Monday, July 27, 2015

Examining the Greats: What More Is There To Say About "Twelve Angry Men?"

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! 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!
Twelve Angry Men's greatest achievement is that it does not feel dated. Which is amazing for a number of reasons. This film is in black and white, it features a complete lack of any modern technology, and is a story that really couldn't be written today. I mean, this is a film about a murder case that does not have any mention of DNA. And nobody has cell phones. But it still feels applicable. It still feels relevant. And, again, I think this has to do with its simplicity. I've already described the film as "deceptively simple." It is very complex in the way the story is told, but the story itself is as simple as you can get: it's a story of right vs. wrong. Everything about this film is a simple examination of those two very intrinsic ideas--ones which are universal amongst all of humankind. It is, in fact, preferable that the film is in black and white: it lays bare the strict contrasting forces of the film's central theme. This too is why we all experience the film differently: no two people have the same exact impressions of right and wrong, so our viewing of the film changes on a philosophical level. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has spoken about how this film influenced her career, and continues to do so. It's what first sparked her interest in the law, and as she says "This movie continued to ring the chords within me." The amazing thing is that Twelve Angry Men is notoriously a TERRIBLE courtroom movie. The way the jury operates is completely the opposite of what a jury is supposed to do. The investigation lead by Juror #8 would cause a mistrial. But that inherent sense of justice, and those core ideas of goodness triumphing over hate are nonetheless inspiring. As Justice Sotomayor would be the first to tell you.

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)
JUROR #8: This is, essentially, the main character of the movie. He sets the entire plot in motion as the only juror to initially vote not guilty, and continues to be the defendant's greatest champion for the duration of the film. It's no coincidence that he's an architect by trade, as he is the architect of the young man's defense and of the movie's entire plot. He appears to be the epitome of goodness and righteousness--the absolute picture of honor. He clearly trusts his fellow human beings. He trusts the defendant's word, and he trusts that the other jurors will change their minds. After his vote for not guilty, and the initial debate amongst the jurors, he famously says that they should vote again without him, and if everyone still votes guilty, he'd go along with that decision. Of course, Juror #9 changes his vote, and this is because Juror #8 trusted that someone else must feel uneasy simply convicting the defendant without a discussion. Juror #8 is perhaps most defined by his refusal to see ugliness in others. Even as he disproves the testimony of the witnesses, he never accuses them of lying. As he debates with the increasingly agitated jurors, he does not insult them. And when he does criticize them, he still tries to do so in an understanding way. He believes that others are good--and that is why he is such a strong protagonist. He was even named the 28th best movie hero by the American Film Institute.

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.
But, he's such a righteous character, and such a strong voice for fairness and truth, and portrayed so brilliantly by Henry Fonda, that you ignore his faults and except this idealistic architect as the hero we both need and deserve.

Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney)
JUROR #9: Even though Juror #8 has the most lines, and is the first to vote not guilty, I would argue that he's not actually the "hero" of the film. He is, in fact, the only character who does not change over the course of the movie. Everyone else changes their vote--Juror #8 never does. So, the true hero of the movie is Juror #9, the first one to actually change his mind. And for all of Juror #8's detective work, Juror #9 is actually the most effective presence in the room. The oldest of the jurors, #9 is treated with great respect by everyone in the room (#8 is not), and while #8 speaks the most, #9 speaks the most wisely. He's the one who brings up the crucial clue about the old woman wearing glasses, which ends up swaying the final jurors in the room. As the first to change his vote, and the one who convinces the final jurors to change their votes, he becomes the one who actually marks the biggest shifts in the debate. I think about the famed duo of magicians Penn & Teller. Both are great magicians, but it is generally acknowledged that Penn is generally the showman who does the presentation and distraction, while the silent Teller is the more skilled magician who does the majority of what we would call the actual magic. Both are vital to the success of the partnership (which might be why they are the only two jurors whose names we ever learn, at the very end of the film). And while we all focus on #8 as the main protagonist of the story, we greatly overlook the more unassuming #9 who is the true hero of the film.

Juror #5 (Jack Klugman)
JUROR #5:  An ambulance crewman, he has what most would argue is the noblest profession out of all the jurors. #5 is soft-spoken, and due to his calmer nature is focused on less than many of the other jurors in the room. But this only makes his moments in the film all the more significant. We find out that #5 grew up in a violent slum. This not only means he serves as a source of knowledge (like when he demonstrates the proper way to use a switchblade), but also means he in some ways represents the unseen defendant. As he shares the defendant's background, his inherently gentle nature serves as a clue that the young man is not guilty. Perhaps the most telling moment for me about what makes Juror #5 who he is comes towards the end of the film, in one of my favorite scenes. In this scene, Juror #10 goes on a bigoted rant, and one by one, the jurors literally turn their back on him and his hateful rhetoric. This scene tells us so much about every single character, and it's worth noting that #5 is the very first juror to turn. He is the antithesis of #10. If #8 is all about justice and #9 is all about wisdom, #5 is all about compassion.

Juror #11 (George Voskovec)
JUROR #11: Juror #11 is perhaps the most easily recognizable due to his accent. Originally from Europe, he's a naturalized American citizen and the most notably patriotic. He delivers a wonderful speech about the importance of the American justice system, and offers a clear individual perspective on the case. Early on, he corrects Juror #10's grammar in one of the film's more humorous moments, but this is more than just a funny gag. Along with his knowledge of grammar, his dialogue showcases the largest vocabulary of the jurors, and his lines are consistently eloquent. He's consistently presented as one of the smarter and more rational jurors. He and #4 are the only ones who seem to be specifically defined by their intelligence. Jurors #8, #9, and #5 all vote not guilty due to their emotions. But #11 is the first to change his vote based distinctly on the facts.

Juror #2 (John Fiedler)
JUROR #2: The cast of the 1957 film is truly extraordinary. Everyone is perfectly cast. But I would argue that the best casting choice is John Fiedler as #2. Fielder is, to modern audiences, best known for being the voice of Piglet in Winnie the Pooh. And that basically tells you everything you need to know about Juror #2. He is a fluffy little nugget. Everything about this guy is meek and soft-spoken and nervous. For a film called Twelve Angry Men, you can't imagine this guy being angry ever in his life. Seen by some as a bit of a comic relief character, I think that Juror #2 is far more two-dimensional than many give him credit for. He grows considerably over the course of the film, finding his voice and standing up to several of the louder jurors at crucial moments. He's lovable, and he's great. There's not much more to say, really.

Juror #6 (Edward Binns)
JUROR #6: Whenever there's a cast this big, one character is always going to get the short end of the stick. There's Hawkeye in The Avengers. There's Garrett Morris in the original cast of SNL. And, in this case, there's Juror #6. He makes the least impression on the viewer. Somewhat tough, but principled, he's likable enough, but doesn't really have a grand moment or identifying characteristic the way the other jurors do. He contributes the least. And yet, that in and of itself is noteworthy. He's the swing. After all, as the sixth to vote not guilty, he's the one who makes it a tie. He's more of an observer than a debater, and therefore comes across as more impartial than any of the other jurors. At the very start of the film, it is very clear that jurors like #9 or #2 will be among the first to shift, and it's clear that #3 and #10 will be the very last to shift. #6 is the wildcard. He represents, in many ways, the audience, absorbing everything the other jurors are saying.

Juror #7 (Jack Warden)
JUROR #7: Okay, this is, I think, perhaps the most fascinating character in the entire film. Because his defining characteristic is apathy. He doesn't care about the outcome of the case, and openly admits that he's voting not guilty only because he thinks it means that they will get out of the room sooner. And in a film where the entire line of action is a debate, to have a character who is completely disinterested in the debate is surprising. And, I think that this trait makes him the primary antagonist of the film. Not the bigoted #10, not the prejudiced #3, but the completely apathetic #7. At the start of the film, Juror #8 is not 100% sure that the defendant is not guilty. He just thinks there's a case, and that they should go over the evidence again before sending the defendant to, they presume, death row. If Twelve Angry Men has a central thesis, it's that it's important to consider things and listen to the viewpoints of others. Even the more villainous and outspoken jurors are willing to do this. #7 is not. He comes across as the least likable of the group--a man with no convictions or morals of any kind. With Juror #7, Twelve Angry Men is making the cast that the greatest enemy to justice is apathy. The most outspoken juror voting guilty is #3, who is also the last to change his vote. But at least he believes strongly in what he's saying, and without #3 there wouldn't be such a passionate argument. During #10's bigoted rant which I mentioned earlier, he is one of the last jurors to turn away, and of the jurors who do turn, is the only one who does not actively leave the table. Even when he's offended by #10's comments, he can't be bothered to physically remove himself from the situation, and his anger just barely registers. #7 contributes nothing, and is the true villain here.

Juror #12 (Robert Webber)
JUROR #12: It's easy to define one characteristic to each juror. #8 is justice, #9 is wisdom, #5 is compassion, #11 is intelligence, #2 is timidity, #6 is impartiality, and #7 is apathy. To follow this approach, #12 is indecision. He is the only juror in the entire film to vote not guilty and then change his vote back to guilty (only to, of course, change back to not guilty again). And ad executive who seems somewhat distracted during the discussion of the case, although not disinterested, he's fairly non-descript. He's friendly, but not noteworthy. He's not incredibly bright, but he is savvy. And despite being caught doodling on a notepad and playing tic-tac-toe earlier in the film, his indecision shows how seriously he takes the case. He's not the most remarkable of the jurors, but his indecisiveness makes him distinctly human and that alone sets him apart from the other jurors who consistently stick to their deeply-held convictions.

Juror #1 (Martin Balsam)
JUROR #1: The foreman of the jury, who volunteers for the role, #1 is a natural leader (we find out he's a coach) who generally keeps the debate, and in turn the film, on track and diffuses his fair share of arguments. In many ways, he has a lot in common with #8, but with his priorities set elsewhere. While #8 seeks justice by examining the facts under close scrutiny, #1 seeks justice by following the rules of the court system. He serves as a moderator as opposed to a participant, and rarely shares his own opinions in the discussion. His vote for not guilty is perhaps the most momentous for me. We know nothing about his thought process. While we can tell when some of the other jurors are starting to turn, his comes as a genuine surprise. Despite not being involved actively in the debate itself, he is nonetheless a constant presence in the film, due to his regular bookkeeping. He's the juror we ultimately know the least about, but he also makes one of the strongest impressions due to sheer screen time. His role as foreman is the most separate from the rest of the jury, and that alone makes him stand out as an important vote. So, when he changes his vote, it serves to me as the best example that the tide has changed. When the one who runs the vote changes their vote, you know it's set in stone. It is only when the foreman changes his vote that the Not Guilty vote becomes a certainty to me.

Juror #10 (Ed Begley)
JUROR #10: Perhaps the least subtle character. He's racist. And awful. And that's all he is. Driven by prejudice, he immediately establishes himself as an antagonist, and much of the satisfaction of the film is watching as he is exposed as a bigot as the number of guilty votes fall and he loses all support. Considering how his motivations for voting guilty are so clearly tied to prejudice, it is always surprising to me that he actually changes his vote before two other jurors. And his vote change is one of the biggest turns in the whole film. And it is handled quite elegantly, and quietly. I've already talked about how crucial his bigoted rant towards the end is, and how the jurors turn against him one by one. Well, there's one juror who does not turn away from him. That's #4, who I'm going to discuss in a second. #4 does not turn away, but when #10 is finished, he's the only one to speak. #4 says "Now sit down and don't open your mouth again."

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)
JUROR #4: The jurors who vote guilty are the clear antagonists. This is pretty obvious. If the defendant is not guilty, and our hero is the one who changes everyone's votes to not guilty, then those who are in opposition have to be the "bad guys." And two of the three most vocal guilty votes fit the bill perfectly--both #10 and #3 are fueled primarily by anger. #4 is not. #4, despite being the penultimate juror to switch his vote, never comes across as villainous. In fact, he's painted as the most intelligent one on the jury. Everything he does is rational and fact-based. While others are swayed by emotion (the film, after all, promises that everyone's angry), he shows none. He's almost Vulcan-like in his logic. The reason he doesn't turn away from #10 during his rant is because emotions don't come into play with #4. His comments to #10 that he should shut his mouth show that he is angry and disgusted, but those feelings don't affect him to move the same way it does the others. And when he finally changes his vote to not guilty, he's not defeated like #10. He simply explains, "I have reasonable doubt now." This makes him crucial to the film's success. The film teeters dangerously on the edge of being self-righteous. The moral grandstanding could easily come across as saccharine. And if all of those voting guilty were outwardly villainous like #3 and #10 then the line between right and wrong would be too clearly drawn and there would be no ambiguity. #4 allows for that ambiguity. He's respectable, so his presence as one of the primary guilty votes lends that side of the debate credibility. #4 keeps the film from feeling too one-sided.

And, last but certainly not least, we come to...

Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb)
JUROR #3: The most outspoken guilty vote, he's fueled by anger and hate as opposed to reason. He recognizes in the defendant his own son, with whom he's estranged, and takes the case personally because of this. For him, the case is irrelevant. He wants to punish the defendant as a cathartic release. It is for this reason that Juror #3 makes such a good opposition. Because the case is so personal to him, the stakes become much higher. Sure, the others have to decide the fate of the defendant, but in the end it's not someone they know. But, for all intents and purposes, Juror #3 feels that he DOES know the defendant. And he's angry. As the last two guilty votes to switch, #4 is all about facts, and #3 is all about emotions. It is because of these higher stakes for #3 that the film is as exciting to watch as it is. There's a reason he's the very last juror to change his vote: if anyone changed before him, all suspense would be lost.

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.

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