Cine-East Film Club Presents #28: 1957, 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet)

by George_East on October 28, 2013

Juror #6: ‘Well I’m not used to supposing.  I’m just a working man.  My boss does all the supposing, but I’ll try one.  Supposing you talk us all out of this, and the kid really did knife his father’

Talking of fathers.  It’s my Dad’s birthday today and he is responsible for so much of my love of film.    When I was growing up he was always enthusing about this or that film, and now in his early 70s, he still is – usually black and white, certainly made before 1970 (and usually before 1960).   These weren’t always the biggest or most well known films, but rather films starring actors with something about them other than their looks – actors like Lee Marvin, James Coburn, Richard Widmark and Sterling Heyden; or films with great character parts played by actors like LQ Jones, Strother Martin,  Elisha Cook Jr or John Davis Chandler.

It was my Dad who introduced me to so many of the westerns, gangster pictures and film noirs that I still rate amongst my favourite films.    We still spend most of our time discussing films when we speak  – much to the bewilderment of my mother, sisters or wife.   It is bond with my Dad that I really treasure.

There are a couple of films though, which I will always associate with my childhood.  They seemed to be permanently on and in an era of a handful of tv channels when you had to wait for them to be shown, long before films were available on demand through streaming services or through DVDs .   They are films for which I hold an enormous amount of affection as a result.  One was boys-own  war time adventure favourite, The Great Escape.  The other, Sidney Lumet’s searing debut, 12 Angry Men.  They are both ensemble pieces, not simply shop windows for their respective above-the-credits stars (Steve McQueen and Henry Fonda respectively).

The Great Escape is, of course, great fun, but 12 Angry Men, which is this Week’s  Cine-East Film Club Presentation  is a genuinely  great film.

Indeed father/son relationships lie at the heart of 12 Angry Men.   The film concerns the deliberations of a jury in a trial of an 18 year old Latino boy who is on trial for  the 1st degree murder of his father.   This is 1950s New York State, so a guilty verdict means the electric chair.     In the middle of the jury room is the seething anger and hurt of a father who is estranged from his son, played as an articulate raging bull by Lee J Cobb.

It is Lee J Cobb’s juror on one side and Henry Fonda’s white suit wearing architect on the other.   The other jurors will gradually over the course of the film switch from supporting the guilty verdict that Lee J Cobb’s character demands from the outset given it is an ‘open and shut case’, to Henry Fonda’s initially lone hold-out for a not guilty verdict.

I refer to the characters by the names of the actors who  play them because other than two of them in the very last scene we never find out their names.  They are referred to only by their juror numbers.

This stripped down approach to the characters is matched by the setting for the film – save for a couple of bookend establishment shots of the outside of the court building, a brief clip of the Defendant and the judge’s direction to the jury, the entire film takes place in the jury room and the bathroom attached to it.   The room is sparsely furnished – consisting of a table and 12 chairs, a fan which mostly doesn’t work and stark lighting.    It is the hottest day of the year, with the humidity building up as the tension between the jurors increases.   Each of them except the ice cold stock broker, with increasingly sweat sodden shirts.

Despite this static setting and the minimalism of the production design, the film does not feel like a filmed play.   The use of camera angles – initially high and objective but increasingly close up and subjective as the film goes on, reflecting the reality of the jury’s deliberations, adds to a claustrophobic atmosphere which is intensely cinematic.   Boris Kaufman’s cinematography is one of the delights of the film.  You can almost smell the sweat in the room.

Lumet had originally made a version of the screenplay for a ‘live’ television drama – it was Henry Fonda who had been determined to bring it to the big screen.  Fonda deferred any salary, taking a box office split instead and used his star name to get United Artists to agree to make it.  It would at the time be a flop and Fonda would not see a penny from it – causing him to refuse ever to produce another film.

Fonda’s interest in making the film was also driven by his liberal politics – which were just becoming easier to express again following the fall into disgrace of Senator Joe McCarthy in 1954.  And Twelve Angry Men is firmly in that tradition of Hollywood liberal issue films that became commonplace in the late 1950s and 1960s (films like The Defiant Ones, Inherit The Wind and The Young Savages among many many others).  The film is, after all, a plea for the integrity of the basic proposition that everyone – from whatever economic or racial background – is equal before the law and that any kind of prejudice leads inexorably to injustice.

It is not though so much the liberal politics as the superb characterisation and ensemble acting which makes the film so remarkable.   Fonda in his white suit may be there as an avatar of American idealised justice, but it is the other characters with their very real flaws and their very mixed motivations who make the film.

The salesman with the baseball tickets (Jack Warden) for that night who doesn’t really care what the result is as long as he gets to go to the game.   The old guy (Joseph Sweeney) who is the first  to switch votes to support Henry Fonda, who keeps getting shouted down by the younger and more aggressive members of the jury.  The facile smooth advertising man in the grey flannel suit (Robert Webber) who is too busy running ideas up flag poles and playing naughts and crosses to engage seriously with the task at hand.  The cold blooded stockbroker (EG Marshall), who beneath his rational exterior (when compared to the rougher round the edges characters played by Lee J Cobb or Ed Begley) is just as prejudiced as they are – referring at the outset to the crime ridden slums of the city.   The ordinary working stiff (Edward Binns), who will become to be protective of the older guy as Lee J Cobb becomes increasingly more aggressive.  The High School football coach who finds himself in the chair who is uncomfortable in his leadership role and sensitive to any criticism (the great Martin Balsam, who would go on 3 years later to play Arbogast in Hitchock’s Psycho).   The East European immigrant watchmaker (George Voskovec) who, it is hinted has fled to the US as a refugee either during or before the War, who will find himself in the uncomfortable position of reminding the American born jurors of the preciousness of American democracy and the centrality to it of the jury system.  The racist who sees those from Latino backgrounds as inherently dishonest, violent and untrustworthy – referring to ‘them’ and ‘they’, rather than the detail of the case (Ed Begley). The less than bright bank clerk (John Fielder) who wants to be scrupulously fair but who is easily swayed by those more forceful and charismatic.   The ex-slum kid who finds himself the subject of the same prejudice as the defendant when Lee J Cobb accuses him (wrongly) of switching his vote (pre-Quincy Jack Klugman).

Each of them put in rounded and wonderful convincing performances.    The interaction between them as they try to persuade, cajole, emotionally blackmail and threaten the others to change their votes is an object lesson in ensemble acting.

But it is Henry Fonda’s chief antagonist who puts in the greatest performance of all.  Lee J Cobb plays a character who has built a decent business up the hard way from nothing.  A man who is not educated but clearly capable of intelligent and rational analysis of the case (unlike Ed Begley’s racist, who cannot see past the Defendant’s Latino background).  Yet he is also a man with a boiling  over sense of rage as a result of his estrangement from his son – a rage which he takes out on the Defendant, even agreeing with Henry Fonda when he accuses him of wanting to be the young accused’s public executioner.  Cobb is startlingly good – at once pathetic and terrifying.

As Henry Fonda at first and then the old man in particular gradually dissect and raise doubts about each piece of evidence that had originally made the matter an open and shut case, the task in the jury room changes from trying to prevent a potentially innocent man from going to the chair, to preventing a re-trial (which might have the same effect).  It is critical that all of the jurors are made to change their mind once momentum is with those supporting Henry Fonda’s call for a not guilty verdict.  Each juror is brought round gradually (even if in Jack Warden’s case it is only because momentum is now with Not Guilty and he wants to make that baseball game).  It is this process which leads to the film’s perhaps one false moment – in which after Ed Begley’s racist rant, each of the members of the jury get up, walk away from the jury table and stand away from him, effectively shaming him into changing his vote.   This feels theatrical and sits oddly against the hyper-realism of the rest of the film.

12 Angry Men remains one of my favourite fims of all time.  It is the film that first got me interested in the law, when I was probably no more than 10 or 11 years old.   For many years I thought it ought to be part of the compulsory induction process for anyone who is to sit on the jury.

It is film which I dedicate, with love and respect, to my Dad.  Happy Birthday.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Jackie_South October 28, 2013 at 7:05 am

And of course the inspiration for one of Tony Hancock’s finest Half Hours.

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Mike Killingworth October 28, 2013 at 8:48 am

Yup, fathers and sons need something to bond around (be it films, supporting a football club or Lord of the Rings – women just bond (or not, as their hormones tell them…)

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Terry East October 28, 2013 at 9:39 pm

I was taken aback by your blog George and appreciate our ‘special bond’ . Speaking of actors, never forget the great Huntz Hall of “A Walk in the Sun” fame and a member of the Bowery Boys, also remember Whit Bissel in “He Walked By Night” and Arthur Kennedy “High Sierra”.

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