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‘12 Angry Men’ Guilty of Creating Tense Drama

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

The durable dozen. . . .

Sensational trials from the Menendez brothers to O.J. Simpson have increased public fascination with the inner workings of juries. That explains why jurors in such trials will continue to be hot tickets with morning shows, magazine shows, “Nightline” and Larry King.

And it explains the timelessness of Reginald Rose’s “12 Angry Men,” his 1954 “Studio One” television play about a day in the life of jurors progressing tumultuosly toward a verdict in a murder case, a work of psychological pinball that found still greater resonance in 1957 as a mesmerizing theatrical movie marking the big-screen debut of a young director named Sidney Lumet.

And now, some four decades later, comes a fine, pulsating revival on Showtime, whose original productions are growing ever more frequent and ambitious in its campaign for artistic parity in pay cable with Emmy-rich HBO.

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The director this time is William Friedkin. And the ensemble cast, as earlier, is uniformly outstanding in a movie whose intimacy and physical snugness are ideal for TV, offering a richness of writing and acting that in theatrical movies too often is precluded by the thundering din of in-your-face special effects.

If only those walls could talk? They do in “12 Angry Men,” delivering a blistering earful that belies its cocooned closeness and elevates talking heads to art that transfixes. As Lumet recalled on the cable channel Bravo recently about making the earlier movie when he was young and fearless: “Someone said, ‘You’re gonna have 12 guys in a single room for two hours?’ I said, ‘Yeah, what’s the problem?’ ”

No problem on the screen, as it turned out, for Rose’s words, and what they reveal about the characters who speak them, easily hold your interest despite the confined setting and the script’s basic predictability.

Friedkin’s staging for Showtime, too, exploits the spatial tightness, having you share the claustrophobia as tensions simmer, build, then explode inside this decrepit foxhole of a Queens, N.Y. jury room where the fate of a young Latino accused of fatally stabbing his father is being decided.

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With two eyewitnesses having testified against him, and his alibi soft, conviction appears to be a no-brainer. So . . . just take a quick vote, call the bailiff and get the hell out of there, because Tony Danza’s strident Juror No. 7 (names aren’t used during these deliberations) has tickets to the Yankees game, and his fellow jurors also want this over in a jiffy, without discussion.

With one exception--for when the jury votes initially, it’s 11-1, with Jack Lemmon’s Juror No. 1 the skeptical holdout. Initiating a methodical reevaluation of the evidence, he utilizes his architect’s knowledge of space and distance to raise doubts about the prosecution case.

His cool precision and logic set up the drama’s most combustible conflict, between him and George C. Scott’s Juror No. 3, a seething, uncompromising hair-trigger for conviction whose views of the accused man are shaped by his bitterness toward his own son. His fury and impatience grow (“Everybody’s heart is starting to bleed for this little kid. . . .”) as the guilty votes gradually peel away.

Nearly as fiery is Mykelti Williamson’s Juror No. 10, a sort of unfrocked Black Muslim whose hatred of whites gives Rose’s original palette of emotions and biases a more contemporary hue. He’s one of four African Americans added to the previously all-white juror panel. Otherwise, the play survives virtually unchanged.

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Although Lemmon’s role is the most pivotal and Williamson’s and Scott’s the showiest, as memorable in quieter moments are Hume Cronyn’s spiny octogenarian and Edward James Olmos’ thoughtful, fair-minded watchmaker. And yes, sitcom maven Danza, who has a new series on NBC this fall, holds his own in this snazzy cast, which also includes Courtney B. Vance, Ossie Davis, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Dorian Harewood, James Gandolfini and William Petersen.

Had this been a real case, probably a third of this jury would have been rejected by the defense during pretrial screening. Surely there would be some female jurors, too. Although having all males produces a distinctive dynamic (and “12 Angry Persons” would be an iffy title), there’s something surreal about a single-gender jury in 1997.

What’s more, the defendant’s attorney must be a real schnook to miss some of the things that Rose’s script has him overlooking to his client’s detriment. And what’s with the jury’s wall-unit air-conditioner, whose failure to work has temperatures inside the sweltering room rising along with tempers? Instead of pounding on the thing and initially sweating it out, wouldn’t they ask for it to be fixed once it was clear they’d be there for hours, not minutes?

In nearly all areas, though, “12 Angry Men” succeeds both as topical TV theater and commentary on behavior in a society teeming with hot-button social issues, using its corps of highly able actors to honor the solitary iconoclast resisting the herd’s mistaken collective wisdom. And to affirm that the meatiest, best-executed TV movies continue to be on cable.

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“12 Angry Men” premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday on Showtime. It has been rated TV-PG (may not be appropriate for young children).


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