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This is a novelisation of the 1993 film Philadelphia, which won Tom Hanks his first Academy Award. It’s important to note that the book is based on the film script rather than the film being adapted from the book, because when the book comes first there are usually at least some changes in the film. In this case however, the novel is quite literally a scene by scene story of the film, with the same dialogue throughout.

For anyone who isn’t aware, Philadelphia tells the story of a talented and successful lawyer named Andrew Beckett. He is gay and has full blown AIDS, which he has so far managed to keep to himself, his partner and family and his close friends. However, when the partners at the huge corporate law firm that he works at find out about his illness he is fired. Although they claim that it is due to the mediocre standard of his work, he is convinced that it is because of his illness and/or sexuality, and he decides to sue them. But finding a lawyer who will act for him in court proves difficult and he ends up hiring homophobic personal injury lawyer Joe Miller. Joe does not want to take the case because of his own prejudices, but his prevailing sense of fairness compels him to do so and now the two of them have to prepare for the biggest legal battle either of them have ever faced.

It’s virtually impossible to review the book without also reviewing the film, and while I have always considered both Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington to be superb in their respective roles in the film (Hanks is Andrew Beckett and Washington is Joe Miller), there are better films about HIV/AIDS crisis, and there are definitely better books about the subject.

Because the book is just a recap of the film, there is very little characterisation, because that all came through on screen. Consequently, all of the characters are basically cardboard cut-outs – Andrew is a brilliant and intelligent opera lover, Joe is a charismatic but prejudiced family man, Andrew’s partner Miguel is a hot-headed Spaniard. (Miguel’s character suffers the most from not being more fleshed out – I would have liked to have seen more about how he coped with his lover’s illness, in an emotional sense.)

The prose is certainly undemanding, despite the subject matter and I read the book very quickly. However, while it is perfectly functional, it never really does more than scratch the surface of the situation.

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James Stewart is Paul Biegler, a former District Attorney turned small town defence lawyer. He is called upon to defend Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), an Army Lieutenant accused of shooting dead the man who Manion believes raped his wife Laura (Lee Remick). As Paul digs deeper into the circumstances surrounding the crime, he realises that things are not as clear-cut as they initially seem. And that is before he has to face the fearsome – and fearless – prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C. Scott)…

Well….WOW! This is a superb film. I actually put off watching it for a long time because of it’s length; it runs at 2 hours 40 minutes, and I don’t generally like films that are much longer than two hours (blame it on my attention span). However this film gripped me from the word go, and once the action moved to the courtroom – about an hour into the film – it really became compelling viewing. The role that James Stewart will always be most remembered for is probably George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life. And while that certainly is a wonderful film, I preferred him here, and thoroughly enjoyed his performance as the morally ambiguous Biegler. He was not let down by the rest of the cast either – it’s hard to pick any one performance as outstanding, because everyone in the cast was excellent. Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Eve Arden (as Biegler’s smart, loyal but long suffering secretary), Arthur O’Connell (as Biegler’s friend, the alcoholic Parnell McCarthy, who finds a reason to stop drinking and start living, as he works with Biegler on the case), and George C. Scott. If this were any other cast, Scott would probably steal the show with his excellent performance!

The story ticks along nicely, with plenty of twists and turns, and I found myself switching points of view, and never quite sure what the truth was. There was tension, atmosphere and even a few laughs as the story unfolded.

However, I do have one gripe with this film and that was the ending! By that, I mean the last 7 or 8 minutes, which is not too bad for a film of 160 minutes. I won’t give anything away, but for me, the ending was unsatisfactory and not what I was hoping for. Nonetheless, it was a hugely enjoyable film, and I would certainly recommend it, especially to fans of courtroom drama – this is one of the best!

Year of release: 1959

Director: Otto Preminger

Producers: Otto Preminger

Writers: John D. Voelker (book), Wendell Mayes

Main cast: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, Kathryn Grant, George C. Scott, Murray Hamilton

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A jury has to decide whether a young Hispanic man is guilty of murdering his father – a crime for which, if convicted, he will be executed.  When they first enter the jury room, eleven of them are convinced he is guilty.  Only juror number 8 (Henry Fonda) thinks that the truth might not be as clear cut as it seemed in court, and tries to persuade his fellow jurors to think again.

This film is regarded as a classic, and it’s not hard to see why.  There were many things about it which I particularly liked – the fact that the vast majority of it is set in only one room, with just 12 people;  that there are no special effects or clever camera tricks – just great acting and a great script; that all of the characters are distinct, believable and portrayed by a terrific cast.  There’s not a weak link among the actors, but Joseph Sweeney, Lee J Cobb and Ed Begley get a special mention for their parts.

Henry Fonda is superb in the role of the dissenting juror.  The other jury members have their own reasons for believing the defendant to be guilty.  Some of them have considered the evidence and truly believe that he killed his father, some of them have allowed their own prejudices to dictate what they believe, one of them just wants to get out in time to go to a ball game that night.  And one man tells them that when a man’s life is at stake, they should perhaps at least give the matter some thought.

The small cast and single room setting (bar literally a few minutes of the film at the beginning and end that are not set in the room) make for a claustrophobic setting – add to the fact that it is one of the hottest days of the year and everything is getting sweaty and irritable – and (like Rear Window which I watched very recently) I felt that the viewer was placed in the room with the jury.

The best thing about the cast was that there were no really clear cut villains or heroes.  Yes, Fonda is probably classed as the hero of the piece, but he was just a normal man, a human being with his positive traits as well as his flaws.  And the same goes for the rest of the jurors.  Some of them display horrible characteristics, some of them are clearly very decent people, some of them are just unpleasant people…but they are all very ‘real’.  We all know people like all of these men.  I really liked the fact that – apart from two of the jurors – we never learn their names and only ever know them by their juror number.  We do learn in passing, what some of them do for a living as well as small details of their lives, but in general all that we know of these men is what we see of them in this room.

I love to see films like this – where special effects are eschewed in favour of great acting; where expensive scenery is not necessary, because you have a terrific taut storyline; where the enjoyment of the story lies in the journey, not the destination.  Henry Fonda regarded it as one of the three best movies he had ever made – and I can understand why. A real classic, which makes you want to punch the air in triumph – yes it looks a bit dated now, and yes a jury these days would not consist of just white males.  But the message in the film remains as relevant now as it was then.

If you like good drama, this film is definitely worth seeing.

Year of release: 1957

Director: Sidney Lumet

Writer: Reginald Rose

Main cast: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam, Joseph Sweeney

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Click here for my review of 12 Angry Men (1997)

Click here for my review of the 2013 stage adaptation of Twelve Angry Men at Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

Click here for my review of the 2015 stage adaptation of Twelve Angry Men at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre.

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