It’s hard to remember these days, when movies that address social issues routinely die a quick death at the box office, that there was a time (roughly, the late 1940s to the mid-1960s) when Hollywood prided itself on it’s so-called social problem pictures, when screenwriters dared imagine (even at the height of the Hollywood blacklist, which also flourished during the same period) that movies could effect change in the real world and improve people’s lives. One such screenwriter was Abby Mann, who died Tuesday at 80, and whose works for film and television over nearly 50 years actually did achieve positive, real-world results. His teleplay for the 1973 TV movie The Marcus-Nelson Murders (centering on a favorite Mann topic, the railroading of the innocent) resulted in the freeing of the real-life suspect accused of the crimes. (To Mann’s chagrin, the movie served as a backdoor pilot for Kojak, which, aside from the charisma of Telly Savalas in the lead role, Mann found to be a pretty formulaic cops-and-robbers show.) Another Mann project, the 1978 miniseries King, prompted a belated Congressional inquiry into Martin Luther King’s assassination. And his 1995 cable movie Indictment: The McMartin Trial, helped mark the end of a wave of a witch hunt of day care providers accused of fantastic and bizarre claims of child molestations and satanic rituals.
Of course, Mann will be best remembered for his Oscar-winning screenplay for 1961’s Judgment at Nuremberg. (One of the key players in that film’s all-star cast, Richard Widmark, also passed away this week.) Mann managed to adapt his teleplay about Nazi war crime trials to the big screen at a politically sensitive time (the story was seen as a potential embarrassment to our Cold War ally, West Germany). Of course, the film itself was about the determination to see justice done despite political pressure. “I believe that a writer worth his salt at all has an obligation not only to entertain but to comment on the world in which he lives,” said Mann during his Oscar acceptance speech, “not only to comment, but maybe have a shot at reshaping the world.”
Still, it’s easy to forget, Mann was always a showman and anentertainer, not a polemicist. He treated characters on both sides ofan issue with fairness, even if it was always clear on which side hestood. His dramas were talky but no less riveting for that. Whichscreenwriters today are even willing to try to carry on in thattradition? Not many: maybe Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), Stephen Gaghan (Syriana),and of course, George Clooney, who was involved in both of those filmsas a star and producer, and who co-wrote his own Mann-ish movie, Good Night, and Good Luck.Generally, however, today’s studios and indie producers would rathermake a movie about almost anything else than social issues, lest theybum out the box office. Mann’s example should remind filmmakers andproducers that it’s possible to make such movies into crowd-pleasingentertainments, and maybe, in the process, to change some lives.