public defender.  And don’t get me wrong.  It’s not that Cher is a bad actress or anything.  She’s actually pretty good when she’s playing Cher.  But, in this movie, she’s playing someone who managed to graduate from law school and pass the DC bar.

Secondly, Cher is assigned to defend a homeless man when he’s accused of murdering a clerk who works for the Justice Department.  The homeless man is deaf and mute, which isn’t funny.  What is funny is when he gets a shave and a shower and he’s magically revealed to be a rather handsome and fresh-faced Liam Neeson.  Liam doesn’t give a bad performance in the role.  In fact, he probably gives the best performance in the film.  But still, it’s hard to escape the fact that he’s Liam Neeson and he basically looks like he just arrived for a weekend at Cannes.

Third, during the trial, one of the jurors (Dennis Quaid) decides to investigate the case on his own.  Cher even helps him do it, which is the type of thing that would get a real-life attorney disbarred.  However, I guess Cher thinks that it’s worth the risk.  I guess that’s the power of Dennis Quaid’s smile.

Fourth, the prosecuting attorney is played by Joe Mantegna and he gives such a good performance that you find yourself hoping that he wins the case.

Fifth, while it’s true that real-life attorneys are rarely as slick or well-dressed as they are portrayed in the movies, one would think that Cher would at least take off her leather jacket before cross-examining a witness.

Sixth, it’s not a spoiler to tell you that the homeless man is innocent.  We know he’s innocent from the minute that we see he’s Liam Neeson.  Liam only kills who people deserve it.  The real murderer is revealed at the end of the film and it turns out to be the last person you would suspect, mostly because we haven’t been given any reason to suspect him.  The ending is less of a twist and more an extended middle finger to any viewer actually trying to solve the damn mystery.

I usually enjoy a good courtroom drama but bad courtroom dramas put me to sleep.  Guess which one Suspect was.

 

  • 12 Angry Men
  • Released 1997
  • Directed by John Frankenheimer
  • Starring Courtney B. Vance, Ossie Davis, George C. Scott, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Dorian Harewood, James Gandolfini, Tony Danza, Jack Lemmon, Hume Cronyn, Mykelti Williamson, Edward James Olmos, William Petersen, Mary McDonnell, Tyrees Allen, Douglas Spain

The 12 Angry Men are back!

Well, no, not actually.  This is a remake of the classic 1957 film and it was produced for Showtime.  It’s updated in that not all of the jurors are white and bigoted Juror #10 (Mykelti Williamson) is now a member of the Nation of Islam.  Otherwise, it’s the same script, with Juror #8 (Jack Lemmon) trying to convince the other jurors not to send a young man to Death Row while Juror #3 (George C. Scott) deals with his family issues.

I really wanted to like this production, as it had a strong cast and a strong director and it was a remake of one of my favorite films.  Unfortunately, the remake just didn’t work for me.  As good an actor as Jack Lemmon was, he just didn’t project the same moral authority as Henry Fonda did the original.  If Fonda seemed to be the voice of truth and integrity, Lemmon just came across like an old man who had too much time on his hands.  Without Fonda’s moral certitude, 12 Angry Men simply becomes a story about how 12 men acquitted a boy of murder because they assumed that a woman would be too vain to wear her glasses to court.  The brilliance of the original is that it keeps you from dwelling on the fact that the accused was probably guilty.  The remake, however, feels like almost an argument for abandoning the jury system.

12 Reasons To Love 12 Angry Men


Everyone already knows that the 1957 Best Picture nominee 12 Angry Men is a classic.  We all know the film’s story — a teenage boy is on trial for murdering his family.  11 jurors want to convict.  1 juror doesn’t.  Over the next few hours, that one juror tries to change 11 minds.  Some of the jurors are prejudiced, some of them are bored, and some of them just want to go home.  And, as the film reminds us, all 12 of them have a huge  responsibility.  You don’t need me to tell you that this is a great movie.  Therefore, consider this to be less of a review and more of an appreciation of one of the best movies ever made.

1) The film is the feature debut of director Sidney Lumet.  As any student of American film can tell you, Sidney Lumet was one of the most important directors in the history of cinema.  After beginning his career in television, Lumet made his film directing debut with 12 Angry Men and he was rewarded with a much deserved Oscar nomination for best director.

2) The film’s story is actually a lot more complex than you might think.  12 Angry Men is such an influential film and its story has been imitated so many times that it’s easy to forget that the film’s plot is a lot more nuanced than you might think.  Despite what many people seem to think, Juror Number 8 never argues that the defendant is innocent.  Instead, he argues that the state has not proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt and, as a result, the defendant cannot be convicted.  That’s an important lesson that is too often forgotten.

3) The movie celebrates the power of one person determined to do the right thing.  Again, that’s a lesson that remains very relevant today.

4) As Juror Number Eight, Henry Fonda makes human decency believable.

5) As the angry and bullying Juror Number Three, Lee J. Cobb is the perfect antagonist.

6) As Juror Number Ten, Ed Begley makes Cobb seem almost reasonable.  To be honest, the scene where Begley’s racist ranting causes all of the other jurors to stand up and turn their back on him feels a bit too theatrical.  But it’s still undeniably effective.  Alone among the jurors, Juror Number Ten is the only one without any hope of redemption.  It’s a bit of a thankless role but Begley does what he has to do to make the character believable.

7) E.G. Marshall makes the wealthy Juror Number Four into a worthy opponent of Fonda without crossing the line into prejudice like Cobb and Begley.  In many ways, Marshall’s role is almost as important as Fonda’s because Marshall’s performance reminds us that not all disagreements are the product of ignorance or anger.

8) As the Jury Foreman, Martin Balsam is the epitome of every ineffectual authority figure.

9) As Juror Number Seven, Jack Warden is hilariously sleazy.

10) As Juror Number Nine, Joseph Sweeney grows on you.  The first time I saw the film I thought that Sweeney went a bit overboard but, on more recent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate Sweeney’s performance.

11) As Juror Number Twelve, Robert Webber is hilariously shallow.  Juror Number Twelve is in advertising and Webber seems like he was right at home on Mad Men.

12)  Though they don’t get as much of a chance to make an impression, John Fiedler, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, and George Voskovec all do good work as the other jurors.  If there’s ever been a film that proves the value of a great ensemble, it’s 12 Angry Men.

Scenes I Love: 12 Angry Men


With the recent passing of filmmaker Sidney Lumet I’ve gone through some of the films of his I’ve come to see as favorites of mine. One film which always came to the forefront whenever I spoke about Lumet as a filmmaker is his directorial film debut in 1957 with his adaptation of 12 Angry Men. Of all his films this is the one which I always go back to time and time again. Part of me is somewhat biased in regards to this film since I was part of a class reading of the original teleplay and played the role of Juror #3.

The scene in the film which I love the most has to be when Juror #8 (played with calm assurance by Henry Fonda) and Juror #3 (played with seething rage by Lee J. Cobb) finally get into it after a very long deliberation in trying to find a consensus on the guilt or innocence of the defendant in their case. I love how in this scene everything that’s right about the American jury system was being upheld by Juror #8. How the guilt or innocence of the defendant should come down to just the facts of the case and combing through all the testimony. How emotions and personal feelings and bias should never enter the equation. It is a person’s life in their hands and it is a responsibility too great to leave it to emotions to find the verdict.

This scene also shows the darker side of the American jury system in that there will be, at times, people chosen to preside as a juror in a case will come in with emotional baggage and a hidden agenda which clouds their decision making. They don’t look at the facts and testimony at hand but at what they believe to be true no matter what the facts may say otherwise. this is how the jury system becomes twisted and becomes part and parcel to the notion that justice is never truly blind but always colored by human frailties and prejudices.

Even 54 years since the films first premiered it still holds a powerful effect on me and those who sees it for the first time. It helps that you have a master filmmaker in Sidney Lumet guiding an exceptional cast of actors. One could come to the conclusion that the audience has the angel on one shoulder with Juror #8 and the devil on the other with Juror #3. All in all, a great scene that always stays with me long after the film has ended.

Rest In Peace: Sidney Lumet


Sad news came across the news wire this morning as it was confirmed that one of the most esteemed filmmaker in America has passed away at the age of 86. Sidney Lumet was considered by many as one of the best filmmakers of all-time. He definitely is one of the best, if not the best, American filmmaker of all-time.

Lumet was quite prolific as a filmmaker since he began to work behind the camera starting in 1957 with the classic drama 12 Angry Men and ending with his most recent work in 2007 with Before the Devil Knows Your Dead. In between these two films he would direct another 43 films with all of them received positively by critics and audiences everywhere. He was the consummate professional and never waited for the perfect project to come along. He always went into a film project because he either liked the script or, barring being in one which didn’t have a script he liked, it had actors he wanted to work with or he wanted to test his abilities as a filmmaker with new techniques.

Sidney Lumet began his career directing Off-Broadway plays and summer stock productions. He would soon move into directing tv shows in 1950. It would be his time as a tv director where turn-arounds between episodes were so short that a director had to work quite fast that he would earn the reputation as a filmmaker who didn’t spend too much time shooting too many takes of a scene. Lumet became known as a filmmaker who would shoot one to two takes of a scene and move onto the next. Another tool he learned as a tv director that served him well once he moved into film was to rehearse for several weeks with his actors the script before starting up actual production behind the camera.

It was in 1957 when he finally moved into filmmaking with 12 Angry Men (itself previously a teleplay for a TV drama) which would catapult him into prominence in the film community. The film was well-received and still considered by many as one of the most influential films of its kind as it highlighted social injustice in a time when such themes were not considered profitable by studios and the people who ran them. This was the film which would help build the foundation of Lumet’s filmmaking-style as he would continue to use filmmaking as a way to tell the audience about social injustices not just in his preferred film location of New York, but in America and the world, in general. Some of the best films in American history were done by him during the 1970’s when he would take the chaos and public distrust of long-standing public institutions in the US and crafted three of the finest films of the 70’s and America as it was during that decade with Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Network.

Sidney Lumet’s legacy as a filmmaker will continue to inspire young filmmakers long after his passing. He was a man who looked at filmmaking as an artform and not just a way to entertain the audience. His films never talked down or pandered to the very general public who watched them unlike some of the filmmakers working in the industry today. His legacy as being the consummate “actor’s director” meant that one didn’t need to be dictatorial with his cast and crew to create a great piece of filmmaking. That there were other ways to make a film and do it in such a way that everyone were still able to give their best without being alienated to do so.

My very first experience when it came to Sidney Lumet had to have been watching his Cold War classic, Fail-Safe, in high school history and it was one of those films which got me looking at film as something more than a form of entertainment. Here was a film that was entertaining but also one so well-made and acted that it’s ideas and themes were not lost. It opened up my eyes to the possibility of film as a medium that could be used to teach, raise issues to debate in society and highlight both the good and the bad of the human experience.

Sidney Lumet has made such an impact not just on those who were fans of films and grow up to become players in the industry, but also those people who would work in other fields of life whether they were lawyers, judges, police officers or politicians (professionals he would use over and over in his films throughout his career). Even Supreme Court Justice SOnia Sotomayor would look at Lumet as an inspiring figure in convincing her that she made the correct choice in choosing law as the path for her professional life.

I find it one of the most fitting tribute for Sidney Lumet that his time as a filmmaker and doing what he enjoyed doing the most became inspirational for people of all color, stripe and creed. This was a man who didn’t just take from the public but gave back just as much in the end. America has truly lost one of its best artists.

Serpico

The Hill

Dog Day Afternoon

Network

The Verdict

Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead

Film Review: Dog Day Afternoon (dir. by Sidney Lumet)


Last night, as part of my continuing mission to see every film ever nominated for best picture, I watched Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day AfternoonDog Day Afternoon was released in 1975.  Though nominated for best picture, it lost to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

In Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino plays Sonny, a nervous Viet Nam vet who, along with the dim-witted and possibly crazy Sal (John Cazale), attempts to rob a bank.  Unfortunately for him, Sonny doesn’t really know what he’s doing and literally within minutes of him first drawing his gun, the bank is surrounded by cops.  The robbery quickly descends into a hostage situation.  As Pacino negotiates with a NYC police detective (Charles Durning), a crowd of onlookers gathers around the bank and starts to cheer with every defiant word that comes out of Sonny’s mouth.  Sonny discovers he likes his new-found fame.  In the film’s most famous scene, he stands outside the bank and leads the crowd in a chant of “Attica!  Attica!”   Eventually, Durning learns that Pacino’s motive for robbing the bank was to steal enough money for his suicidal lover (Chris Sarandon) to get a sex change operation.  However, now that the robbery has failed, Pacino has a new plan.  He demands a flight out of the country.  Meanwhile, the hostages inside the bank start to form their own odd kinship with the two bank robbers and Durning finds himself being challenged by the F.B.I., who have a much more drastic plan for how to end the situation.

Dog Day Afternoon is a remarkable film, a dark comedy of desperation and human nature that, by the final scene, reaches a certain tragic grandeur.  Sidney Lumet (who made his directorial debut in 1957 with 12 Angry Men and whose most recent film, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, was released 51 years later) was one of the most important (if underrated) filmmakers of the 1970s and he proves it here.  From the opening montage of New York City looking so wonderfully sordid at the height of the grindhouse era to Pacino’s bumbling initial attempt to rob the bank to the film’s violent and abrupt conclusion, Lumet captures your attention and, much like Al Pacino in this movie, he holds it hostage until the movie ends. 

Dog Day Afternoon is probably one of the best acted films that I’ve ever seen.  This is one of those films where every role — regardless of how large or how small — fills like an actual human being.  By the end of the film, you feel as if you know the bank managers and the tellers almost as well as you know Pacino, Durning, Sarandon, and Cazale.  Pacino is simply amazing here, giving a nervous, jittery performance as a character who manages to be both selfish and selfless at the same time.  Durning, meanwhile, is hilarious as the frazzled detective who finds himself steadily overwhelmed by the circus around him.  Much as you can’t help but root for Pacino no matter how self-absorbed he might act, you can’t help but sympathize with During, even if he is a member of the establishment.  As Pacino’s transsexual lover, Sarandon plays his role with a fragile dignity that prevents the role from becoming a stereotype.  However, for me, the film truly belongs to John Cazale who is both scary and oddly child-like as Sal.  As seen below, Cazale improvised one of the best lines in the movie when he replies to Pacino’s question regarding to which country Cazale wants to make his escape.

Now, this is going to be difficult for me to admit but, as thrilling as it was to watch Pacino shout, “Attica!  Attica!,” I honestly had no idea why that phrase was the one he chose to use to work up the crowd.  In fact, if I had written this review right after seeing (or while watching) the film last night, I probably would have doubled embarrassed myself by claiming that Pacino was shouting “Ateka.”  However, for once, I decided to be a responsible reviewer and I actually did some research as opposed to just going with my first conclusion.  So, as a result of this film, I can now say that I know about the Attica Prison Riots of 1971.

But what’s truly significant about that “Attica” chant is that it’s the only part of this film (beyond a few fashion choices) that feels dated.  As I watched the movie, it was easy for me to imagine myself jumping on twitter and seeing “#Attica” as a trending topic.  We’ve all seen the famous “Attica!” scene in countless compilations but what’s often forgotten is how that sequence ends.  When Pacino, obviously a bit star struck by all the attention, goes outside and start chanting a second time, he is suddenly tackled from behind by one of the bystanders who has decided to play hero.  And as Pacino goes down to the ground, the same crowd that was previously cheering him now cheers for the new object of their affection.  If nothing else, Dog Day Afternoon showed why sometimes we all need to escape to Wyoming.