Star: Henry Fonda
|I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.
12 Angry Men is something about as far away from Singin' in the Rain as it's possible to get. No expensive and massively choreographed production this, it's more of a textbook example of how to make an independent low budget film. The twelve angry men of the title are serving as the jury in a murder trial and they talk their way through the twists and turns of the script. That's it. For locations there's one sixteen by twentyfour foot room. For props there's an electric fan and a knife and a couple of windows. For costumes, there are twelve suits. Oh yeah, and it rains at one point. The production designer for 12 Angry Men must have had the easiest job that Hollywood had ever dished out in half a century of making movies. He had less work to do in this entire film than Gene Kelly's costumer had for each individual dance routine in Singin' in the Rain.
Yet I'll go out on a limb and say that of all the films I'd watched up until this point on my journey through the IMDb Top 250, this might just be the only one whose place in that list is almost beyond argument. Going beyond the major problems I had with such major titles as North By Northwest and Gone with the Wind, I'm not sure any of the 22 films from the list that I watched before this one can truly be called flawless, except perhaps The Passion of Joan of Arc, but that dropped quickly out of the list. People have frequently found The Seven Samurai too long, Memento too confusing and Annie Hall too annoying. James Stewart felt all through his life that he could make a better version of Harvey and he kept trying too, Arsenic and Old Lace was Cary Grant's least favourite of all his films and Brazil was such a difficult film that even the studio it was made for refused to release it. Yet it's difficult to argue with this one, which is possibly why it has only risen on this list, from 21st when I grabbed it in 2004 to 7th today.
For all that it could as easily have been a great radio play as a movie (and it was originally a live teleplay for the Studio One show on television), it held me entirely spellbound for an hour and a half, and perhaps more importantly it has gone on to do so more than once. One mark of a great film is that it doesn't just work wonderfully the first time through, it works just as well on a further viewing when you know what's going to happen, you know where the twists will come and you know precisely what everything's building up to and why. That's why Psycho is sheer genius and The Sixth Sense isn't. It's why people care about spoilers and why with some films it really doesn't matter because they simply can't be spoiled.
Everything about 12 Angry Men is simple but stunningly effective. Even the story is simple: a jury of twelve men is tasked with deciding the fate of an eighteen year old who stands accused of murder. If they find him guilty he will find himself condemned to death. Because of this level of seriousness the vote must be twelve to nothing either way, but when the jury takes a quick preliminary vote it's only eleven to one. Juror number eight, played to incredible effect by Henry Fonda, is the lone voice in the wilderness and even he doesn't believe that the boy is innocent. He merely feels that they should take a little longer than a couple of minutes to send someone to the electric chair, so acts as the devil's advocate for a while and insists that they talk about it. However, the longer the jury discusses the ramifications of the case, the more they become convinced of innocence rather than guilt.
I'm still stunned at this film and what it achieves. In fact the more I realise what it does, rather than what I'm conditioned to think it does, the more stunned I become. Watch this film and you'll know all about the police investigation but you won't see a single moment of it. You'll know all about the trial but you won't see any of that either except the judge's instruction to the jury before they retire. There's a production budget not much higher than zero, yet you'll totally buy into the fact that the hottest day of the year has broken into a storm and everyone's very uncomfortable indeed. Director Sidney Lumet used a trick to aid that, gradually changing the focal length of the lenses used so that the room closes in on the jurors, aiding their discomfort. You won't hear the names of anyone involved, except for two jurors who swap names at the very end of the film after it's all over and they're finally going home.
Perhaps most tellingly to a modern audience, you won't see the victim at all and you'll only see the accused for five or ten seconds at the very beginning of the film. He doesn't even say anything, just sits there looking very young and very lost. All you'll really see is twelve men in suits arguing with each other over a table, but at the end of the day that's really all that matters. Compare that to what you'd get nowadays. I've watched (and let's be frank, thoroughly enjoyed) a whole slew of modern forensic shows over the last decade on television that exhibit glee at putting every gruesome detail up on the screen in vivid colour to animate with MTV gimmickry. This film is the antithesis of everything those shows stand for and it's even more powerful for that fact. It should be compulsory viewing for anyone who wants to make a movie but feels that he has to wait until he finds someone who knows how to do the special effects.
The first point of genius is the script, by Reginald Rose, which survived almost entirely unchanged from the original teleplay and which is as masterful a script as I've ever seen in all my days. It lost out at the Academy Awards to The Bridge on the River Kwai for Best Adapted Screenplay and in fact for all three categories in which it was nominated. What that film didn't win Sayonara did, leaving 12 Angry Men without a single award. It wasn't even a popular success, perhaps because it was in full screen and black and white. Yet this film has become acclaimed not just as a piece of entertainment or as a masterpiece of cinema but as a fundamental reference point, one that is frequently studied in high schools around the country. Its lofty place in the IMDb Top 250 is reflected in many other lists, generated by all sorts of organisations for all sorts of reasons. You'd have to search very hard indeed to find a believable bad word said about it.
Regardless of the quality of the script, it is easy to see that if the actors playing the twelve angry men didn't do their jobs then the film would fall entirely flat. It's more credit to Lumet, previously only a director for television, that he coaxed stunning performances out of all of them and that each one of them is so easily distinguishable, even with only an hour and half of running time and twelve lead actors to share the spotlight. They rehearsed for two weeks, all in the same room so they would get used to being cooped up with the same people, and then shot the film in less than three more.
Henry Fonda is the standout, partly because he's Henry Fonda but mostly because it's his character who starts out taking a stand against everyone else. Ed Begley (Sr not Jr) has possibly the hardest job as a blustering bigot. He has an incredibly powerful scene where he spews hatred and everyone just turns their back on him. The camera is unflinchingly static throughout and Begley has to carry the scene on his own. He does so superbly. There are twelve of these angry men, though, and each of them distinguishes himself in his own right. It's hard to identify each of the actors because they're only referred to by juror numbers, but they do at least sit in order round the table in the jury room so it's easy to work them out from the cast list.
Two of the twelve reprised their roles from the original live teleplay in 1954: George Voskovec and Joseph Sweeney. Voskovec is a quiet foreigner with strong principles and an immigrant's pride in being a naturalised citizen. His accented English helps set him apart, his pride pulls him back in to speak to what being American is really supposed to be about. Sweeney is the refined old man who proves to be Fonda's first support. He's absolutely superb, but then anyone who can presumably do a good job on a live teleplay ought to be pretty stunning over a 21 day shoot with another two weeks of painstaking rehearsal. He has a couple of speeches that last a little while with the camera closing slowly in and he makes them really count.
Martin Balsam is the foreman who flounders around trying to keep everyone in line. John Fiedler, making his screen debut, is a mousy accountant type, soft spoken, eager to please and attentive to detail. Lee J Cobb is something of a thug with his snarling mouth and quick temper, and more than once he shows awesome technique when his character's mouth runs faster than his brain and he realises it. E G Marshall is the unflappable sort who doesn't sweat even on the hottest day of the year and so looks like a concentration camp commandant hiding in another country. He's sure about everything and his vote is no exception. Jack Klugman, many years before Quincy, isn't sure at all to start with but he's young and eager on his first jury and gradually becomes very sure indeed. Edward Binns is coarse and common but honest and respectful. Jack Warden is impatient and would happily change his vote if only he could get to his baseball game. Robert Webber keeps trying to inject humour into the arguments but ends up embarrassing himself every time.
All of these actors get their turn in the spotlight when it comes to changing their vote and all of them fully justify their casting. In showing their individual viewpoints they each tell us something about themselves and about human nature. Their reasons for voting innocent or guilty at each point a vote is taken expose who they are as people, for good or bad, and how and why they do so is very telling. It's nothing short of twelve character studies all wrapped up in one very definable story. Above everything else, that's the most amazing thing about 12 Angry Men, and it's really not a small achievement.