Friday, November 18, 2011

Another Chump Flaps His Wings

Sidney Lumet and Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men, which will be released on DVD by Criterion on Nov. 22, had a huge impact on me when I first saw it some, I don’t know, 25 years ago. It remains, with the possible exception of Dog Day Afternoon, my most often re-watched Lumet film, and I think, or rather know beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the reason this small film got its hooks so deeply into me, is all the talking. It’s a very well-made film, without question, as should be evident by the fact that it is so relentlessly rewatchable, and since the film only uses four locations -- four rooms, really -- and that’s if you count the courtroom at the very beginning and the courthouse steps at the very end, with, meanwhile, twelve significant speaking parts, you sort of have to hand it to Lumet, if you weren’t already inclined to do so, for the supremely graceful confidence he displays in this, his debut feature.

But 12 Angry Men is a film about talking, and the talking is, if I may say so, real good. There are lots of odds and ends involved in the talking that are worth noting, but to begin with the whole film revolves around what might be the most interesting form of talking that mankind has yet invented, but which rarely gets properly depicted on film, and that is the argument. Monty Python understood this, though I wonder if I’m the only one who watches “Argument Clinic” and thinks, once Michael Palin gets frustrated with John Cleese’s continued and empty gainsaying so that suddenly, if briefly, the two of them are arguing cogently about what defines an argument, that the sketch makes a pretty good case for why someone would seek out the services of an argument clinic in the first place. This is the fascination inherent in 12 Angry Men: one man, Juror 8, Henry Fonda, arguing with eleven others over the guilt or innocence of a young man facing the death penalty for the murder of his father, and swaying them one by one (more on that in a bit). Now, obviously, throughout film history there have been more than one or two arguments portrayed on screen, but very often they descend from, or explode beyond, the realm of intelligent debate and become shouting matches, or were arguments never based on an intelligent point of view in the first place, but were of a more personal and fiery nature, such as why did you sleep with my best friend, because you’re distant can’t you see that I’m suffocating. Technically an argument, I suppose, but emotional, not intellectual, and personal, not removed. Of course, Rose and Lumet will make a big deal about how certain stubborn jurors, specifically Juror 3 (the tremendous Lee J. Cobb) who take up the side they don’t happen to agree with are making the argument personal while pretending otherwise, but, again, more on that in a minute.

Or no, let’s do it now. It’s sort of where I’m going with all this anyway, so why not get to it. Like a lot of Lumet’s films, and like a lot of films Henry Fonda came to be interested in making (he was a producer here), 12 Angry Men does make it clear that A Social Topic Or Topics Is Or Are Being Discussed Here. Also like a lot of Lumet’s films, the topic either is, or is viewed through the prism of, the criminal justice system. The problem inherent to Reginald Rose’s script, however, is that the argument that is finally being made seems to be that one shouldn’t find other people guilty of crimes under any circumstances. Of course, that wasn’t the plan, and if you were inclined to boil 12 Angry Men down to the “point” you thought it was trying to make, you’d end up with something about prejudice being bad rather than the fallibility of juries, the boy on trial being poor and ethnic (Puerto Rican, it's generally assumed, though that's never stated in the film).

But for God’s sake, look at the case Henry Fonda’s Juror 8 tries to build! The case as laid out by the prosecution is that this boy killed his father with a knife that had a distinct handle. He was heard to say "I'm gonna kill you!" by an elderly downstairs neighbor, who also saw the boy run from the building. The knife found in his father's chest was known to belong to the boy. The murder itself was witnessed from across the street, through the windows of a passing elevated train, by a woman who testified in court that the boy did it. The boy claims that he did fight with his father, but didn't kill him. When he ran out, the knife fell through a hole in his pocket, and someone else must have picked it up and killed his father. Also, his alibi was that he was at the movies, but when questioned couldn't remember which movies he saw or who starred in them. So, pretty clearly this is the construction of a writer trying to make it easy to understand why the vast majority of his characters would vote guilty right off the bat, while setting up little bits of things he can come back to later when Juror 8 needs to start dismantling everything. The problem is, Juror 8's dismantling basically consists of yelling out "It's possible!" any time one of the other jurors says that, for instance, the idea that the knife fell out of the kid's pocket and was picked up by someone who decided now would be a good time to go kill a stranger, is a bit tough to swallow. Because that's how Juror 8 gets around that one -- he says "It's possible!" Then of course there's the big dramatic reveal that the knife used to kill the father was not, in fact, the only one of its kind ever made. Much is made in the film about the idea of "reasonable doubt", but Juror 8 seems to think that just means that the defendant's argument doesn't break any of the laws of physics. His alibi wouldn't require him to achieve faster than light travel, for instance.

It actually gets worse from there. Although it goes unstated in Reginald Rose's script, what I've decided, after all these years, to take away from 12 Angry Men is that old people and women can't be trusted, because in the case of the former, old people are so goddamn lonely that they'll do anything to get noticed, up to and including perjuring themselves in court by falsely claiming to have seen a young boy run out of a building shortly after his father has been murdered (and another thing: when Fonda has to demonstrate how long it would actually take for the old man to get from his bed, where he said he'd been when he heard the boy scream "I'll kill you!", to the hallway where he actually saw the boy, he imitates the man's crippled shuffle, and is told by one of the jurors who is still (stubbornly!) voting guilty that the old man could move twice that fast. Fonda says he'll go faster. Now you go watch that scene and tell me if Henry "Slyboots" Fonda picks up the pace even a little bit), and women, meanwhile, are so caught up in their physical appearance that the very idea of being seen in public wearing eyeglasses would mortify their cute little souls no end, so yes, they too will lie and send a boy off to the electric chair if that means the facade of their womanly vanity might be preserved for one more day.

One could reasonably argue that a case against the old man's testimony has been made, or at least a reasonable case has been argued, but the woman and her glasses holds no water. Yes, two dents on the sides of her nose are noticed, and may indicate that she wears glasses. If she does wear glasses, as Lee J. Cobb furiously and correctly points out, they could be any kind of eyeglasses, including sunglasses, that would not have kept her from clearly seeing what she testified she saw, but no, because she wears some kind of glasses sometimes, that's enough to assume her to be a liar. Testimony shitcanned. The juror who makes the case against the old man happens to be old himself (Joseph Sweeney), so that's okay, and you can bet your ass that if it was common practice for women to serve on capital murder juries in the mid-1950s, Patricia Neal or someone would have turned up to sympathetically point out that whole eyeglass business, not some dude. Then, too, there's Fonda's desperate need to justify the boy's inability to remember the films he claims to have seen, by taking Juror 4 (the wonderful E. G. Marshall) back through his week until he finds a night that Juror 4 can't remember with total clarity, before triumphantly bellowing "See!?"

The crown jewel of the Criterion disc's extras has to be the original television broadcast of 12 Angry Men, written by Rose and directed by Franklin J. Shaffner for Studio One in 1954. This provides the opportunity for interesting comparison to Lumet's film on many levels. Speaking to my current point, Robert Cummings plays Juror 8 in the original, and while I'm not about to claim Cummings was better than Fonda, or his equal, his take on Juror 8 is rather interesting, because he plays him -- and this is crucial -- as uncertain. Fonda's Juror 8 talks a big game about not knowing, but it's easy to imagine that his Juror 8, when it comes time to first make his stand as the lone holdout in the jury room, is thinking "This is it: my big moment." Or more precisely, this was planned, this whole drama of fighting against the majority. All he had to figure out his justification -- the untrustworthiness of women and the elderly, for example -- as he went along. But Cummings's version of the character really doesn't know what to think. In fact, he's closer to the film version's indecisive Juror 12, "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit", played with evaporating self-confidence by Robert Webber. Not that Cummings is ever seen to reconsider what he's doing, but early on he really doesn't know if the course he's mapped out for himself in this jury room is the correct one. Plus, Fonda's Juror 8 has a bit of "smug prick" about him, as when he's shown baiting Lee J. Cobb's Juror 3, a man we'll come to learn -- and we already have some inkling of this early on -- is grief-stricken over the fact that his own son has run away. So that's a dick move, and one Cummings never makes.

The other thing about the Shaffner/TV version of 12 Angry Men is that Lumet's film is better than it in every way. I don't say this to kick the Shaffner version, but to acknowledge, despite everything I've been saying, that Lumet's 12 Angry Men is an absolutely terrific movie. At 50, 55 minutes, the TV version is hobbled right out of the gate, and its origins, imaginatively speaking, as an "issues" story are highlighted at almost every turn, because there's no time for anything else. One of my favorite performances in the film is given by the great Martin Balsam as Juror 1, the foreman. If anything justifies that bullshit about the woman's glasses, it's Balsam's reaction to being reminded of her nose dents by saying "He's right, I saw them too, I was the closest one to her! She had these things on the side, what do you call those things, on the side...?" In the TV version, Juror 1, played by Norman Fell (or "Feld", as he's credited here) is given precisely nothing to do but call for votes and pass out scrap paper. The refusal to give any of the minor, or essentially non-crucial jurors, a thing to do or be is why Lumet's film stands as a classic. So in the original TV version, there's no "That was a damn stupid thing to do!" or "Your horn works, now try your lights", "That's not bad, I mean, considering marmalade" or "Let's put it on the stoop and see if the cat licks it up" or tic tac toe or rain or broken fan or anything. It's just "Juries are prejudiced", hammered on relentlessly until the end.

Lumet's film, meanwhile, is alive. Sidney Lumet is of course now remembered as, among other things, one of the great directors of actors in the history of American film, or just film, period, and his great victory in 12 Angry Men is compiling this excellent cast (only two of whom, George Voskovec as Juror 11, and Joseph Sweeney as Juror 9, appeared in both versions) and either encouraging Rose to flesh out his script by putting actual people in it, or working with the cast himself to do so, and finding all these little moments ("It just came down, WOOSH!"). I don't know which it was, and don't care. 12 Angry Men remains endlessly entertaining, a sublime record of human behavior, and exquisite acting. And also a testament that eleven men can be made to believe anything if you make them feel guilty enough first.

1 comment:

StephenM said...

This is a great post about a great but flawed movie. Like you, I find it easy to be caught up in this film, with so many great actors hitting so many great dramatic points so well, but it has been gnawing on me lately how contrived the whole thing is. The biggest thing wrong with it that you don't mention is the knife: Apparently ol' Henry went out one afternoon after the trial went to recess and decided to do some snooping of his own, and went down to the slums and went knife shopping and found an exact copy of the murder weapon. You can't do that! In real life, that's grounds for a mistrial. But it's Henry Fonda, and he's a saint, so it's all right.