For some time now I’ve been toying with the idea of doing write-ups on classics from American and British cinema (time frame: anywhere between the 1920s and the 1960s). I greedily watched many hundreds of those films as a teenager, they were the first steps in my movie education, and lately I’ve been rediscovering some of them on DVD. Don’t know whether the idea is sustainable but there’s a chance I’ll soon be working on a column featuring snippets/DVD reviews of old movies, and this could be good practice.
Thought I’d start with Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men, which I watched again recently. This was one of the tightest, sparest movies to be made by a major American studio (MGM) in the 1950s, and this is partly suggested by the simplicity of its mise en scene: 12 jurors sitting in a small room over the course of a long, hot afternoon, debating whether or not to convict a young man who has been accused of killing his father. This description probably doesn’t make the film sound very exciting, especially when you understand that it isn’t a murder mystery (I’m not giving anything away by disclosing that we never find out if the accused is guilty). But despite not being a conventional thriller or a suspense movie, despite not even being cinematic in any obvious, flashy way, Twelve Angry Men is the definition of an edge-of-your-seat film. It gets its power from the taut exchanges between 12 ordinary men – each with his own set of biases, prejudices and life experiences – who have been placed in an extraordinary situation.
If they all vote Guilty, the defendant gets the death sentence. If they vote Not Guilty, he goes free. (The verdict must be 12-0 either way, otherwise the case will have to be re-tried.) Initially, everyone seems to think it’s an open-and-shut case. A poll is taken and there is only one verdict of “Not Guilty” – it comes from juror number 8 (we don't learn the men’s names), played by Henry Fonda. The others immediately start browbeating him.
Fonda, who also produced the film, fits this role perfectly. He was the least starry of Hollywood’s major leading men, the one with the most nondescript screen persona; he was better than any of his contemporaries at melting into the background, at not overwhelming a film with his presence. And though he gave a number of outstanding performances playing men of integrity and forthrightness (young Abe Lincoln, Wyatt Earp, Tom Joad and Clarence Darrow among others), there was always an element of hesitance, introspection; he played reluctant heroes, not supermen. Likewise, Juror 8 isn’t a hero with some special insight or moral superiority that the others lack. He calls “Not Guilty” not because he’s convinced that the defendant is innocent but because he thinks there is a reasonable doubt, and that they must at least discuss the case at length before pronouncing a verdict that will send a young boy to his death. There is more than one scene in this film where he seems a little unsure of his case.
Fonda’s role does of course stand out by its very nature, but if you were a little green man watching this film with no information about the actors, you wouldn’t know he was the “star” – most of the players have equal screen time. The cast comprises some of the finest American character actors of the era, including E G Marshall, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Joseph Sweeney and best of all, Lee J Cobb and Ed Begley, superb as the two most obstreperous of the jurors (Cobb’s loudmouthed character is the least likable of the Guilty-sayers, but by the end of the film we see him in a different light – a reminder that this is not a movie about heroes and villains). Not everyone in the cast is a Method actor (Fonda least of all) but the nature of the acting – especially the edginess and the improvisation – is what you’d expect from one of Lee Strasberg’s workshops.
Lumet (an underappreciated director who had a very impressive filmography), scriptwriter Reginald Rose and the actors pack an incredible amount of tension into this simple story. The thinking of the jurors, their attitude to the case, is determined by a number of things, including deep-rooted racism (the defendant belongs to an unspecified ethnic minority). But trivial factors are also at play (it’s muggy, some of them are sweating profusely and tempers are running high; there are ego clashes over tangential issues; one juror wants to be free in time to attend an important baseball game, another needs to get back to work; one has a nasty summer cold and is irritable). This is, of course, exactly as it would be with any of us when we are taking important decisions. But as the film progresses and the jurors start to reexamine all the evidence – to the point where they are practically trying the case all over again – we see them questioning their pre-conceptions and overcoming the little irritations; we sense that they are evolving as people, becoming worthy of this great responsibility that has been placed upon them.
12 Angry Men is about the nature of democracy, about the importance of debate (it’s only when the men get around to discussing the case in detail that they see little holes in the prosecution’s case) and about human fallibility. It’s about a group of people who, with all their failings, have temporarily been asked to play God, and who must now deal with this bizarre situation – by casting a long, hard look at themselves, setting aside their prejudices and relying on reason. What happens in this jury room is a microcosm for how any decision should be taken by people who are in a position of authority.
But it’s also, of course, about the power of the common man. At the end of the film, the Fonda character runs into one of the other jurors, an old man, outside the courthouse. They’ve just participated in an intense debate involving life and death, they’ve been quarries and allies in turn. But now they simply exchange names, shake hands awkwardly and part ways. The job is done; now they can go back to being anonymous faces in the crowd.