Saturday, December 5, 2015

The "Try It, You'll Like It!" blogathon: 12 Angry Men (1957)



This post is part of the "Try It, You'll Like It!" Blogathon, hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently, where we write about "gateway films" that might bring non-classic-film lovers into the fold!  For all entries, click here!

Some of the inflexible reasons given for avoiding classic films.  "I don't watch old movies."  "I don't watch black and white movies."  "I don't like the way they acted back then."  "Movies keep getting better.  Why should I watch something from when they weren't as good as they are now?"  All that's needed to break that logjam is one distinguished and impressive piece of cinema.  All that's needed is 12 Angry Men.

Securing an audience's attention starts with the word, and Reginald Rose strung together some great words for his Emmy winning teleplay for Studio One, Twelve Angry Men in 1954.  The following year he adapted the script for the stage.  The theatrical play has enjoyed many professional and amateur tours and revivals, including a multi-Tony nominated 2005 Broadway production.  In 1957 Rose and star Henry Fonda co-produced the 12 Angry Men feature film version for United Artists.

Former actor and live television director veteran Sidney Lumet (Fail-Safe, Network, The Verdict) made his impressive feature debut with this project, collaborating with the great cinematographer Boris Kaufman (L'Atalante, On the Waterfront, The Pawnbroker).  The visionary artists created a universe inside of a single room.  The black and white cinematography gives an almost documentary-like feel to the proceedings; a sense of the immediacy of a newspaper.  The view of the sparse set, at first a wide empty room that slowly fills to overcrowding humanity pulls the viewer into the atmosphere.  The variety of shot angles and actor placement, combined with the judicious decisions of when or when not to use close-ups guides us subtly through the developments of plot and character.

Over the course of a wet, humid afternoon in New York City, jurors debate evidence given in a first degree murder trial.  By rote, the judge charges the twelve strangers with the fearsome task.  After weeks of testimony a preliminary vote shows that eleven jurors are convinced of a guilty verdict.  Juror #8, however, votes "not guilty" feeling that with the life of the young defendant at stake, some discussion is merited.  Oh so reluctantly, the discussion that ensures reveals much about the trial and much more about the jurors.


Ed Begley, George Voskovec, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden
Robert Webber, Joseph Sweeney, Henry Fonda, Martin Balsam, Edward Binns, John Fiedler

Such words and such art behind direction deserve a fine ensemble of actors to bring it to life.  The cast of 12 Angry Men was in the enviable position of weeks of rehearsal before shooting so that these professionals could create and truly know their characters.  The last of the ensemble to pass away, Juror #5, Jack Klugman, spoke of the pride they all took in this project.  Such pride of craftsmanship shows in the film.

Juror #1:  Martin Balsam, high school football coach
The foreman is a reasonable man striving to do his duty and keep order.

Juror #2:  John Fiedler
He is not the sort to stand out in a crowd and is easily dismissed by others.

Juror #3:  Lee J. Cobb, owns a messenger service
A man filled with inner rage.

Juror #4:  E.G. Marshall, stockbroker
Prides himself on his clear thinking.

Juror #5:  Jack Klugman
A man from a disadvantaged background who feels the outsider.

Juror #6:  Edward Binns, labourer
An unimaginative working man with a big heart.

Juror #7:  Jack Warden, salesman
The guy that does not want to be there.

Juror #8:  Henry Fonda, architect
Courageous and compassionate observer.

Juror #9:  Joseph Sweeney, senior citizen
In his case wisdom has come with age.

Juror #10:  Ed Begley
Prejudice blinds his thoughts.

Juror #11:  George Voskovec, watchmaker
The European immigrant has a balanced view of the proceedings.

Juror #12:  Robert Webber, advertising man
Bright young executive is all surface.



E.G. Marshall, Henry Fonda, John Fiedler (seated)
Lee J. Cobb, Edward Binns

Juror #8 begins and ends the discussion with the point that he doesn't know if the defendant is guilty or innocent, but given the case as presented, there is room for reasonable doubt.  As they deconstruct the prosecutor's case and the defense's lackluster performance, one by one, other jurors come to sense that reasonable doubt.  Still others, for reasons that eventually become more clear and more personal, stubbornly cling to their original vote.  Hearts and mind are laid uncomfortably bare as these strangers clash and bond.

12 Angry Men is compelling and timeless drama.  Perhaps the timelessness of the film will be the most surprising and welcome aspect to the non-classic film fan.  It may well be a shock for them to discover that although technology, fashion and certain mores have changed, people haven't really changed.  The same principles, fears and behaviors influence our personalities and our interactions.  The powerful and memorable 12 Angry Men will have the non-classic film fan wondering what other films from bygone eras will speak to them.  



35 comments:

  1. Great review! 12 Angry Men is one of the few stage plays turned into movies that really works onscreen because of great direction and cinematography, but especially the really great performances from Fonda and company

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    1. Indeed. Everyone was at the top of their game in "12 Angry Men" and that is what makes it so enthralling.

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  2. This is such a good movie! Whenever I watch it, I always want to think -- but never believe -- that I would have the fortitude of Henry Fonda's character. Everybody slings every invective possible at him, but he holds firm in his belief. You did a very nice job summing up the appeal of this timeless movie!

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    1. My husband was called for jury duty once and I asked him if he thought he was Fonda or Cobb. After some deliberation he decided that he was probably Warden. What would we do if put to the test?

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  3. One thing (among many) I like about this Hall of Fame-caliber film is how Lumet makes the weather palpable. The longer the deliberation takes, the more we see the jurors do things like take off their jackets, roll up their sleeves, and just sit motionless, to the point where the heat is a physical presence, one that's clearly affecting their thinking - and you can almost feel it yourself as you watch the story unfold.

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    1. The impact of the weather adds so much to the atmosphere in the room and the reactions of the jurors. A very important detail that speaks to the quality of the film.

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  4. Great film. I liked your descriptions of each juror.
    And Rich's comments about the heat.

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    1. I'd like to see any classic movie naysayer try to keep up their bluff against "12 Angry Men"!

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    2. Can't be done!

      I love this movie, too. Although I've read that there are some huge flaws in the way that Fonda went about collecting his evidence, etc., it takes nothing away from the joy of the film itself.

      It can be difficult to pull off an ensemble cast sometimes, but this one gets it right.

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    3. "Can't be done!" Hear, hear.

      Juror #8's arguments get no quibble from me as he's not trying to convince me of guilt or innocence, but reasonable doubt, and it is so compelling. I guess that's why we watch it over and over.

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    4. This movie could not have been cast better -- each individual stands out, and that's hard to do with 12 actors. I've seen this movie so many times. Of course Fonda and Cobb are the most spotlighted, but all of the others create unforgettable characters as well. I always liked the character of E.G. Marshall, cleaning his glasses, seemingly unmovable -- then he has the moment of enlightenment, cleaning his glasses and seeing the facts. Jack Warden also did such a good job. He was so annoying, constantly talking about the damned ball game, and sticking out like a sore thumb as someone who just didn't care about anything but getting out of there. Your review is excellent, CW, as usual!

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    5. Thanks, Becky.

      So many interesting performers and performances help to make "12 Angry Men" as much a pleasure on the 100th rewatch as on the first viewing.

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  5. Fantastic!
    I'v enever known about this film, but I've always liked 'closed rooms' stories. This sounds worth watching.
    You've convinced me ;-)

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    1. It is such a thrill to think about your first time seeing "12 Angry Men". I have no doubt you will be impressed.

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  6. Fantastic!
    I'v enever known about this film, but I've always liked 'closed rooms' stories. This sounds worth watching.
    You've convinced me ;-)

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  7. "Compelling" and "timeless" are perfect descriptions of this exceptional film. I liked how you itemized each juror and noted his motivation. Brilliant – I would not have thought of it.

    So glad you chose this important film for the blogathon. It is a great introduction to classic film, and a thought-provoking examination of human nature.

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  8. "Compelling" and "timeless" are perfect descriptions of this exceptional film. I liked how you itemized each juror and noted his motivation. Brilliant – I would not have thought of it.

    So glad you chose this important film for the blogathon. It is a great introduction to classic film, and a thought-provoking examination of human nature.

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    1. Thanks so much for those kind words. Now all I have to do is find a newbie on whom to test my theory. Of course, my confidence in this movie is unshaken.

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  9. Indeed, it is "compelling and timeless." It's also an actors' showcase and the perfect example of how to film a stage play with a confined setting (I never even notice that almost the entire film takes place on one set!).

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    1. A bonus to the film itself is the cast. Who wouldn't want to see more of Fonda or Cobb or any of those gentlemen after watching "12 Angry Men"? There's a lifetime of good movies waiting.

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  10. Thanks so much for joining in! Great choice. This film absolutely sucks you in and doesn't let go. You're absolutely right: this cast knew what it was doing and had a director to match. It's amazing to see them in action. Lovely review!

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    1. Thanks a lot. I love this idea for a blogathon and the contributions are all so convincing and interesting.

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  11. What a perfect choice. I've always thought the film should be required viewing for prospective jurors. Don't you? Even my classic film-hating sibling liked this one--proof that you're on to something!

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    1. Ha! So happy to hear of the results of your own experiment with the movie. Just think if we blogathon contributors ran the world! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!

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  12. Splendid post on this very special movie. I agree with Rick's comments above that the weather and atmosphere play a huge role in our being able to visualize the men's psychological discomfort by making it also a physical discomfort. The characters are all so finely drawn and meticulously acted. I love E.G. Marshall especially. Great pick and great job.

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    1. When Klugman asks Marshall "Don't you sweat?", he's speaking for the rest of us in the audience trying to get an understanding of the man. Most of us would be opening the window, trying to fix the fan, getting rid of the ties, etc.

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  13. Great article! I completely agree with you, 12 Angry Men seems to be a perfect film for those who are not too much "into the classics". Loved your presentation of each juror!

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  14. Wonderful post! I love 12 Angry Men, and it is indeed a timeless movie. It may not please the action-lover, but the characters have palpable pains, and nothing has changed since 1957. I confess that whenever I see someone with "glass marks" on the nose I think about the movie.
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

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    1. Ha! I think about those "glass marks" as well - too often.

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  15. Hi Caftan Woman. Excellent review. The first time I saw this story, it was in a production of "12 Angry Women" at my sister's all-girl high school. I have to ask her what part she played. Maybe #9. It is a wonderful start to Sidney Lumet's career in film.

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    1. Thanks.

      What a cool choice for high school. I've sat through a lot of (too many) musicals in high school auditoriums.

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  16. Your final paragraph says it all. This film shows the complexity of human beings. The play is often taught in school because of the story and great writing. I taught it to 9th graders, and we watched the movie. It is so well done. Great choice.

    I'm also participating in the blogathon. I'm making my way slowly through the list, a long, but good one!

    Play off the Page

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    1. I'm so glad you read and commented. I didn't realize the play was taught in schools. It must be quite a kick to see the reaction of the young people.

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