Tuesday, 8 March 2011


source: Wikipedia

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1957 - U.S.A. (Orion-Nova)

DIRECTOR: Sidney Lumet
SCRIPT: Reginald Rose
PHOTOGRAPHY: Boris Kaufman
MUSIC: Kenyon Hopkins 

   Only now I properly realised what did I get myself into. And don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining about the fact that for the next 20 years or so I have committed myself into writing a blog that has a very slight significance in the grand scale of things, or that the list of films is swarming with titles which normally I would appreciate no more than a persisting itch in the gentlemanly areas. No. That I can live with, I've worked as a journalist for long enough to be able to convince myself that 'professionalism demands it' and since professionalism is a frame of mind, not being paid and hardly even read, doesn't change anything here. So no, it's not that. What really started to bother me, just before I've watched my first film, was the cold realisation, that I'm going to be reviewing films, sometimes forgotten, mostly obscure, very often quite foreign, and still try not to include spoilers. Why? Because that's something the 1001 MOVIES YOU MUST SEE BEFORE YOU DIE did not manage to achieve. And I don't want to be just as good. I need to be one step ahead. I need to be better.

Which is going to be, in publishable words, rather difficult.

I am going to start then, with a cunning elusion. First thing I've noticed when checking the alphabetical list of films in the book was, that it started with a film, which had '12' at the beginning. Having only just glanced at it briefly I took it for granted that it must (clearly!) be 12 MONKEYS. Well, 12 MONKEYS is not present in this book at all. What a shame.
End of elusion.

Anyway. Let's get on with it...

I've watched 12 ANGRY MEN for the first (and only, till last night) time when I was probably twelve. Can't be absolutely sure, since it's been more than a few brain cells ago, but by criss-crossing it with different events from my juvenile life I can guarantee that I was no older than thirteen. But somehow 12 looks better in this context. What I remember very well though is why I watched it. It was on TV and my dad said it was a very good film and it could be worthwhile for me to see it. I'm still amazed at my dad's confidence in me at that time but then again, he was absolutely right it seems (dad's job after all...). Today I can confirm that after more than 20 years between then and last night, very little of that first impression had leaked out. Not without being surprised myself, I realized how many scenes, how many lines were still vivid in my memory, not diluted by time, not exaggerated, not faded. There were, of course, differences in my perception. There had to be. More than 20 years of life experience and watching films, quite inevitably, made me a different man than I was at the age of twelve. Not that I was much of a man at that age, but hey, rhetoric... But still, the number of films I've watched and loved years ago and and then couldn't understand myself what on earth did I enjoy about them runs into numbers reserved for Joan Collins' cosmetic surgeries or Peter Sellers' G&Ts. And none of that applies to 12 ANGRY MEN. Partially because of the setting. When 95% of the film takes place in the same room, there's not that much to go out of date. Even the polo shirts and Juror 7's (Jack Warden) pork-pie hat wouldn't seem out of place today. The Jury room is rather drab and spartan but it wouldn't be impossible to imagine some of them still looking exactly like that, especially in the old courthouse buildings waiting for a major overhaul since 1965. And then again, the setting doesn't matter. Any room with members of this particular jury locked inside, would do. No wonder the film was so cheap to shot and the filming was done and over with in less than three weeks. Recording a stage performance from a theatre could potentially be just as effective.
And partially, because of the story and the performance. They're just superbly universal. The crime laying at the foundations of the plot is exchangeable. In the film we have an 18 year old boy who is accused of murdering his father but on this level it's nothing more than a cliché which we've seen in different shapes and forms from OF MICE AND MEN through TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and to the GREEN MILE, just to mention the most obvious. This is just an opening line. An equivalent of 'a man walks into the bar...'. It's where you take it, how it's directed, filmed and acted, where the real treasure is. And on all those levels Lumet's debut picture delivers faultlessly. The characters are constructed superbly with enough psychological depth to even make Aronofsky nod with appreciation. There are no obvious contrasts. It's 'nearly black' against 'off-white' and there's no straightforward balance at any point. When the votes spread evenly between 6 for guilty and 6 for not guilty, this is still nowhere near a 'yes - no' situation. Even at the end, when the verdict is reached, it's still nothing more than 'maybe'. The line that Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) repeats most often is: 'I don't know, but...' which sums up the importance of doubt for the plot. Another thing that did strike me even when I watched it for the first time is, how wrong the viewer is. Not about the case. After all, this is a courtroom drama, not Agatha Christie. The way the story is going to go is fairly predictable. But wrong about the characters, and in a surprising way as well. At the beginning the cards are laid out in a clear pattern, then as some of the jurors start changing their minds we either cheer or shake our heads. And at the end we fall for the illusion that everything is clear again. But only if we don't go back in our heads that 80 minutes or so. And then we see very clearly, that the men who exit the jury room are pretty much exactly the same men, who entered it. That the transformation we've just witnessed is brief and in fact, insubstantial. We think they've changed, but there's no evidence of that. Should they meet again in the same room, the situation from the beginning of the film would not happen again, agreed. But apart? Each on their own? Would they not feel embarrassed of their own shortcomings? Their own mediocrity? If not seen by the others, would they not behave even worse to numb down the stingy discomfort of humiliation? I've got a feeling, that the Lee J. Cobb's Juror 3 would. So would 7, 10 and 12. John Fiedler's No 2 would probably dream in his head about heroic deeds but in real life there'd be none of that left. And I really wonder, is there anything to cheer about? Happy ending? Well, I don't think so.

I must admit, I might be reading too much into it, but since the personalities of the jurors are so well structured there is definitely enough room for interpretation. And let's not forget that the whole film encourages us to do so by putting so much emphasis on personal motives and fluctuating relations. These men lives did not start the moment they've entered the jury room and will not end with the end titles. Yes, we do have to put those lives together from little scraps of information, from small-talk conversations, from the appearance, behaviour, by reading between the lines, but that is exactly how we come to know people in real life. This is exactly what makes them believable as people and even today I find myself struggling to just watch them and analyse the acting without being completely fooled into seeing actual jurors arguing. We find out about their weaknesses, but only is some cases we get to know about disturbances that caused them. And why would we? In the time the men spend together letting every single one of them going into the lengthy details about his background would be a great mistake and ruin the film, no doubt. And that also leads us to what this film is actually about. And don't think for a second it is about the boy's fate, about jurors' personalities crashing or how devastating consequences for personal hygiene a lack of proper ventilation can have. No, these are merely subtle and clever means to show us what, in modern society, our lives depend on. How a hot afternoon, a family picture or a couple of tickets to a baseball game can make a difference between life and death. Literally. And this film does it so skilfully, in such a universal way, that there's no room for 'suspending disbelief' left. If anyone at the end of 12 ANGRY MEN can still think that they, themselves, have never been a subject of a similar behind-the-scenes processes of decision making, well... there's only Disney left for you then.

And to finish off, a few words on cinematography and performances here. Again, this film is nothing short of a masterpiece. Not a breakthrough type of masterpiece but the one where all the means given were used masterfully with an incredible skill, awareness and craft. First, the room. For the purpose of characters being able to move freely and maintain some physical dynamics the space is not crammed. Yet, the increasing claustrophobic feel of the room is being achieved by the visibly unbearable heat (the men are sweating a lot, we see more and more sweat patches on their shirts, they keep on wiping their faces and necks with handkerchiefs), occasionally thickening tobacco smoke and the jurors moving about a lot giving us the impression of almost like a missing crowd in some scenes. The room is also briefly contrasted with quite large and empty restroom where, as Fonda's Juror 8 is refreshing his face with some cold water in the wash basin, we also feel like we could at last breath in some fresher air. The omnipresent heat and weather in general work also as a background 'score' for the tension and following culmination. As the discussions become more and more agitated, the heat outside is immense. In the moment of impasse, we're are informed about the forming clouds and the moment of a breakdown is coupled with a torrential rain (no cheap thunders, of course, this is not Mel Brooks). The final scene sees the members of the jury coming out into a glorious summer evening washed down by a rain and catharsis some of them were subjected to that afternoon. Simple, subtle and it works.
And then we have the performances. Now, should you belong to my generation, the risk is that you do (and it happened to me as well) take actors like Fonda, for granted. The simple reason is, we've missed them at their peak in cinemas and by the time we were grown up enough to come across their best performances on TV, we were far too much into the STAR WARS to bother watching. We know about the greatness but we've not witnessed it. Time to make amends. In 12 ANGRY MEN Fonda indeed is very good. Shy, quiet, slightly hunched is very clearly lacking confidence. At some points he even looks like his own actions, his own displayed courage, intimidated or even terrified him. He is not a candidate for a hero, he just happens to have doubts and even doubts about his doubts and tries to deal with it. He's that kid in the playground who was always bullied for thinking too much and although it did make him stronger, although he is not easily intimidated by Cobb's shouting and rage, he can still remember what it felt like to be beaten up just for being yourself. And yet, at no point is he made into appearing like the star of the show. The weasely Juror 7 (Jack Warden), Lee J. Cobb's No 3, even Ed Begley's Juror 10 have more charisma and visible personality. In fact, every character is structured with equal attention to detail, meticulously crafted and placed so carefully in the plot, it could make an ikebana artist jealous. And what a better example, than the Juror 11 played brilliantly by Jiří Voskovec, a brilliant, legendary Czech actor, naturalised as a U.S. citizen only two years before reciting his passionate ode to American democracy into a baffled face of Jack Warden.

All those elements make up for a really exceptional film. It's message still stands just as clear as it did over half a century ago. The performances, not being subjected to any specific method but going for a maximum of realism are also untouched by time, trends or fashions. And what's more, it didn't only feel just as good as the first time I watched it. It was even better. Unlike what is symptomatic for the great deal of classic art, this film does not have to be watched filtered through the context of an era, in which it was made, to be fully appreciated. This is not just an exercise for film-makers, historians of cinema, Hipster Cats addicted to black & white. This film can and should be watched today in it's pure, original form and it won't loose any of its appeal, any of its pace, atmosphere, or just to put it simply, brilliance. And as such it felt also a very fortunate, strong note on which I properly (thereby) declare this blog open.

Rent it from LOVE FILM
Get it on AMAZON

Next film to watch: 1900 - NOVECENTO


  1. A memorable film and a delicious read.

  2. The thing is that this film is always great. Even if you watch a remake (with James Gandolfini et consortes), even if you watch a Nikita Mikhalkov's film '12' - it's still great. That's the power of a simple and decent story, not only the power of a movie itself.

  3. I'd feel tempted myself but as it happens those two titles are not easily available. Well, I'm not sure if Mikhalkov's version was released in the U.K. at all (the eBay search returned one offer from Finland) and the 1997 remake is not available for rent while being quite pricey to purchase. Originally I thought it to be a risky idea to make an updated version but I must admit that when I saw Gandolfini and above all, Jack Lemmon taking over from Fonda, I suddenly changed my mind. But who knows, maybe one day...