Friday, April 15, 2016

12 Angry Men (1957)

USA, 96 minutes
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Reginald Rose
Photography: Boris Kaufman
Music: Kenyon Hopkins
Editor: Carl Lerner
Cast: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Jack Klugman, George Voskovec, Robert Webber, Edward Binns, Joseph Sweeney

12 Angry Men may be director Sidney Lumet's first feature film, but it draws on many years of experience in the early days of broadcast television, taking on the self-serious grain of message pictures and the confined space of a soundstage to the point where it's almost dreary. Reginald Rose's screenplay is based on his own stage play about a jury deliberation that proceeds much in the format of an Agatha Christie "10 little Indians" tale. We only learn about the murder case they are deliberating by way of their own sparring analysis and debate. On their first ballot, early in the movie, when they finally sit down to start hashing out a verdict, the tally is 11 to one for conviction. It's the hottest day of the year, a thunderstorm is brewing up just outside the windows, and they have to make a decision.

Rose's story is fairly pat—you come to understand quickly that the drift here is changing "guilty" votes to "not guilty" votes, one by one. There are many convenient plot points along the way but nothing egregious. It feels, still, vividly evocative of its time (which is not to say dated by any means), addressing most directly issues of prejudice and bigotry there at the early years of the modern civil rights movement. We get one look at the defendant in the establishing shots early. He is a young man of color, but after that it is perfectly ambiguous. He could be Arabic, Mexican, Italian, Greek, or many other ethnic strains or combinations. But more than that, more than anything, 12 Angry Men comes across as a nearly full-throated affirmation of the American system of justice, albeit leaving room for concerns about it from many different directions.

It's dated in innumerable ways, of course—even within the span of a lifetime certain points of view turn into certain antiques. To get this out of the way, then, it's not just 12 angry men, it's 12 angry white men—although, interestingly enough, it must be said that a few of them, not just the defendant, fall into unclassifiable types that almost aren't really white men by the standards then—Italian, say, or Jewish—which we would consider white now with virtually no second thought. At least one of them, Juror #5 (Jack Klugman), grew up in "a ghetto." So it's enlightened, but it's still 1957. (In 2075, if we can make it, it's likely we will write about 2016 times in similar terms—or maybe in 2035, at the rate we're going.)

One of the most famous scenes is occasioned by an outburst from Juror #10 (Ed Begley)—I'm pretty sure juries get to know each other's names, by the way, but the anonymity here is effective for the mood—railing on about "those people" and such. It seems mild compared with some of Donald Trump's public statements, but the others find it so vile and hateful they literally turn their backs on him. The message is crystal clear, but in that moment the movie lurches into a romantic mood that is so weirdly at odds with the naturalistic somber tone that it's unbelievable. But I don't know—is that something people did? Turn their backs on people saying things they strongly took issue with? Seems more likely sputtering and swearing and trying to change the subject would be the order of the day.

From my point of view, the real calling card of this fascinating and intricate little picture is the ensemble performance. It is a stellar cast, though amazingly the only one with much of any film profile at the time was Henry Fonda, who plays Juror #8. Lee J. Cobb, as Juror #3, had established himself a few years earlier in On the Waterfront (which similarly drew on New York talent). But so many of these players were virtual unknowns outside of New York theater circles— Martin Balsam, for example, or Klugman, E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden.

They're all good too, every one of them, working off of each other in sometimes mannered ways that feel a little rehearsed. But each character, closely observed, has been worked up carefully and deliberately by each player. Among other things, it feels like watching a good jazz band work through a set, each of the 12 players assigned a distinctive part and working it out carefully from there, like football plays. It's no surprise that this started as a theater production, with its focus on performance and constricted space. The real calling card of Sidney Lumet, it can be argued, is his facility with actors. His movies range wide across topic and mood, but they often have at least one powerhouse performance.

Yet it's possible I'm underselling Lumet's technical skills. I looked up Roger Ebert's review of this picture after seeing it again recently and found technical points I had missed entirely: across the scope of the picture, Lumet systematically changed the focal length of the lens to make the room feel like it was gradually shrinking. At the same time, by thirds, he pitched the camera level from higher, to medium, to low, so that in the final third even the ceiling is glimpsed enclosing the jurors in a claustrophobic grip. It's also interesting that it's almost specifically more televisual than cinematic—that is, it plays fine on a small screen, and almost feels as if it were intended that way. 12 Angry Men is a remarkable film in numerous ways.

Top 20 of 1957
1. 12 Angry Men
2. Nights of Cabiria
3. Sweet Smell of Success
4. Paths of Glory
5. Kanal
6. Men in War
7. Night of the Demon
8. 3:10 to Yuma
9. Peyton Place
10. The Seventh Seal
11. Wild Strawberries
12. What's Opera, Doc? (7 min.)
13. The Bridge on the River Kwai
14. The Incredible Shrinking Man
15. A Face in the Crowd
16. The Three Faces of Eve
17. Witness for the Prosecution
18. Fear Strikes Out
19. Throne of Blood
20. Elevator to the Gallows

1 comment:

  1. I know teacher friends who still use this one in their classes. I'm actually a little surprised to see you place it so high.