I saw the 1997 remake of this famous play from the `Golden Age of Television'. I've never seen the 1954 original in which Bob Cummings played Juror #8, (The Fonda/Lemmon role). But I have admired the 1957 film for years. Inevitably, when one sees the new version some kind of verdict must be reached on which is better.
The story is the same, with a few minor updates. (The case against the defendant seems spectacularly weak and rather easy for the hero to take apart- how could anybody rely on witnesses who heard things over the roar of a passing train or who saw the crime through its windows?) The real comparison is of the characters as played by the different casts of actors, both of which represent an incredible confluence of thespian achievement.
Juror #1: This is the jury foreman. He's played by Martin Balsam in the original as a nice guy who just wants everybody to get along. Courtney Vance seems a little more intense while retaining the strong desire for fairness and teamwork Balsam conveyed. In the new one, Vance is a football coach and one can sense that he views himself as the `coach' of this team. My vote goes to Vance.
Juror #2: John Fiedler, a short bald-headed actor with a squeaky voice and mild manner played #2 as a guy who just wanted to be helpful and not impose himself on the others. Ossie Davis is a very different actor and his juror #2 is a very different character, a common working man who remembers wise things others have told him and has an instinct for what's right and wrong, even if an uncomplicated one. He could hardly have led the battle for a not guilty finding as #8 does but he recognizes when the man is right. Davis is clearly the more interesting performer here.
Juror #3: This is the villain of the piece, who in the end becomes a pathetic figure. He wants to `get this kid' not so much because he's guilty but, it turns out, because he reminds him of his estranged son. He starts out as the garrulously arrogant leader of the wolfpack and, as he loses one ally after another, he seems, (to himself), as the last man at the Alamo until the real reason for his position is revealed to him. It's hard to think of two actors more similar than Lee J Cobb and George C. Scott, both of them lions not just in winter but for all seasons. Scott not only played this role that Cobb had made a meal of- he also played Cobb's most famous role- Willy Loman in `Death of a Salesman'. You could also picture Scott playing Johnny Friendly in `On the Waterfront' or Cobb playing the prosecutor in `Anatomy of a Murder, the manager in `The Hustler' or even `Patton'. The difference here is simply their ages and their states of health. Lee J. Cobb was 46 in 1957 and 19 years away from death and George Scott was 70 in 1997 and only two years from meeting his maker. He's fat, jowly and pretty pathetic looking from the beginning. Cobb is robust and intimidating until he collapses from within. He wins this one big and it's a big win for the old film.
Juror #4: In the original this man is played by the wonderful EG Marshall, who would go on to star in Rose's `The Defenders'. He is a man who possesses relentless logic but little imagination. He is able to see what is put in front of him and fit it together but not to view something from multiple perspectives, as could an architect, (Juror #8's profession). Only when the evidence from which he has assembled his point of view is methodically destroyed by #8 does he come to realize he is wrong. As good as Marshall is, I believe Armin Mueller Stahl tops him in the new version. Marshall's #4 is machine-like. Mueller-Stahl is just a regular man whose greatest skill happens to be logical thought, which is admirable but not enough.
Juror #5: Jack Klugman could be a powerful actor when he kept him mouth shut. When he talked too much, (as in `Quincy)', he was a little, (maybe a lot), too much. But his understatement in 12 Angry Men serves him much better. Still, I'll take Dorian Harwood's more intense and troubled #5. He seems to be wondering how his fellow jurors would grade him for things he's done.
Juror #6: James Gandolfini, several years before `The Sopranos' made him a star, plays a simple hulk of a man who is incapable of complicated thought but has a basic sense of honor. He hates it when anybody tries to push around `the old man', (juror #9). One wonders how the fact that the murder victim was a father played on his mind. (Rose updates his play by having #8 point out the many faults of the father: he drank, pushed around women, etc.,- this seems an unnecessary attempt to create sympathy for the defendant.). The 1957 character is much the same but the underrated Edward Binns plays him much better.
Juror #7: Jack Warden was much praised as the guy who just wants to finish in time to go to the ball game. He's always been one of my favorite character actors. Tony Danza is singled out for the most criticism because he's `a sitcom actor'. That said, Danza is quite as good as Warden. By the way, Jack Lemmon was also a `sitcom actor' in 1952's `Heaven for Betsy'.
Juror #8: The conscience of us all. Jack Lemmon would at one time have made a meal of this. He's pretty good here, but, like Scott, he's lost something in his old age. He's fat and dumpy and baggy-eyed. He lacks the nervous energy he once had. He can't make the big speeches with as much force as he once would have. Fonda is much stronger and more convincing.
Juror #9: The best thing in the new one is the priceless Hume Cronyn as `the old man', who does almost as much to sway his fellow jury members as #8 but seems too frail to stand up to their anger. His key revelation that the testimony of the other old man who was a witness may have been fueled by his desire to `be somebody' is poignant as #9 can obviously identify with that. Joseph Sweeney is competent in this role in the 1957 version but Cronyn is on another level entirely.
Juror #10: This is the `other' villain of the piece. His problem is bigotry. Rose cleverly converted the white racist of 1957 into a black racist in 1997, just to show that bigotry takes many forms. Mykelti Williamson gives a strong performance in this role but I still prefer Ed Begley's old wreck of a man, who retreats into a shell after everyone- even #3 rejects him.
Juror #11: This is a European immigrant who, perhaps because he is an outsider who has been judged by American Society since he got here, becomes one of the first converts. George Voskovic is fine in the original, Edward James Olmos his equal in the new one.
Juror #12: This is an air-headed salesman who sides with whoever looks like they are going to win. Lemmon would have been excellent in this role in 1957. Robert Webber was fine instead. CSI's William Peterson doesn't make much of an impression the remake, (except that he's put on a lot of weight in seven years).
So, I'll take Cobb, Binns, Fonda, Begley and Webber from the 1957 film and Vance, Davis, Mueller-Stahl, Harewood and Cronyn from the 1997 TV Movie, with the other two positions a tie. That leaves us with a 5-5-2 tie overall. But it's not really a tie. The two main roles are #8 and #3 and biggest `supporting' role #10 and the 1957 film gets a hat trick on those.
But each film is worth spending the time to watch and then watch over again the next time it's on.