The Watchers

The Watchers

Saturday, 9 November 2013

12 Angry Men (1957)

 Currently in the West End of London on a limited engagement, following a short tour of the UK, is the stage version of 12 Angry Men (starring Martin Shaw, Jeff Fahey, Nick Moran and Robert Vaughn). Originally a teleplay, based on writer Reginald Rose's own experiences of serving on a jury in a manslaughter case, the film version of 12 Angry Men was produced in 1957.

In what appears an open-and-shut case, a young man is accused of murdering his father. The jury retire to consider their verdict. They are told that their decision has to be unanimous and, if the defendant is found guilty, the death penalty will apply. In the stifling jury room, on the hottest day of the year, the twelve men start their deliberations. Eleven vote guilty; one does not. The scene is set for a tense battle of words and wits which will lay the jurors bare as a young man's life hangs in the balance.

The word 'masterpiece' is often thrown about and often misused but it's entirely justified here. 12 Angry Men is a masterpiece, not only of directing, but of writing and acting as well. 

This is Sidney Lumet's feature film directorial debut. He would go on to direct such classics as Network (1976), The Verdict (1982) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and continued making films until 2007. Lumet was handpicked by Reginald Rose and Henry Fonda (who also produced the film, marking his first and only time as a producer) to direct. Lumet and his director of photography Boris Kaufman use some interesting camera tricks and perspectives to really heighten the claustrophobic feel within the jury room. All but a few minutes of the film take place outside the room and, at times, you get a sense of the walls almost closing in on the jurors as the tensions erupt. There is some interesting use of close-up (especially during several of the votes) and Lumet gets strong and assured performances from each of the twelve actors.

Whilst the film is ostensibly a battle of wills between two of the jurors, that doesn't mean that the other ten men are bland or just there to make up the numbers. Each one gets a moment to shine and show their acting chops. The jury foreman (Martin Balsam) is accommodating and serious about his role; Juror 2 (John Fiedler) is initially timid but finds his voice later; Juror 4 (E.G. Marshall) is analytical and fact-driven; Juror 5 (Jack Klugman) is sympathetic and from a similar background to the defendent; Juror 6 (Edward Binns) is plain-speaking and respectful.

Juror 7 (Jack Warden) is wisecracking and indifferent, concerned only for his baseball game tickets. Juror 9 (Joseph Sweeney) is wise and thoughtful and the first to change his mind. Juror 10 (Ed Begley) is a loudmouthed old bigot (and one of the most powerful moments of the film comes when the rest of the jurors turn away from him as he launches into a tirade about 'them'). Juror 11 (George Voskovec) is a naturalised American citizen, polite but very firm in his beliefs, whilst Juror 12 (Robert Webber) is indecisive and personable. Through skilful writing and strong performances, each character feels fleshed out and rounded and you get the sense of who these people are with very little to go on- not even names (until the end when Jurors 8 and 9 give their surnames).

The main thrust of the drama is the stand-off between Juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb) and Juror 8 (Henry Fonda). There is a ferocious performance by Cobb, full of ire and vitriol. He remains stubborn and steadfast in his opinion of the defendant's guilt in the face of a strengthening wave of opposition and his clashes with Fonda are riveting. The hints as to what's really going on in Juror 3's mind are subtle and not overplayed (at least, not until the very end) and Cobb proves to be a towering antagonist.

Fonda's performance here ranks among his very best which- for a career that encompasses films like The Grapes Of Wrath, On Golden Pond and How The West Was Won- is saying something. Juror 8 could have merely been played as a bleeding-heart liberal, a saintly do-gooder or moral crusader. There's no hint of sanctimony or piety in the performance; he is a man who simply wants to talk, feeling that they owe the defendent an hour of their time before sending him to the chair. He barely raises his voice, doesn't outwardly scheme or manipulate - he just talks, and the arguments start to fall away.

The film was nominated for three Oscars- Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay- but was beaten in all three categories by The Bridge On The River Kwai. It remains one of the best courtroom/legal dramas ever made, is currently one of the Top 10 rated movies on the Internet Movie Database, and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2007 as a piece of work that is 'culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant'.

Like the current stage version, the film is engrossing and compelling and full of great performances. It's definitely well worth a watch.


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