Review of "12 Angry Men" (1997)

This film is a remake of the 1957 film "12 Angry Men". It is not preferable to review a film on the basis of it being a remake, rather than purely upon its merits considered standing alone. And, indeed, taken on its own, without consideration of its predecessor or of the original stage play, this film would be quite passable fare as "made for TV" films go. But for reasons that will become clear the fact that this film is a remake of an earlier film is quite important to any review of it.

It is sad to say that in my experience remakes, in the main, are generally inferior to the films from which they are derived. (Ian Carpenter, an erstwhile university friend of mine, were he to read this, would no doubt chuckle at my taking this position on derived works, considering the arguments that we once had on the relative merits of films and their novelizations.) Unfortunately, this experience was further compounded by the fact that I would rank the 1957 film in my top 10 list of best films of all time, thus setting the bar for any similar film, or for a remake, very high indeed. Although, knowing this beforehand and determined to counteract any influence that it may have on my opinion, I did my best to give this film a fair and unprejudiced audience, as it progressed I became more and more certain that, disappointingly, it was going to be no exception to this rule - right up until the point that Juror #3 gave his speech to the other jurors at the end of the film.

The "supporting" cast (inasmuch as any of the cast can be said to be "supporting", given the ensemble nature of the setting) list of the 1957 film comprises a list of actors who, whilst not huge celebrities, are reasonably well known and oft seen in other star rôles; and the "supporting" cast list of the remake is similarly endowed with well-known-but-not-huge names who have starred in other rôles such as James Gandolfini, Hume Cronyn, William L. Petersen, and Courtney B. Vance. As with viewing the 1957 film, one finds onesself recognising familiar faces and voices as the jurors first appear on screen. None of the actors let the film down with their performances, although James Gandolfini's too-even delivery in his character's toilet scene with Jack Lemmon does slightly hide the meaning of the dialogue and leave a small something to be desired. What let the film down are the direction, the editing, and the script.

It may sound peculiar, but the direction lets the film down by trivializing the weather. The storm, both as it is impending and as it breaks, provides a subtle parallel to the debate amongst the jurors. Almost as the storm breaks, the discussion subtly changes. The 1957 film makes the most of this allegory. The sweat of the characters reflects their emotional intensity, with the most cooly logical character not sweating at all, and the heat of the impending storm is made almost palpable by both dialogue and by action as characters continually cool themselves off in various ways. In contrast, whilst the words may be largely the same (although the fan is now an air conditioner), in this remake the characters discuss the weather ... as if they were merely discussing the weather, and the allegory is greatly weakened.

The major place where the editing lets the film down is in the "I'm going to kill you!" fight between Juror #3 and Juror #8, where the impact and the relevance of Juror #3's angry outburst is lost by the too-quick cut to the shot of Juror #8's ironic response. One of the major elements of the gradual, point by point, demolition of the prosecution case, that undermines the initial certainty in the minds of the 11 jurors, which the film traces, is lost because it passes by too quickly.

The script lets the film down because this film is one of that kind of remake that resets the 1957 film in a "modern" setting. As with many such remakes, this film consequently suffers from anachronisms and from bizarre reinterpretations of the original story. The updating is patchy and inconsistent, and as a consequence of this in several important ways detracts from the meaning of the film.

For example: Whilst all of the jurors in the 1957 film were white anglo-saxon, in the remake there is an ethnic and racial mix of jurors. Whilst this may make the film more palatable to the taste of the modern viewing public (although there are still no women on the jury, of course - which is surprising given that we are expected to infer a purportedly "modern" jury selection process, but which is understandable given the film's title; and which still leaves one waiting for 12 Angry People or - perhaps more interestingly - 12 Angry Women to be made in the future), it removes an important but subtle pillar from the foundation that held up the story in the original, namely the tension caused by 12 WASPs considering a defendant who is "one of those people". The changing of Juror #10 from a white xenophobe to an Nation of Islam extremist may score points as oblique social commentary about the ubiquity of racial bigots, but almost wholly undermines that point in the film where the other jurors distance themselves from his opinion, because (unlike as in the original, where they all can) several of the jurors cannot have been expected to have shared that point of view in the first place.

For another example: Whilst the bigotry may have been updated, the actual discussion of the case has not. Whilst the film is clearly intended to take place in "the present day" (given the change to the year that one character mentions) some features of the present day world are simply ignored, leaving the thinking and the actions of the characters seeming somewhat anachronistic. No mention is made, when the subject of the female witness' eyesight comes up for discussion, of the possibility of soft contact lenses that one can leave in as one sleeps. Yet this is something that, today, at least one person in a group of 12 reasonably well-informed people would think of as a counter-argument. One character still asks for "a watch with a second hand". Yet today one might ask for "a watch with a stopwatch". Another character still waits (as in the 1957 film) for the second hand of his watch "to reach 60". Yet today he would perhaps say that he was trying to work out which buttons to press to invoke stopwatch mode, or perhaps say that he was having difficulty pressing the tiny fiddly buttons.

The "headline" cast comprises Jack Lemmon and George C Scott. (A trivial datum for those who enjoy these things: At one point, George C Scott's character sarcastically calls Jack Lemmon's character "Clarence Darrow". Two years after this film, George C Scott and Jack Lemmon starred in another remake, of "Inherit The Wind", with George C Scott playing Matthew Harrison Brady opposite Jack Lemmon playing Henry Drummond - a fictional character based upon the real life Clarence Darrow.) Both of these acquit themselves well, of course, as is to be expected. However, it is George C Scott that contributes most to this film, with a surprise right in the final few minutes.

As I said earlier, right up until the point that Juror #3 makes his speech to the other jurors at the end, this film was a disappointment when compared to the 1957 film. However, the end of the film is a welcome surprise. It is in this final speech, George C Scott's superb impassioned delivery of it, and George C Scott in the final closing shot, all exposing the motivations and feelings of Juror #3, where this film is actually better than the 1957 film.

My recommendation, to those who have never seen either film, is to watch the 1957 version first to enjoy the dialogue and the gradual character development and interplay to their fullest in a historical setting where both the particular racial and social prejudices that underpin a lot of that interplay and the discussion of the case at least make sense, and then to watch this one to enjoy George C Scott's performance.

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