Monday, May 23, 2016

Lessons from Criterion:
"12 Angry Men" by Sidney Lumet

Released in 1957 on the cusp of Hollywood’s new fascination with hard-hitting legal dramas, Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” was a film seemingly destined to forever tread the tide of cinematic obscurity. While initial reviews had ranged from middling to respectable, desires for commercial appeal had been set adrift by most box office analysts; the endeavor had not been released to the public under any substantial promotional campaign, and studio executives scoffed at the challenge of marketing a picture that featured only one prominent mainstream actor (Henry Fonda) in the middle of an audience boom for epics and star vehicles. That the movie had also been the filmmaking debut of a small and unknown director of teleplays did little to add to their enthusiasm, inevitably casting his work in a shadow of uncertainty. Yet when one takes part in any discussion about the use of the American Justice system in motion pictures today, nearly every reputable source cites it as a watershed moment for the genre, a stubborn relic that refuses to fade from the periphery of vivid moviegoeing experiences. In some way that has less to do with the premise (an important factor all its own) and more to do with how the characters echo the volatile nature of extreme human behaviors in a state of agitation. These are not actors playing up the parts of fictionalized projections; they are embodying the facets of common middle class men of their era, all of whom must burrow their way through the demand of deciding the fate of a human life in a case where evidence may not exactly paint the clearest portrait of guilt.

There is a grueling paradox to the concept of putting legal decrees in the hands of normal citizens sitting inside a jury box. While democracies function better when they are influenced by the conviction of commoners exercising their voice, a system that necessitates their use in a decision in which livelihoods are at stake is not easily defined by black and white principles; with variables such as human error consistently undermining the dependability of due process, one often finds themselves at odds with the moral crisis of the situation. None, perhaps, is as significant as those involving defendants facing the death penalty – a notion that certainly remains persistent in a time when capital punishment laws remain such a hot button. How can one be sure, after all, that legal findings are sound enough to support such a result? Doesn’t it raise more questions about the obligation we owe to our fellow man than it does to our allegiance to the hammer of justice, even apart from the certainty of a result? In the era before forensic and DNA specialization could be used for something conclusive, gray areas must have felt like tethering weights to one’s heart and mind.

The characters in “12 Angry Men” all must sit in this unnerving situation, but only one is cognizant of its impending gravity. The early scenes involve all the obligatory establishing shots of a courtroom premise, where jurors are mechanically shuffled from one room to the next after they are coldly given instruction by the judge, who seems complicit in the inevitability of the impending verdict. When they arrive in the jury room – a small cramped box with no workable cooling system – initial discussions range from baseball games to humidity. They expect a quick decision and an even quicker dismissal. But these passive dialogue exchanges only emphasize the detached approach of the moment; it’s as if everyone has come together to engage in small-talk, not arrive at a verdict in a murder trial. Then the camera takes immediate notice of Juror 8 (Fonda), who keeps quietly to himself – eyes shifting to and fro above pursed lips and slumped shoulders, his mind mulls the consequences of what is about to occur, and it is not an impulse that he will accept as easy or simple.

That’s because the room is dominated by minds that are satiated by what they have absorbed as evidence. The foreman (Martin Balsam) stumbles over clumsy authoritarian platitudes, and calls for a quick show of hands. 11 vote guilty; juror 8 goes against that consensus, though without arrogance or defiance. There are exchanges – mostly with low grumbles – that challenge the logic of their holdout, a man who has no clear reason other than instinct. “All the evidence is there!”, juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb) chimes in. Number 8’s logic: maybe he is guilty after all, but isn’t just possible that he is not? Furthermore, how can that be when so many others in the room have been convinced of the defendant’s part in a homicide thanks to an aggressively convincing prosecution? The underlying thread of consistency is that a dissenter exists in these scenarios because he must stress the elusive detail of “reasonable doubt,” an often misplaced factor in the courtroom quagmire; without it, we abandon our responsibility to be fair and balanced in the democratic process.

What often drives those decisions, the movie shows, has less to do with evidence and more to do with character flaws brought into the decision room (some honorable, others corrupt). For a consistent and methodical 96 minutes, most of those attitudes rise to the surface in various pitches of intent, as the jurors furrow their own interests to justify the logic of their choices. Some, as is the case with Juror 7 (Jack Warden), dictate those conclusions based on a genuine disinterest or complacence in the system, while others like number 4 (E.G. Marshall) approach their reasoning with cold hard precision, attempting to remove themselves entirely from the dilemma of gut feelings. Because the setting is 1950s New York, that also adds cultural dimension to their behaviors: some possess a dislike for youth (juror 3) and others are innately racist (juror 10). Some of that might not have mattered as much even based on dialogue references, but the movie adds heft to these qualities by, succinctly, showing the plaintiff in one stand-alone shot in the early moments, highlighting his young and ethnic features. Is he of Latin descent, or Arab, or something else? The tragedy of the times is that minority classifications blended into the sweeping stereotypes of middle class America, further antagonizing the dilemma of a fair perception in all legal matters.

Though the odds are fully against number 8 in his skepticism, the dialogue duels between arguments and epiphanies made between the jurors, pointing to holes that have been neglected in the case’s shoddy presentation. One of the key components of evidence, for instance, involves an eyewitness who swore to seeing the defendant run down a flight of stairs after hearing the murder of his father in the apartment directly above. Yes, but how could he be sure that it was him, or that he even saw the correct person? Or that he could even get to the door quick enough to see it transpire, especially since he was frail enough in the courtroom to suggest a delayed reaction time? Later still, discussions ensue regarding the murder weapon, emphasizing the unorthodox shape of a knife blade. If it was indeed found on the kid in question, and the blade matches the wound, doesn’t that automatically place him at the scene of the crime? Or is it possible that the evidence provided has been given a misleading depiction, and the knife in question is a common type in the sorts of neighborhoods the murder was committed in?

The degree of dramatic tension supplied to the film is intensified by the acute awareness of Lumet, a filmmaker who discovers the technical means to add underlying urgency to his conflict. For him, it’s not a matter of viewers simply sitting in their seats and absorbing the details as they are discussed and dissected; he tasks his technicians with the responsibility of leading us down all the necessary roads through a visual composition of perceptive craftsmanship. Notice, for example, how the depth and width of the shots change as the story builds to eruption; the movie begins with high angles and full-view frames, then goes to eye-level shots, and then eventually to close-ups from lower slopes, as if to confront the nature of these frustrated beasts in their most dominant forms. Their beads of sweat are as vivid as their snarls of protest. The cinematographer was Boris Kaufman, an expert at studying the shaky exteriors of characters; as he consistently changed between lenses for many of the movie’s critical moments, what he was doing was establishing an unsettling inconsistency in the psychological rhythm of this event – you would never know how directly the material would be confronting the audience until the image was already on the screen. The most resonating benefit of this approach was that the movie could always keep you guessing, even in revisits – would the next frame imply that an argument would escalate, or that new information would be used to undermine the certainty of a guilty verdict? Rare among many of its successors, “12 Angry Men” somehow never discloses the obvious progression of the conflict, even after it is already well-known to its most dedicated admirers.

One of the more unspoken reasons to revisit the movie lies in the complexity of the shift in consensus. The characters don’t just change their priorities on whims or influence. Their internal guides build doubt. Votes are tallied in repetitious sessions of assessment, and each passing one shows erosion in the stubborn certainty of the more aggressive men – 11 to one, ten to two, eight to four, and so on. There is an inevitability that the screenplay by Reginald Rose (also the playwright) must climax in a moment where juror 8 shifts the conviction of his peers until there is only one left standing defiant, but the scenes have such a natural flow that the boiling point never seems obvious. This involves just as much of a skill in the acting as it does in the writing, especially in the explosive contrasts. Consider how Fonda and Cobb argue passively until either is jabbed by the harsh language of the other – Fonda finds the subliminal nature of Juror 8 to shoot back criticisms with biting accuracy (“you are a sadist!”), and Cobb hammers through his scenes like a human landmine, ready to explode ferociously when someone steps into the right spot. There is a scene in the second act that shows the ensemble in a reaction of marvelous precision, in which juror number 10 goes on a racist rant against those voting not guilty; his words are so utterly contemptible that the others stand up and turn the other direction, one by one, until he is barking diatribes to a wall. That moment perfectly reflects the core thesis of the story, which is that prejudice does, in fact, usually obscure the obvious truth.

Such a message has resonated so persistently in modern times – and rightfully so – that it is little wonder “12 Angry Men” perseveres so aggressively, both on stage and in film circles. I have seen the movie at least two dozen times and have frequently attended both local and off-Broadway productions of the show, and with each new viewing I come away feelings as if I have peeled away another layer on the characters and their buried motives. It is easy to rationalize that each of them represents a facet of the key flaws of common man in the information age, but think of the broader context: why do such traits continue to be passed down in the gene pool, even now? Aren’t we more apt to grow from our bias in the age of information? Or is there an overreaching cycle that dictates the endurance of racism, bigotry, complacence, insecurity, cold intellect and shallow thinking across the eras of mankind? Lumet’s film argues that the same system that created these men is the one forever destined to put the fate of the innocent in question based on skin color or social class, but maybe, just maybe, the progress of democracy will become simpler for such people as awareness spreads and men like Juror 8 continue to find themselves in influential positions.

Written by DAVID KEYES

"Lessons in Criterion" is a series of essays devoted to exploring the films released within the Criterion Collection on Blu Ray and DVD. Noted for their notoriety or importance in their effect on the evolution of cinema, these films are not rated on the 4-star scale in order to preserve the intent of the work, which is to promote discussion and inspire thought on their relevance in the medium. More information on this and other titles can be found at

"12 Angry Men" is the eighteenth article in this series.

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