Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Three Movies with Juries

I've never actually served on a jury, and have only been called for jury duty once. I was working in the County Law Library at the time, and the first time I was empanelled, I had to admit that I knew the prosecutor, as he was my supervisor's husband. The second time, I was challenged, because it was a date-rape case and I was (by the defense's lights) too familiar with the then-recent New Bedford pool table case and various opinion articles about it. So all I really know about juries I know from books, plays and films.

We recently watched three films in which juries played a major part. The first was the 1957 classic, Twelve Angry Men. Onkel Hankie Pants was in a local production of the play (amended to Twelve Angry Men and Women) last year, playing Juror #11, the immigrant watchmaker. The film came out a few years too early for us to have seen it in theaters, and somehow we had never watched it on television, so we were interested to see how it differed from the play.

As most people know, the entire action of the drama takes place inside the jury room on a very hot summer evening in New York. The twelve men on the jury are to decide a murder case: did a young man stab his father to death with a switchblade? A foreman is chosen and he takes a preliminary vote. The "Guilty" votes roll in, until Juror #8, Henry Fonda, is reached. He votes "Not Guilty". If not 12, there are at least several angry men immediately in the room, as they berate Fonda and state their belief in the defendant's obvious guilt. Fonda explains that he merely thinks they owe it to the defendant in a capital case to deliberate and be certain there is no reasonable doubt before convicting. Reluctantly, the others agree. As the jruors talk over the facts of the case, doubts creep in, minds and votes are changed, and the jurors' prejudices and personalities are revealed, particularly in the explosive ending.

In many ways this was the best drama of the three films, and yet the experience of watching it was not that different from watching the play (especially for me, since OHP's production was done "in the round" in a small space where the audience was only a few feet from the actors). The use of film techniques was limited to the abiliity to zoom in on a character's face or hands. (Well, I'm talking about techniques that are obvious to the layperson.) Generally speaking, I don't think this is considered to be a good way to make a movie, but in this case it worked. Do see this one if you haven't already.

Viewed as a film, The Runaway Jury (2003) was actually the best of the three "jury" movies. I think I'd actually chosen it just because I like John Cusack, and then coincidentally we had it at home along with the other two so we had a little "Jury Film Festival."

The plot deals with a wrongful death suit against a firearms company, brought by the widow of a stockbroker slain in a "disgruntled ex-employee" shooting. (OHP had read the book, which had the suit being brought against a tobacco company; by the time the film was made, that idea was a little outdated). The firearms company has hired a jury consultant (Gene Hackman) to help select the jury for this District Court case. It quickly becomes evident that the consultant and his minions are investigating all the potential jurors before the voir dire even takes place. (Not being an attorney, I don't know whether jury lists are public knowledge or whether they were doing this illegally by bribing somebody; it's not made clear.) John Cusack seems quite put out when he's called for jury duty, as it may interfere with some sort of video game championship. But despite his protests, he can't escape and is seated.

Dustin Hoffman, as the plaintiff's attorney, and Hackman soon begin to get calls offering them a verdict of their choice in return for a large sum of money. They also begin to see demonstrations that someone has power within the jury. Hackman brings all his resources, some of which are far from legal, to bear on finding out who it is; Hoffman is tempted, but he deeply believes in the jury system and the strength of his case, and he resists. In a scene in the palatial men's room of the courthouse, Hoffman and Hackman eloquently advocate for their very different views of law and justice.

This film, not surprisingly given its genesis as a John Grisham novel, is more of a mystery than the other two. Even as the viewer starts to figure things out, suspense is maintained until the satisfying conclusion. Highly recommended.

The Verdict (1982) was probably the weakest of the three films, although it's always a pleasure to watch Paul Newman act. (It was also interesting that two of the jurors in Twelve Angry Men, Jack Warden and Ed Binns, played parts in The Verdict: Warden as Newman's friend and Binns as the Bishop.)

The premise of the film is that Newman is an alcoholic, disillusioned, aging failure of an attorney in Boston. His friend and former colleague (Jack Warden) has steered a couple of clients to him who have a clear personal injury suit against a large Catholic hospital. Warden's intent is that Newman settle the case out of court, compensating the victim and resulting in attorney's fees that will allow Newman to retire. (The case centers on a young maternity patient who was given the wrong anesthesia and wound up in a vegetative state; the plaintiffs are her sister and brother-in-law, working class people who want to see the victim cared for so that they can leave for a better job in Arizona in good conscience). Newman visits the victim in the bare-bones care facility where she exists and, at virtually the last minute, decides, and persuades his clients, to take the case to a jury trial. Warden and others warn him that the Diocesan lawyer (James Mason) is not only highly skilled with many resources, but ruthless.

With Warden acting (inexplicably to me) as his unpaid law clerk, Newman searches out witnesses and plans his strategy, being thwarted at every turn by Mason and his minions. There is a bit of a love story with an unpleasant twist as well. Both the love story and the amount of concentrated legal work and legwork Newman does seemed unrealistic to us, considering the amount of drinking Newman's character continues to do. There is an element of mystery as Newman tries to track down the truth behind the anesthesia mistake and the witness who can tell it. The Verdict was an exciting story that held our interest, and both Newman and Mason turned in their usual good performances. Unlike the other two films, we do not see the jury deliberations in The Verdict, but we do observe a lot of the trial. The Verdict isn't as good as the other two films, but it was still an enjoyable way to spend an evening.

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