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12 Angry Men

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12 Angry Men
 
Sidney Lumet I 1957 I USA
 
 

12 Angry Men is one of the finest suspense films I have ever seen. Tightly wound, unforeseeable and densely atmospheric, Sidnley Lumet's debut supposes a milestone in minimalist filmmaking. A flop in its initial release [despite its almost non-existent budget -- $343,000], it was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

 

A 12 man jury is sent to begin deliberations in the first-degree murder trial of an 18-year-old slum kid who is accused of stabbing his father to the death. What at first sight appears to be an open and shut case, because of the defendant's weak alibi -- a knife he claimed to have lost is found at the murder scene; a nearby woman says she saw him do it and an old man heard screaming and saw him flee the building -- instead turns into something much more difficult. Eleven of the jurors instantly vote guilty; however, Juror #8 says that there is still much room for supposing and that the accused can be indeed innocent. He then must convince the jurors that beyond a reasonable doubt the defendant is guilty.

 

With the exception of some of the earlier scenes and the ending, the whole film is set in a claustrophobic New York jury room during the hottest day of the year. The location, partly due to the fact that it was based on a play [and indeed, there are many stagy elements to be found in the film] solely serves to excellently augment the intensity and suspense that is crafted by the director. One would have thought that the scenographic limitations could, one way or another, harm the film, or make it tedious. Needless to say, those assumptions would be totally wrong, because 12 Angry Men is a film that turns its restraints into its most superlative assets. During its entire running time, there was not a moment where I was not compelled to what was going on, where the constant debates between the men did not interest me; rather, the film gets you hooked from the very beginning -- but it is as the opinions on the culpability of the kid are altered that the grip gets tighter and tighter. It strikes me as amazing [and odd] that the film remains thoroughly captivating, even though all but three minutes of it was filmed in the same room. 12 Angry Men is what cinema is all about -- acting. It is the full-male, twelve men cast who, with their fleshed out characters, different psychologies and varying ideas, keep the film afloat. The film, no doubt, is an ensemble piece at its core -- and an astonishing one, at that -- whose vast majority of the actors, surprisingly, were not incredibly experienced prior to the making of the film, though the painstaking rehearsals did last a fatiguing two weeks. At the end of the film, one really feels as though we got to fully know each and every one of the men who occupied the room their feelings, opinions, sensations, philosophies on life and whatnot are all magnificently illustrated here, and the script by Reginald Rose uses them all to point out and analyse human weaknesses. We get to know where they work, their back stories, where they're from and their personal prejudices. They are all nameless [except for the two who introduce themselves in the film's final scene], yet that does not keep them from being exceedingly well drawn.

 

Juror #8, superbly played by Henry Fonda, is the only person who stands firm to his ground and does not change his opinion. He's a liberalist, an individual who thinks that, despite all the given evidence, the death of the kid can still be avoided. As he persuades the weary jurors to re-think it, the psyche of each one slowly flourishes until it fully emerges and becomes visible for the viewer. Juror # 1 [Martin Balsam, who played detective Arbogast in Psycho] is a high school sports coach who'd rather keep things in order than stir up a conflict; not even once in the film does he make a useful point, however. Juror #2 [John Fiedler] is the bank clerk with the bizarrely squeaky, almost Porky Pig voice; at the beginning, he's a little doubtful about the entire thing, but eventually decides to speak out after remembering some pivotal evidence that was nagging him, thus making some very good points. Juror #3 [a towering Lee J. Cobb], a hounding big man, thinks that the kid should be put to the chair. According to him, every single thing that came out in that courtroom says he's guilty. He's also the one who, like Juror #8, stands true to his opinion until the very end, if only for more than personal reasons. He's the angry man, and refuses to believe that there is any chance of the kid being innocent. Juror #4 is played by E.G. Marshall, a just man and a good observer, who clearly follows the evidence but in the end realizes that it's completely the opposite; Juror #5 [Jack Klugman] a mumbling and sensitive man who was also born in a slum background, thinks the kid should not be getting the prejudices he's obtaining, because he knows what it is to live in such poverty. Juror #6 [Edward Bins] is a man willing to listen to everyone's opinions, with an ability to recognize his own strengths and weaknesses and to defend the insulted, such as Juror #9 [Joseph Sweeney], the older man out of the bunch who possesses a strange skill to reflect upon the facial aspects and temperament of some of the witnesses; he makes his comments with clarity and unrivalled attention to detail and often gets shouted at by Juror #7 [Jack Warden], probably the most reluctant of the men; he wants to get out because he has tickets to a baseball game and every once in a while throws wisecracks at the people he thinks inferior to himself. Juror #10 [Ed Begley] always makes his remarks in a more than menacing manner -- he's a bigoted man who doesn't care about the viewpoints of others. Juror #11 [George Voskovec] is a polite European watchmaker who migrated to the United States, with a fine way of speaking and a fair treatment of the people, he thinks the Western system is a shame; and finally, there is Juror #12 [Robert Webber] an advertising executive, familiar with reunions of this sort, he cannot cease his pride by telling the people next to him just how wonderful his job is.

 

One of the main messages of 12 Angry Men is that the judicial system [at least the one that was used then] is a flawed one. It criticizes it with subtlety, while at the same time cleverly exploring the dialogue and motives. In such a small room, so many things can occur, so many things can be said -- and the life of someone depends on them. Pride, jealousy, fury, frustration and prejudice all emerge in this film, and it seems as though it's inevitable. However, the film underlines all this by saying that sometimes oversimplification of the methods is a bad thing; just because there is some apparent evidence doesn't mean he or she is really guilty. Through a careful investigation of the facts, the impression of the guilt of a person can easily be reversed, thus making us think that in fact, he is not culpable. The very tagline of the poster sums up how judicial workings can often be catastrophic: Life is in their hands -  Death is on their minds!

 

If there ever was such a technically flawless film, then this is it. Boris Kaufman's dazzling cinematography, with its prolonged takes and constant close-ups, makes a particularly astute way of using the black and white to strengthen the growth of the plot. You will notice that, at the beginning of the film, eleven out of the twelve men are wearing dark costumes [mainly suits], save for Juror #8, who wears a light summer suit which is most likely much more appropriate for the time the film is set in. As the film progresses and Juror #8 convinces the rest of the jury, it is clearly visible that each of them takes off their dark jackets to reveal light shirts underneath. The concept of using tone to hint at a light [as in good, open-minded / narrow-minded, dark and evil] is further on backed up when the majority vote leaps from guilty to not guilty. At this precise moment, a thunderstorm begins outside and it becomes much darker, forcing them to turn on the lights inside. So at this point the jury room and those inside it have become lighter than the ones outside. The idea continues at the end of the film, as it culminates with all of them wearing light colours, and as they leave the courtroom they can be seen carrying their jackets instead of wearing them, as though they've left their prejudices behind. This is an extraordinary piece of symbolism that is put to great effect in the film and helps to fortify it even more.

 

The tension that is weaved in the film is incredible. Because we don't know whether or not the kid is truly guilty; because we, like the 12 men, are not aware of whether what's being said is the truth or not, the more unexpected that it gets. The film does not spend time in showing us the trial beforehand -- rather, it opts for showing us what we have to see: the 12 men battling it out, and at the end it is us who have to decide if they have been just, regardless of whether the kid is guilty or innocent. As the course of the film went on, it is said that Sidney Lumet gradually changed to lenses of longer focal lengths, so that the backgrounds seemed to close in on the characters, creating a greater feeling of claustrophobia and, besides, the close-ups got even more continuous. This was said by Lumet in Making Movies, where he discussed the visual strategy of 12 Angry Men. "In addition," he writes, "I shot the first third of the movie above eye level, shot the second third at eye level and the last third from below eye level. In that way, toward the end the ceiling began to appear. Not only were the walls closing in, the ceiling was as well. The sense of increasing claustrophobia did a lot to raise the tension of the last part of the movie." For the last shot of the picture, he says he used a wide- angle lens "to let us finally breathe."

 

The men's sweat can almost be smelled, their confusion can even be touched; all the situations in the film remain plausible yet ever fascinating, and at the end everything is masterfully tied. 12 Angry Men is a film so unique and special; it provokes, it criticizes and it explores. Almost forty years later, its power to enthrall is intact and the questions it raises are still as timeless. Visually unmatched, it is an engrossing and profoundly engaging film that rightly deserves its place amongst the best of all time.

 

[96]

 

 

Reviewed by Pablo Hernandez, 2004