Monday, December 13, 2010

12 Angry Men

I missed out on a lot of common experiences in high school because my classes tended to have unusual curriculum.  I have never read The Scarlet Letter, Jane Eyre, Beowulf, or Heart of Darkness.  I know, I know, I'm a lucky fella.  I also was not required to see 12 Angry Men when I studied the Constitution or in a speech class (in the "group think" chapter).  Sure, I've heard about the movie from my peers, but I never felt compelled to watch it, even when I noticed that it was in IMDB's top ten rated movies of all time.  Sometimes, I don't know what my problem is.

12 Angry Men is not the follow-up movie adaptation to the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno television show, The Angriest Man.  Instead, it is a courtroom drama that actually doesn't take place in a courtroom at all.  As the movie poster suggests, it takes place in a dynamite factory.  The vast majority of the film (aside from a brief opening scene and a quick epilogue) takes place in the jury room.  The audience has not heard the lawyers speak, but the jury has heard the complete arguments of the prosecutors and the defense, and now it's time to decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.  Of course, you need all twelve jurors to agree on the verdict, or else the jury is hung and the whole shebang is declared a mistrial.  That sounds pretty simple, but this is a capital crime, so a "guilty" verdict will result in the death penalty.  Despite the gravity of the case, the jury initially sits down and assumes that their deliberation will take all of five minutes; the case seems open-and-shut.  The first vote is 11-1, guilty, with only Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) dissenting.  And since the vote has to be unanimous, it is up to the rest of the jurors to convince (by whatever means) Juror 8 to change his vote...or, it is up to him to change everyone else's.

After I first watched this movie, I realized that there were some subtleties that I had missed the first time through; after my second viewing, I can definitely say that director Sidney Lumet did a great job.  Just the camerawork alone is fantastic.  You would think that a film set in one room would be visually dull and probably peppered with close-ups to vary the shots, but not this one.  The final shot of the film, a wide-angle crane shot of the jurors all leaving the courthouse, was what piqued my interest.  That shot felt so refreshing that I had to review the film and figure out why.  Here's what I noticed: the camera angles in the movie gradually shift their angle as the film progresses.  In the beginning, all the camera shots are a looking down slightly, or are at least at eye-level; by the end of the film, every shot is looking up at the actors.  So what?  Well, looking up at the actors (especially when they're arguing and are getting all sweaty) brings the ceiling into the shot, like the room is getting smaller (or the men are slowly swelling, I suppose).  It also felt like the room was getting smaller, too; I'm not sure if that was a camera trick, or maybe a larger table in the room, or maybe the set walls were pushed in a little, but I'm pretty sure that it wasn't just my imagination.  These subtle cinematographic techniques add layers to the film, making it work on a subconscious level as well as the obvious look-at-the-actors-level.

The fancy camera tactics wouldn't have helped if the cast was no good, but this film is stacked with noteworthy actors.  As the conscience of film, Henry Fonda is the main character, and he is as good as he usually is; Henry Fonda was one of the great do-gooders in film, with most of his characters (at least, in his most famous movies) being noble and brave.  You wouldn't think that a film that essentially boils down to fighting peer pressure (vote guilty, everybody's doing it) could have a brave character, but that's what Fonda brings to the table.  Lee J. Cobb, as Juror 3, played Fonda's nemesis, of sorts.  He was perfect as the brutish, bullying jerk, the perfect foil for Fonda's calm rationality.  The rest of the players (Martin Balsam, John "the voice of Piglet" Fiedler, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec, and Robert Webber) were good, although some were a little one-dimensional.  The standout were Ed Begley's performance as the bitter racist and John Fiedler, in his typical role as the timid guy in the room.

This film was made in 1957 and that age shows itself from time to time.  The fact that an "ethnic" defendant would have twelve middle-aged or older white men for his jury feels a little odd now.  And I realize that racism is still an issue in America, but the scene where everyone turns their back on Begley (while powerful) is a little more dramatic than realistic.  Still, this is a great movie that is still relevant.  The film takes a basic concept --- that of reasonable doubt --- and forms a subtle, intelligent movie around it.  The movie isn't even long, clocking in at just over ninety minutes, and it is packed full of interesting, varied performances.  This film's quality was not a foregone conclusion --- it was made on a shoestring budget and featured a first-time film director --- but it still managed to be nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay, all for a picture set in one room, based on a legal issue.
Yeah...this is a good one.

1 comment:

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