12 Angry Men (1957, Sidney Lumet)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Though its cachet has shrunken in recent years thanks to its perceived blandness, this bare and minimalistic mid-’50s production, a labor of love for Henry Fonda that led to his swearing off producing forever, is in fact an unusual product for its era of Hollywood filmmaking. Flash forward to present day and of course this gung-ho catalog of the ins and outs of a jury room slowly changing its mind on a capital murder case, by extension the supposed better angels of the U.S. criminal justice system, is one of the first big classic American films most of us see. We might see it in school or on cable but most of us are exposed to it, and it’s an ideal access point to the typically more esoteric pleasures of older films — it’s extraordinarily accessible and has aged surprisingly well, thanks in large part to its sparseness — but it’s more rewarding (and oddly, fun, at least in performance and procedural terms) than you might remember if you’ve long since moved past it.

Based on a Reginald Rose teleplay that was featured on Studio One in 1954 (and directed then by Franklin J. Schaffner), 12 Angry Men is an atypical Hollywood narrative in three important respects: first, it is performed mostly in what appears to be real time for the breadth for its 96 minutes, which provides it with an unusually realistic rhythm — there is, for instance, a revealing scene of the jurors taking a break during which they stand around and smoke and chitchat. Secondly, it operates within a confined space like Lifeboat and Rope; but thirdly, it avoids theatrical staginess through director Sidney Lumet and cameraman Boris Kaufman’s surprisingly surreal, post-modern photography of the small room. Kaufman is best remembered now for his stark and beautiful photography of Hoboken in On the Waterfront, but 12 Angry Men is a more interesting piece of intricate blocking and almost avant garde treatment of actors, clearly owing a debt to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and its disorienting, unforgiving closeups careening across human faces.

An example: Lumet carefully chooses to allow the elderly juror portrayed by Joseph Sweeney to blend in during the early scenes, dominated by the outsized personalities of Lee Cobb, Ed Begley and Jack Warden — but suddenly, after dissenter Henry Fonda has calmly but persistently made his case for a not-guilty verdict, director and cinematographer suddenly bring Sweeney’s voice in as the second in Fonda’s chorus, and display him to us in a head-on, intrusively direct shot wherein his eyes burn directly into the camera, and for a moment the dialogue to follow is played wholly in tight shots, as though we are meant to be participants ourselves. The sweltering heat of the room therefore becomes nearly palpable as we watch the sweat form tears across the men’s faces, and the stress and claustrophobia of the room are just as tangible — the head-on glare out into the audience, a trick used sparingly by Alfred Hitchcock in Rear Window and The Birds and much later to become Jonathan Demme’s trademark, wakes us up and frees us from any notion of complacency. It reminds us of the grave importance of the task at hand, of deciding whether a boy will live or die based on our opinion of his guilt or lack thereof.

Of course, we’re not jurors and we did not see the trial itself — and therein lies the brilliance of Rose’s original concept. In the pursuit of an anonymous verdict, initially with eleven against one, the only element in which we can participate is driven by twelve distinct personalities, and perhaps by our own prejudices — and somehow, as much as things have changed since 1957, the bigotry and warring male impulses here in a racially charged capital case still seem ageless and relevant. To state the obvious: the actors carry the day here, and there are many performances to love in this film. Indeed, it’s crowded with them; everyone gets a chance to make a worthy and complex turn in this cramped little stage. Warden, Begley and Cobb’s macho bombast probably increases the film’s average volume tenfold, with Fonda and Sweeney the patrollers of good faith on the opposite end. But character actor John Fiedler, pricelessly meek as always, has a full-on character cycle in the background as he locates his voice. E.G. Marshall represents the logical conservatism to contrast Cobb’s railing psychosis — he’s respectful and reasonable but continues to position himself as Fonda’s antagonist until almost the finale. Edward Binns, George Voskovec and Robert Webber are given little to do but define their broad-strokes personalities, with Lumet and Rose’s help, with impressive speed.

For me, though, Jack Klugman and Martin Balsam steal the film — despite Henry Fonda being one of my five or six all-time favorite male actors. Fonda’s fine and emotionally believable indeed, but Klugman is brilliantly stunt-casted as a former slum kid whose palpable bristling at the hatred exhibited by some of his fellow jurors is read beautifully on his wounded face. And Balsam as the jury foreman gives what may be the best performance in an illustrious, too seldom recognized career; his easy presence and obvious warmth ground the entire picture, not merely because he’s the jury foreman. A nearly disconnected sequence in which he has a private conversation with Fonda is among the best moments of the film because it reveals both a certain crack of humanity within the procedural, and because it reinforces the zest of both men for the process they’re involved in, which some of their peers aren’t taking at all seriously despite the stakes. (At this point, Balsam still disagrees with Fonda and feels the boy on trial to be guilty of his crime.) We’re privy to details about the case as they’re discussed, of course, but the story is told through these characters, their faces, and the very few personal details they variously, incidentally offer us. If there was ever an actor’s movie, it’s this.

Not that Rose doesn’t deserve a lot of praise here; his screenplay boasts a certain geometrical perfection in the way that Fonda and Cobb are positioned as opposites — passionate, perhaps unreasonably so, on divergent ends of the decision — and become the first doubter and last holdout respectively. The momentous decisions are theirs, as well as Marshall’s (the eleventh to decide) and Sweeney’s (the first to join Fonda). Of course, Mike D’Angelo and Sonia Sotomayor make fine enough points about the legal absurdity of Rose’s script and its bungled ideas about circumstantial evidence and reasonable doubt. Briefly: as Vince Bugliosi would outline in his book about the O.J. Simpson trial, a mountain of circumstantial evidence can eventually render absurd the “reasonable doubt” dictum, the gist being that a number of Fonda’s points very much stretch the “reasonable” rubric. But I’m not convinced this isn’t deliberate, because for me all that’s erased by the fact that at its crucial bottom line this is a screed against the death penalty, in which guise it remains righteous and nearly without fault.

Besides, far from an open celebration of a strange but righteous factor of our democracy (something that doesn’t even apply to Anatomy of a Murder, which features a lofty speech about all this), the film’s indeed more complicated than any “instructional” interpretation of it suggests. Exhibit A: Jack Warden’s character; his contempt for the process is obvious throughout, and his reason for changing his vote to Not Guilty is not an actual change of heart but a burning desire to get home early. He admits as much, but no one can talk him out of it. This essentially illuminates a flaw in the trial by jury system. Exhibit B: the mirroring of Cobb and Fonda’s characters. For every over-the-top sequence like that in which the men stand one by one as Begley continues to rail about “those people — you know what I mean” (possibly an allusion to the Army-McCarthy hearings), there’s the more compassionate rendering of Cobb’s broken heart about his son, the way his prejudices have impacted his choices just as much as Fonda’s liberalism has. I don’t disagree with the argument that the film is flawed in its treatment of the court, but it doesn’t hold water to shoot holes through the case it presents when that’s hardly the point.

This remains, then, a hallmark in the Hollywood liberal cinema, a branch of moviemaking mostly saddled with overpraised clowns like Stanley Kramer — so we’ll take what we can get. To boot, it’s one of those Maltese Falcon instances of “holy shit, that was the director’s first movie!?” But it lingers in the mind, for me at least, more than anything because of its extraordinary final scene on the courthouse steps — names are vaguely exchanged as the bringers of justice go their separate ways, and I swear I can feel that free-falling rain on my face just when Fonda does.

[Embodies some parts of a short review I wrote of the film in 2004.]

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