Wednesday, September 19, 2012

12 Angry Men (1957) **1/2

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In director Sidney Lumet’s first feature film, 12 Angry Men (1957), one juror asks another, “What kind of man are you? Who tells you that you have the right like this to play with a man's life?” The duty of a juror is to judge the evidence presented without prejudice or sympathy and render a verdict. The problem is every person who sits in a jury box has their own personal views regarding race, class, and gender, as well as their own personal problems. Reginald Rose’s Oscar-nominated screenplay (adapted from his stage play) does an excellent job of showcasing these very issues 12-Angry-Menin this taut, dramatic film.  Aided by brilliant cinematography, outstanding editing, and stellar acting, 12 Angry Men is an inspiring look at one of the most disliked and avoided duties of American citizenship. 

Our jury is deliberating a first-degree murder charge involving an 18-year-old minority boy from the slums who is accused of stabbing his father to death.  If convicted, the mandatory sentence is the death penalty.  On the surface, it appears to be an open and shut case of guilt, but one juror, played by Henry Fonda, has doubts.  As the lone holdout, he takes it upon himself to make the other eleven jurors (all men, hence the title) reluctantly (and in some cases belligerently) reexamine the evidence.  Along the way we learn there are other contributing reasons for why they think the boy is guilty: racial and class prejudice, familial issues, and indifference.  It is a searing analysis of what actually influences jurors to make the judgments that they do. 

12AngryMenWhile I have a particular issue with the fact that all of the jurors are men (women could vote and thus serve on juries in 1957!), that does not damper my appreciation for how Lumet and cinematographer Boris Kaufman shot the film.  I’m not sure whether they chose to use black and white film to accentuate the viewpoints of the jurors (everything is seen as either black or white) or because it was cheaper, but it works. The beginning of the film is shot with wide-angle lenses and at an above eye-level perspective. This cleverly depicts how distant the jurors are from one another on many levels.  It also provides the viewer with the ability to observe the idiosyncrasies of each juror.  As the story progresses and becomes heated a4143-53237s jurors start changing their verdicts, the film is shot from much lower angles and closer shots.  These techniques heighten the drama and create an almost claustrophobic atmosphere.

With over 365 camera sets-ups and multiple angle shots, it is obvious that cinematography played a vital role in the overall production, but without clear, decisive editing it would have been useless. Having worked for several years on dramatic productions for television, Lumet knew the value of editing, and he and Carl Lerner expertly and concisely cut 12 Angry Men to create a smooth, cohesive feel.  While there are a lot of panning shots, the film is appropriately cut at crucial moments.

12angrymen2All twelve actors give fine performances, but three stand out to me. Fonda is obviously the star, and he plays his calm, rational Juror No. 8 well, but he serves more as a moral compass than anything else.  I’ve seen him play this part before in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), so while he’s good here it’s not what I consider one of his standout performances.  No, when I think of the jurors I remember Ed Begley (Juror No. 10), Lee J. Cobb (Juror No. 3), and George Voskovec (Juror No. 11).  Begley plays his rude, bigoted part with just the right amount of anger and callowness.  By the end of the film, when almost every man turns their back on his poisonous prejudice, he does an excellent job of conveying his character’s resigned realization that no one respects him or his views.  Cobb’s 3616198_origJuror No. 3 is violently vitriolic and difficult to forget. His vehement agitation serves as the actual pulse of the movie.  And, finally, I think Voskovec’s turn as a naturalized citizen with an appreciation for the American justice system deserves to be recognized.  His dealings with both Cobb and Begley are memorable, but it is his confrontation with Jack Warden’s Juror No. 7 that hammers home the importance of the jury system. 

Overall, 12 Angry Men is an intelligent look at an important element of the American justice system.  It benefits from creative cinematography and editing, and has an outstanding cast.  It is a tad overdramatic at times, but that does not lessen its overall effect.

19 comments:

  1. Kim, you do a great job highlighting the effectiveness of Lumet's directing and editing. I have seen 12 ANGRY MEN multiple times and it never feels like I'm watching a play (technically, it was written originally for TV, then adapted for the stage). It's one of my favorite films and that's because it's not about the verdict, but the justice system (as you pointed out) and the interrelationships among the jurors.

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    1. You're right, it doesn't seem like a play. I think this due to the fact that everything comes together well--specifically in the editing.

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  2. Great job with this Kim. "12 Angry Men" is one of my favorite films by Lumet, and I have more than a few. You correctly point out how important the editing is here. The hundreds of shots help make this film visually stimulating, cinematic, instead of just a filmed stage play.

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    1. Not a bad effort for his first feature film, huh? Throughout his directing career he was exceedingly good at choosing how to cut his films.

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  3. I really like this film in no small part because of the script. I'm smart enough and savvy enough to realize that this script isn't based anywhere near reality, but I also don't care. This is one time when I'm happy to let the fantasy of the idea take me.

    Not a person I know has seen this and not spent a little time thinking, "What would I do in that situation? Am I man/woman enough to stand against the crowd like that?"

    For me, that's the real magic of this film.

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    1. Yep, anyone who has ever seen this and gotten a jury summons imagines themselves in a similar situation to Fonda's Juror No. 8.

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  4. SUCH a great, thought-provoking film. I agree with you about the editing - it really does add to a smothering claustrophobia. Lee J. Cobb is one of my faves in this movie, too.

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    1. Cobb was such a great supporting actor. Films like On the Waterfront wouldn't have been the same without him.

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  5. I think this is a true classic and I agree with pretty much everything you wrote. Having read this review and your Strange Days review back to back, I'm afraid I'm confused, though.

    You give 12 Angry Men a glowing review and a 2.5 star rating, while you savage Strange Days and give it a 2 star rating. Only a half a star separates these two films? The tone of the posts would seem to indicate a higher rating for 12 Angry Men and a lower rating for Strange Days. Did I misread them?

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    1. Chip, I have my own unique rating system:
      :((( Absolutely unbearable, beyond horrible, think Playtime
      * I thought it was bad, but not horrible. I haven't met this film yet
      *1/2 I didn't like it, but it wasn't unwatchable. Think Vampyr
      ** It was an average tolerable film with nothing that really stood out. Think Strange Days
      **1/2 It was above-average in that it had an element that stood out for me, i.e. the shot setups and editing for 12 Angry Men.
      *** Means I found many things I liked about it, like Of Gods and Men
      ***1/2 Means I really, really liked it, but not enough to give it the 4-star treatment, think My Left Foot
      **** Absolutely loved it.
      Hope that clears things up for you.

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    2. Thanks for the info. When in doubt, I will use the star ratings as a guide from now on.

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    3. Glad to clear things up, Chip.

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  6. Being a juror is surely be the hardest job on earth. What do you think?

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  7. I have been called on to be a juror more times than I can count. So, I really wanted to see this film to see how it compared to my experience. To my surprise it was very close to a couple of trials that I sat in on.(except for us girls).

    This is very tense movie that keeps your attention until the very end. Supported by a group of very talented actors. A must see for everyone.

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    1. I always get out of jury duty (knock on wood), so I don't have much to compare it to except what I learned about the legal system in college. It is an intense film that demands your attention.

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  8. You omitted an important point. Fonda does not convince the jurors that the young man did not commit the crime, but rather that the evidence was ambiguous, and his guilt could not be proven. This is critical.

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    1. That is true. It is study in how the American justice system works, I suppose.

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  9. 12 Angry Men (1957) Online Free English HD Movie
    http://starmoviesplus.com/movies/12-angry-men-1957-online-free-english-hd-movie/

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