Monday, July 5, 2010

Classic Movie Review: 12 Angry Men

When you consider Sidney Lumet’s body of work as a feature film director (Serpico; Dog Day Afternoon; The Verdict; Network), so much of it can be traced back to his debut film 12 Angry Men. This simple little courtroom drama (which has only one scene take place in an actual courtroom), in which a single jury member bent on voting not guilty slowly convinces the other eleven to change their votes, paved the way for his career directing films about justice.

The film is based on a teleplay by Reginald Rose, who also wrote the screenplay. It is certainly idealistic in its moralizing and tub-thumping for the American Way. It’s a film that is in love with itself for representing the idealized version of our justice system. And although some of the scenes feel very stagy, it’s Lumet’s direction that makes the film rise above it all to achieve genuine greatness.

The film is little more than 90 minutes of 12 men hashing out arguments over whether or not a young man did or didn’t murder his father. Actually, it’s more subtle than that, but only a handful of the jurors recognize from the beginning that the verdict of guilty is meant to be given only beyond a reasonable doubt. “Reasonable doubt” is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot in America and most people know it and what it refers to, but I’d bet few people have ever really considered what it means, let alone put it into practice when judging a man’s guilt or innocence. Juror # 8 (Henry Fonda) doesn’t believe the kid to be innocent, he just thinks there were enough holes in the evidence to produce doubt. And if there’s doubt, how can they, in good conscience, send him to the electric chair?

The characters are something of a cross section of American archetypes: #11, the immigrant idealist (George Voskovec); #3, the hard-nosed traditionalist (Lee J. Cobb); #10, the bigot (Ed Begley); #9, the old man (Joseph Sweeney); #7, the indifferent sports fan (Jack Warden); #4, the stockbroker (E.G. Marshall); #5, the young man who came up in the slums (Jack Klugman). These characters are a living representation of the people who decide courtroom verdicts across the country. You’re supposed to see a bit of yourself and your friends and neighbors in these 12 men.

Lumet keeps a contrived scenario running with tension and good pacing. Some of this tension is developed in Rose’s screenplay. The film is set on the hottest day of the year in New York, in a jury room with no air conditioning and a fan that doesn’t work. As the hours tick by, the men get hotter and more irritable. The dialogue continually highlights the heat and the direction keeps our attention on it. Most of the men sweat and some of them smoke, only adding to the feeling of being in a stuffy room. As tempers flare, opinions are challenged and attitudes are pressed, the room gets hotter and hotter until the moment the votes come in 6-6 (“Even Steven,” as one juror says) and a storm begins to pass through. Then they discover how to make the fan work and the stress levels begin to abate. But it’s Lumet who uses the camera to build the tension. As the film progresses and more jurors change their votes to ‘not guilty’ it becomes increasingly difficult to turn the final holdouts. Lumet’s camera gets tighter on the characters and he switches from high angles to low angles looking up into their faces from chest level. Somehow the room seems to get smaller by the end too.

The dialogue is peppered not only with idioms and expressions, but also words that keep bringing to mind the case they are deciding. #12 talks at one point about the things the managers in his office say: “Let’s run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes it;” “Let’s throw it on the stoop and see if the cat licks it up.” One of the jurors uses a term of endearment toward some of the other men, referring to them as “killer” and another says the weather is “murder”. The killing references serve as a reminder of the reason for their being in that room. They are not only deciding a murder case, but deciding whether or not a young man will be sentenced to death. Combined with the expressions, they also remind us of the key phrase spoken by the alleged assailant: “I’m gonna kill you!” As #8 points out to #3, it’s a common expression that most people use on a regular basis and not necessarily evidence of someone’s guilt in a murder.

Perhaps unavoidably, some of the scenes have a very stagy feel. It’s sort of inevitable given the single setting and 12 characters who are virtually always on screen. The scene in which Juror #10 goes on a racist rant about “those people” feels the most contrived of anything. His tirade stretches on far longer than is reasonable and the way each man individually stands up and walks away from the table feels like stage blocking. It’s also a bit heavy-handed in its preachy message. But it’s important to consider that scene in context. The film was released in 1957, seven years before the Civil Rights Act, and only shortly after Brown v. Board of Education integrated public schools. In fact, the original teleplay was written before the landmark Supreme Court decision. That scene is the product of a country still desperately coming to terms with its racist past. I think we can forgive an idealistic message on racism produced at that time.

As I write this, the film sits in eighth place on the IMDb’s top 250 movies. That strikes me as remarkable for a film that is basically all talk and no action. It illustrates that 12 Angry Men is as powerful a film as you’re likely to see on the subject of the American Justice System.

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