February 22, 2010

#87: 12 Angry Men

First we see a courthouse, then a courtroom inside, where a murder is hearing closing arguments before the jury retires to deliberate. Soon we get our first glimpse of the setting of the film, and its title, 12 Angry Men, simply but boldly positioned over the jury room. Sidney Lumet's 1957 adaptation of a teleplay by Reginald Rose has become required reading in its dramatic stage format for many high schools -- I remember reading Juror #8 in eleventh grade Honors English -- and it's clear to see why. It's a fantastically but simply constructed argument, not only about uncertainty, but also about prejudice.

Company: just me again, but Kecia (roommate, chef extraordinaire, first-time chili concocter and maker of funny faces) is in the kitchen whipping up a batch of chili, and damn, it smells good.

Cuisine: a Cutie orange. I bought a bag of these, thinking I'd have a couple and the rest would go rotten, but they will be gone by the time the week is over.

The story is simple: twelve jurors deliberate the murder trail of a young gentleman accused of stabbing his own father. There's one eyewitness, an old lady who saw the killing through her window across the street; another who claims he heard the boy scream "I'm gonna kill you" and then heard the body hit the floor of the apartment a second later, and saw the boy run out of the apartment, and a shaky testimony from the boy himself. Based on all the evidence, eleven of the jurors are convinced of his guilt and ready to send him to the electric chair, but then, behold juror #8 (played with great strength and silence by Henry Fonda), who believes it's possible that it doesn't all add up.

He breaks down the evidence given to them, piece by piece, until at last, another juror folds and votes "not guilty." One by one, each of the jurors, however hesitantly, caves, until the verdict is reached. This wouldn't make for much of a story if it weren't for the great attention to detail by each of these twelve actors.

I can't imagine it would be any easy feat to make each of these characters pop when they are twelve middle-aged white men in a black-and-white film, but the fantastic detail -- their positions in their seats, their gaits as they pace around the room, the way each individual gets distracted from the task at hand, the way they wipe sweat from their foreheads (or allow it to run) -- creates a vibrant room for conflict and stubbornness that engages us for a little over ninety minutes.

The leader of the resistance against Fonda is a crotchety gentleman (Lee J. Cobb, Willy Loman in the original production of Death of a Salesman) whose jury number is 3. He seems to have a vendetta out on the boy -- #8 even refers to him as a "public avenger" and a "sadist." "I'll kill him! I'll kill him!" screams #3 as he reaches his accuser. "You don't really mean that, do you?" says #8, calling some of the testimony into question. For a film in which there is little to no action at all besides arguments at a table, tensions certainly run high. Egos are bruised and it gets hotter and hotter. You feel as though you are there with them; you are as invested as the jurors are in this matter of life and death.

The tides start to turn as the jurors each question what they thought they knew, as they each grow ashamed of their own increasingly present prejudices against the boy. Lumet's mastery is exhibited by the way he frames the jurors, how he keeps track of all twelve at once. Of course, some of them have a lot more to say than others, but we feel the power struggle between them. Some may feel more entitled than others but in the end their votes all count equally and by law it's got to be 12-to-none either way. The pressure grows deeper and the camera crawls closer to their faces until only one is left and he collapses.

Rotten kids! You work your life out!

Lee J. Cobb's performance is extraordinary -- so governed by what he thinks he knows as a father and still so ashamed of his own bias. Watch his face after he exults this line: his meltdown is a wonder. I can't wait to see him in On the Waterfront.

A clearly and perfectly constructed courtroom drama. It's no wonder this film is ranked #7 on IMDB -- it's hard to argue against it. It's the late fifties and still the acting and filmmaking both seem so simultaneously modern and timeless. Wow.

Next: Oliver Stone's 1986 Vietnam account, Platoon. My brother-in-law suggested BBQ as a themed dinner, since "people get BBQ'd in the movie." Well, you get what you ask for. :) Til then!

No comments:

Post a Comment