|Eleven of the angry men. Juror #12 got cropped out because nobody cares about him.|
With my review of Sunset Boulevard, I announced that I was taking requests. If there was a film you wanted to see reviewed, or if there was a subject you wanted examined, I was all ready to talk about it (and still am)! I did, in fact, receive another request. The classic film Twelve Angry Men, written by Reginald Rose and directed by Sidney Lumet. I grinned when I saw this suggestion. I love Twelve Angry Men. It is one of my favorite films ever made. I've seen the film, fittingly, twelve times, and each time I gain new insight into it. And it's not just the original film: I've seen the remake, I've listened to the radio version, and I've seen the show on stage. I've probably read the play more times than I've seen the movie. For fun. I love this film. On my list of dream roles (which every actor has) I have included "any juror from Twelve Angry Men. I love everything about this film so much. It is perfect, it is brilliant, it is amazing. And I was so excited to be able to sit down and write a post about it.
And then I realized that I have nothing to say.
I have absolutely nothing to say about this film.
Sure, I could go into detailed stuff. I could talk about Boris Kaufman's brilliant cinematography. I could talk about how the lens focus changes so that the room physically looks and feels smaller and more claustrophobic as the film goes on. I could talk about how the camera angles change in the three acts of the film: starting at above eye level, then going to eye level, and then going to below eye level, which further enhances the feeling of claustrophobia. I could talk about how as the film goes on there are more close-ups on the actors' faces as opposed to wide shots of the room, which brings more focus to the jurors as opposed to the room over time, making them seem more dominant and commanding. I could talk about the symbolism of the broken fan and how it's an elegantly simple and effective storytelling device to showcase the shift in the tone of the room. I could talk about how the fact that none of the characters have names (we learn two of them at the very end, but that hardly counts) makes the film especially accessible and somehow makes the characters far more vivid. I could talk about the motif of eyeglasses amongst the jurors, which foreshadows what ends up being one of the most crucial pieces of evidence in the case. I could talk about all of the filmmaking tactics which make this, in my opinion, the single best crafted movie of all time. Not a single shot, not a single second is taken for granted. Everything is perfectly precise, and everything works together.
Like I said, I love this film.
|You could say, perhaps, that I'm a...fan! Get it?|
But if I were to talk about the actual filmmaking techniques, it wouldn't really address what I think makes this film so successful. Filmmaking is a visual medium, and the cinematography and editing choices made by filmmakers certainly do affect our emotional response, but analyzing the craft of Twelve Angry Men does not explain the way this film truly resonates with those who watch it. There is something undeniably powerful about this film. And while I could talk about this film for hours, nothing I say can really do the movie justice. And nothing I can say hasn't already been said by the many others who have discussed this film in the past. Pinpointing any one thing and saying, "This is why the movie is great," just doesn't work in this case. It's that rare film where every individual aspect comes together to create a work greater than the sum of its parts. It's not just the acting, it's not just the directing, it's not just the writing, it's not just the cinematography--every individual part is simply extraordinary. But, more than that, I find it difficult to talk about this film because of its nuance. Every time I watch it, I experience it differently. Characters who represented one thing in a previous viewing suddenly represent something else entirely. Moments that I had forgotten about suddenly become critical in my mind. Every person watching this film at any point is going to get something new out of it. For a one-location film that is so deceptively simple, there are an infinite number of ways to watch this film. And discussion of this movie is certainly more suited for an actual conversation between people than a written blog post.
So, if you have somehow not seen this classic movie, stop reading now. Go find someone else, whether they've seen the film before or not, and watch it together. And then talk about it. That conversation will be far more valuable and speak to more of the film's strengths than anything I write here.
All of this is a disclaimer to say that what I'm about to say is far from insightful. I won't be looking too hard at the intricacies of the filmmaking or the script or the performances. But I will be discussing the film in the simplest of terms. Because, I believe, its simplicity is where it thrives.
|Look how angry he is! Just like the title promised! Simplicity!|
|If only she'd watched Willy Wonka instead then we could have had the greatest chocolatier who ever lived!|
If you don't know what the film is about (in which case, I'm impressed you've read this far at all), the film follows a jury that has just heard the case against a young man from a slum accused of murdering his father. After they make an initial vote, eleven of the jurors vote that he's guilty, and only one votes that he's not guilty. Over the course of the film, as they debate the case, every one of the jurors eventually changes his vote to not guilty and the defendant is declared such. So, not only is it a story of right vs. wrong, it's a story of how those who are "wrong" are eventually converted to "right." And herein lies the beauty of the film. All twelve of these characters are very distinct, and all twelve of them play different roles. The film examines what sorts of ideas and arguments resonate with each of these men to make them change their vote. The film could not exist without every single one of the twelve, which is impressive for a cast that could easily have been overcrowded.
So now we're going to talk about the jurors, and my thoughts on each character and the purposes they serve. No great insights here, just a general discussion. And as I go through, I have a question for you all: which juror are you most like? We love to categorize ourselves by personalities. Which Myers-Briggs personality type are you, or Harry Potter house are you in, there are so many ways to sort ourselves. But I think a far more interesting question is which juror are you. These are far more complex options, and you are probably not going to feel attached to one and only one juror. But it's an interesting thing to think about. After all, it could be argued that the jurors are all more concepts than actual character. We only ever find out two of their names, and that's at the very end of the film. For the most part, they exist merely as broad representations in that jury room. This exercise should be especially useful for actors-- as every actor hopefully knows, you need to know your type. Well, after watching Twelve Angry Men, you should be able to identify which juror you would best be able to portray. And we'll look at them in the order that they vote "Not Guilty."
|Juror #8 (Henry Fonda)|
I will say, though, that the more I watch the film, the more I become disillusioned with Juror #8. His detective skills are impractically strong--his insights into the case often rely on wild leaps and it's improbable that anyone would be correct about so much considering the very little the jury had to go on. Perhaps the biggest example of this is "The Knife Scene," when he produces a knife identical to the one used in the murder, which he does to prove that anyone could have had this murder weapon and it does not incriminate the defendant. This moment is undeniably effective (and always gets applause in stage versions) but it is also patently ridiculous. WHY HAS HE NOT BROUGHT THIS UP BEFORE?! They were arguing about this knife for a while, and the whole time, Juror #8 must be thinking "Ooh, I can't WAIT to show them the knife in my pocket! They're going to be so shocked!" And then he stabs the knife into the table for NO REASON. The whole thing is needlessly dramatic.
|I have a degree in criminal law and pregnant pauses.|
|Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney)|
|Juror #5 (Jack Klugman)|
|Juror #11 (George Voskovec)|
|Juror #2 (John Fiedler)|
|Juror #6 (Edward Binns)|
|Juror #7 (Jack Warden)|
|Juror #12 (Robert Webber)|
|Juror #1 (Martin Balsam)|
|Juror #10 (Ed Begley)|
And he doesn't speak again.
Even when he changes his vote, it's because #8 asks him, "Do you think he's guilty," and he silently shakes his head. For all of his prejudice, when everyone else turns against him, he actually listens. He takes their rejection to heart. He takes #4's advice literally. He sits down (away from the table, and turned away from the group) and does not open his mouth again. It's a rare moment of quiet introspection from Juror #10. And his change is the most important for the film's central thesis. #8 trusts that humans are, at their best, good and just people. That even #10 can change serves as the film's best argument to prove that theory.
|Juror #4 (E.G. Marshall)|
And, last but certainly not least, we come to...
|Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb)|
But, as I argued before, despite his hatred, I view #7 as the main antagonist, not #3. And the reason that I can't think of #3 as a villain is because he's so passionate. Sure, he's misguided, but he's convinced that he's in the right, and in his own way, is seeking his own version of justice in the same way #8 is. He is, ultimately, a principled man. To, again, bring up the scene where #10 rants and everyone turns away one by one, #3 is a special case. He never turns away. Because at the start of the rant, he's already standing with his back turned to the table. If we look at this scene as an indicator of each juror's moral compass, this would imply that #3 is the most morally upstanding of all. After all, the next juror to turn away after #3 is the compassionate #5, followed by #9. All of the jurors to change their votes first are among the first to turn away. And yet, #3 is the very first to denounce #10's prejudice. He's not a villain. He's just misguided. And he takes the longest to make his change--as the final vote, his is the vote that ultimately counts more than anyone else's. He's the one that makes the decision to make it a unanimous vote.
With all this in mind, I'm including my dream cast for if they were to remake Twelve Angry Men. I'm quite happy with it. Feel free to share your own dream jury in the comments!
1: Idris Elba
2: Maria Bamford
3: Robert Downey Jr.
4: Candice Bergen
5: Giancarlo Esposito
6: Octavia Spencer
7: Will Arnett
8: Frances McDormand
9: Morgan Freeman
10: Sam Rockwell
11: Christoph Waltz
12: Allison Janney
But the jurors are not really the only characters. There's a guard who occasionally pops in. There's a judge who we hear at the beginning. Ther are also two alternates who we see sitting in the jury box at the beginning before they're dismissed. They just might be my favorite characters in the movie, because they have no lines, and I like to imagine that these jurors went to see this movie and were like, "Well, shoot. We clearly missed out on a life-affirming, inspirational tale of trust and the power of thought and open-mindedness. That sucks." There are also the various players in the court case--the defendant, the lawyers, the witnesses, etc. They're never seen, but are pretty vividly painted by the jurors' discussion. You can see the sad old man who got dressed up to be a witness in court. You can visualize the glasses on the woman who thought she saw the murder. You can definitely understand the underpaid defense lawyer, who barely puts up a defense for his client because he thinks there's no case. They're so clear that it's rather amazing that we never actually see them in the film. And then, of course, there's the room itself. This might be the definitive example of a set becoming a character. Everything, from the lack of air conditioning, to the long table sets the tone perfectly and, for a room that is purposefully non-descript, it's a truly iconic setting.
Ultimately, there is something triumphant about watching Twelve Angry Men. It is infinitely rewarding. And it is truly invigorating. Forget Michael Bay and his explosions, Sidney Lumet manages to create much more tension and excitement filming twelve men talking in a room. It is an expertly crafted film, which only furthers the much-needed optimism of its strongly defined moral compass.
I love this movie.