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Gregory Peck stars as Tom Rath, the ‘man in the gray flannel suit’ of the title. The title was a metaphor for the corporate culture in America post-World War 2, and Rath is just such a man. A veteran of the war which finished ten years earlier, Rath has trouble coping with his life as a white collar office worker, and with a wife who wants him to be more ambitious and earn more money. He suffers with flashbacks to his time in the war, and memories of the Italian woman he fell in love with when he was a soldier – and their romance may have lasting repercussions.

About twenty minutes after I started watching the film, I considered turning it off, because I was expecting it to be boring. I did stick with it though, and I’m glad. Gregory Peck is one of my favourite actors, but it could be said that he didn’t have a great deal of range. He’s pretty perfect for this role though, and you could feel his frustration at trying to satisfy a demanding wife, connect with his uninterested children, hold down a good job (while coping with a colleague who seemed determined to put him down), deal with his past coming back to haunt him, and on top of all that solve a dispute regarding his late grandmother’s estate. Jennifer Jones was good as Tom’s wife Betsy, although I didn’t thnk she was a particularly sympathetic character.

There was quite a lot going on, and I felt that at least one subplot – where Tom is trying to settle his grandmother’s estate and is challenged by a former member of her staff, who claims that the old lady left the house to him – was probably unnecessary. Nonetheless, it was worth watching these few scenes if only for the excellent role played by Lee J. Cobb, as a sympathetic Judge who helps Tom (and later features again, helping with another problem). If Cobb had had a bigger part, he might well have stolen the whole film! Frederic March also played a superb part as Tom’s new boss, who has family problems of his own – a wife who he barely sees, and a daughter who is ashamed of him.

The ending does perhaps wrap things up a little too conveniently, but it was nice to see a clear resolution to the story.

Overall, while the film is slightly overlong (2 and a half hours), and possibly could have benefitted from some editing, it is definitely worth watching, especially for fans of Peck or March. I wouldn’t exactly call it enjoyable – it’s not supposed to be a happy film – but it did get under my skin somehow, and I would recommend it (it certainly made me think).

Year of release: 1956

Director: Nunnally Johnson

Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck

Writers: Sloan Wilson (book), Nunnally Johnson

Main cast: Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones, Frederic March

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James Stewart is terrific in this 1948 documentary-style drama.  He plays journalist Jim McNeal, who is sent to cover a story of a man who has been in prison for eleven years, for murdering a policeman found guilty – on the testimony of just one eyewitness (despite two other witnesses saying that he was not the killer).  The film is based on the the true story of Joseph Majczek, although here his name is changed to Frank Wiecek.

Initially, McNeal is sceptical and thinks that Wiecek is probably guilty, and covers the story purely because his editor )Lee J. Cobb) wants him to.  However, as he uncovers more about what happened, McNeal starts to believe that the man is innocent and becomes determined to try and prove it.

The documentary-style really works, with a voiceover – which isn’t overused and therefore isn’t intrusive – giving salient facts to the viewer, and showing the action through McNeal’s eyes.

This is the sort of role that James Stewart was perfect for – a crusader for truth – and he is just wonderful.  He always has an immense likability, which means that it doesn’t matter if occasionally his character is irascible…and we like him for his tenacity.

The supporting cast are great too – especially Lee J. Cobb as McNeals boss Brian Kelly, and Kasia Orzazewski as Weicek’s mother.

I kind of guessed how things would turn out, despite not knowing the outcome of the real story at the time – and I was right – but nonetheless I found myself silently cheering McNeal and hoping that he would find the much needed proof of innocence.

Definitely an enjoyable film – exciting not because of action – but because of the viewer’s desire to see justice done.  It’s not one of James Stewart’s most popular films, but it’s definitely worth seeing.

Year of release: 1948

Director: Henry Hathaway

Writers: Jerome Cady, Jay Dratler, Leonard Hoffman, Quentin Reynolds, James P. McGuire (articles), Jack McPhaul (articles)

Main cast: James Stewart, Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb, Betty Garde

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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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