Wednesday, July 28, 2010

12 Angry Men

Year: 1957
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 87
Writer: Reginald Rose
Director: Sidney Lumet
Star: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman

“12 Angry Men” exists in that minute gray area between logic and emotion—the place where men (and women) develop their personal set of morals and emotions. Learning the answers to the questions raised within the confines of that claustrophobic jury room would be anticlimactic, and writer Reginald Rose wisely chose to steer clear of them.

The 12 men in the title are jurors assigned to a murder case. The person on trial is a young (I think) Latino man accused of stabbing his father to death after being hit in the face one too many times. The judge seems bored as he instructs the jury of the weight of their situation, almost as if he is late for a lunch date. The men walk into a cramped, hot jury room without a working fan and windows that all but refuse to open. They seem to have collectively come to a logical conclusion already.

The first vote is 11-1 in favor of guilt, with Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) as the only hold-out. But at first Fonda doesn’t even seem so sure of himself, only asking that the other men at least spend a little time looking at the case before making such a weighty decision too quickly. Fair enough, some suppose, though others are in a rush to get out of the heat on the hottest day of the year.

It is important to note that Rose goes out of his way to ensure that all of the jurors are smart, free-thinking individuals. No one in the room asks stupid questions for the sake of the audience, and those who speak loudest and most eloquently are not always those who should be listened to. In fact, for the first act of the film Rose and director Sidney Lumet seem to go out of their way to be as unbiased as possible. But as the second act begins, Rose makes the creative choice to follow Fonda’s character into the bathroom instead of staying with the majority of characters. It’s a small moment, sure, but by doing this they show their support of Fonda’s character and his point-of-view in the surroundings. “Here is your hero,” they tell the audience, as if we didn’t already know. The movie would have been much stronger without this scene and this idea of how and what to think.
Fonda soon becomes a crusader for the accused, insisting that there is reasonable doubt in the case. At first he seems completely insane, but uses both logic and emotion to win over the other jury members. There is no precise moment where Lumet shows us that the tides have turned in favor of Fonda, and because of that there is an added layer of tension in the room. Up until the final reel, Fonda’s case seems lost because the viewer feels that two jury members will never change their vote, causing a hung jury and the boy’s subsequent conviction upon retrial.

Slowly but surely, the jurors go through every single piece of evidence in the case, from the testimony of the two eye-witnesses to the knife to the L-train, and amazingly there seem to be slight holes in each bit of evidence. One by one the jury is won over and soon Fonda seems more like the voice of reason as opposed to the lone, crazed crusader.

The movie was released in 1957 and, while its handling of race relations would seem overly clumsy or heavy-handed today, it’s fascinating to view the film as a portrait of a past time’s view of other races. I mentioned earlier that the accused is Latino, but he could just as easily be any other minority in America. The jurors never say exactly what race the boy is, instead referring to him as “one of them.” And it’s surprising to see how much racism several of the jurors get away with by saying it in passing.

For most of the movie Lumet is wonderfully understated in his visual style. Watching the film again, I was struck by how long several of the takes are. These are not showy, Hitchcockian long takes, but simply shots that focus on one or two characters as they try (and often fail) to communicate with one another. Lumet does go out of his way to show off once, though, and it’s a great moment. As one of the jurors begins a horrendous, racist rant against the accused and all of “his kind”, the camera slowly pulls back from the table to the corner of the room, supporting the viewer’s desire to remove himself from the scene. Then, one by one, the other jury members stand and turn away from the racist juror, mimicking the move of the camera.

The acting is wholly superb. Next to Fonda, many of the faces are familiar from episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” “The Outer Limits” and other B-films from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Most of the cast underplays their parts, and as a result their work is much more impactful than if they would have shot for the rafters. Look in particular at the work of Jack Klugman as the juror with a past in the slums and E.G. Marshall, who quietly continues to insist that logic must be supported in all aspects of the case and eventually becomes the most even-minded person in the room.

Despite all this, the movie does not convince me that the jurors came to the right decision. The climax of the film shows the lone hold-out babbling against the kid, listing desperately all of the evidence that seemed so damning earlier in the day. He finally stops and admits that he will change his vote…but his speech oddly convinced me that he might have been right. Sure, the jurors managed to poke minute holes into every major piece of evidence against the accused, but the chances of every single bit of that happening is impossible.

I’d buy that the boy lost the knife he bought and that he forgot the films he was watching because he was too emotional over the death of his father. I’d buy that the woman lying in bed across the street didn’t get her glasses on in time. I’d buy that the man didn’t get to the door in time to see the boy running down the stairs. I’d buy that he didn’t quite hear the boy’s voice threatening his father. I’d buy that you can find multiple examples of a knife in any given neighborhood. But all of those things together? I don’t think so.

Ah well, it’s nicer to imagine that the men came to the right decision. That their walk down the court steps and into the wet but cool evening was more triumph than tragedy.

And maybe I’m just cynical.

My Score (out of 5): ****

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