12 Angry Men (1957), or The Storm Outside and The Storm Inside

5 01 2009
Great poster, but what an awful tagline!

Great poster, but what an awful tagline!

Before today’s feature, I have to give a shout-out to Kevin, who suggested this movie. Kevin has good taste, and it shows in today’s fine selection.

Today we take a look at a groundbreaking film, 12 Angry Men, one of the only trial movies I’ve ever loved. Well, before we come to that, may I ask a personal question? Oh, I may? Good! When was the last time you saw this movie? If you’ve seen it at all, most people have seen this film in school by their junior or senior year. It’s one of those mandatory viewings that I feel is a double-edged sword. Because while it is important to watch these classics for all their value, be it historical or cultural, it must be noted that by making them mandatory, one makes an excuse for the student to not search these films out on their own, which is what leads to an overall devaluing of classics like these. Because if you’ve seen it in high school, odds are you felt like you got the gist of it. But think about it for a second. How old were you then? Fifteen? Sixteen? You probably did not understand then as you might now how fresh this idea was and how powerful it still is, and how much more tense it is now as you grow older, with all the stake you have now in your own community. This is important stuff, people. The kind of important stuff that merits multiple viewings.

The screenplay was adapted from a play by Reginald Rose of the same name that was originally a teleplay for CBS on the classic Studio One drama anthologies that was also of the same name. It’s quite simple, really. There is an 18 year old boy on trial for murder in the 1’st degree, and it’s up to 12 jurors to deliberate on his guilt or innocence. The men are sent inside the jury room to discuss the details, and that’s where we stay for the next 90 minutes, with them and their heavy decision. At first it seems very open and shut, but doesn’t everything at first? When they put in their preliminary voting to see where they all stand, eleven people immediately vote guilty. Only one person steps forward to voice a different opinion; Mr. Henry Fonda, aka Juror Number 8. He is not even sure of the guilt or innocence, but ay, there’s the rub. He’s not sure. It all comes down to a reasonable doubt, and that is the core of the film. These eleven other men have an unreasonable certainty, and in a trial like this where the facts aren’t all that they seem to be, that can be a most perilous thing indeed.

The entire movie, with the exception of a couple scenes at the beginning and the end, are all in the jury room. There really is a feeling of claustrophobia in the air. It is a hot day, the fan doesn’t work, and they have already been listening to the trial for six days already. You get that sinking feeling you feel when you’ve been in an elevator for longer than thirty seconds, the feeling of being too close to another man. It was a terrific idea to have no cutaways. Much like the characters, there is no respite for the audience until this matter is settled.

The acting is, of course, phenomenal. It’s the only thing to fill up the screen! Besides the obvious performances, like Lee J. Cobb’s troubled, angry Juror Number 3 and Fonda’s cool and confident naysayer Juror Number 8, the other jurors all provide a wonderful collage of America. There’s the meek and wimpy Juror Number 2 played by professional wimp John Fielder, who wants his voice to be heard, but doesn’t know just how loud to be. And George Voskovec as Juror Number 11, a naturalized citizen who brings a different perspective to the case from all the native-born jurors. And there’s just brilliant little flourishes here and there that just pique your interest. The judge sounding almost bored at the end of the trial, Joseph Sweeney’s Juror Number 9 who has a melancholy moment when he describes an old man that took the stand who was just a bit like himself. Combined it makes a startlingly powerful drama.

I love it when a score is sparse, for the most part. But every now and then I wish more was done with the music. My only problem really is that I think it should have been used more, almost like a 13’th person in the room to symbolize their decision. Here it seems a bit timid and limp, but I feel with a few more key scenes having underlying music, it could have stood stronger.

First-time movie director Sidney Lumet and one of the mavens of classic cinematography Boris Kaufman brought the house down with the taut, driving deliberation scenes. I like to think of them as a WWE tag-team wrestling duo. One set up the scene to perfection, the other shot it like a pro. Tag in, tag out, they wreck the viewer like a 10 car pile-up. The close-ups are as tight as the cramped spaces these men occupy. When they put that lens right up in their face, I would swear I saw the essence of some of those people, their truest selves. Spectacular.

You don’t need me to tell you that this movie is good. Maybe I just need to tell you to watch it again. It’s classic American film-making with big stars who actually deliver (believe it or not). It was a milestone of yesteryear, and it’s still teaching us about our unique American experience in the court system today. I give it 81/2 hot-as-hell jury rooms out of 10.

See you tomorrow, where we talk about Whale Rider, another reader suggestion. Until then!