Thursday, March 15, 2012

Truth, Justice and Grace Under Pressure

Courtroom dramas have long been a staple of Hollywood, but few if any can match the visceral power of 12 Angry Men. This 1957 American film classic staked out a unique place for itself by going beyond the public face of justice into the inner sanctum of the jury room. In fact, except for a brief scene where we hear a bored-looking judge giving final instructions to the jury (along with a brief shot of the defendant), the 95-minute film takes place entirely in that claustrophobic space. But before that the film signals its broader aim with an opening shot in which the camera pans up the pillared facade of the New York Supreme Court building to the inscription above: "The True Administration Of Justice Is The Firmest Pillar Of Good Government." It then proceeds to celebrate a key bulwark of that true justice and good government -- the right to trial by jury of one's peers. It's not always a pretty sight, indeed it gets downright ugly at times, but 12 Angry Men leaves this viewer proud of our American system of justice, imperfect as it is.

It also leaves me pondering the nature of moral courage, the kind possessed by juror number 8 played magnificently by the incomparable Henry Fonda. Part of Fonda's greatness as an actor lay in his ability to be "naturally natural" on screen (Gregory Peck was another one with the same quality). Juror 8 starts out as the only dissenting voice -- one man against 11 -- but ends up persuading each of his fellow jurors to change their initial opinion. The final holdout is Juror 3, played memorably by Lee J. Cobb. Cobb may be lesser known to the casual film buff, but his performance here and in On the Waterfront three years earlier make him one of the memorable figures of 1950s American cinema. Here, his blustering bravado and eventual emotional meltdown are amazing to behold.

I could go on and on about this cast. Each juror is beautifully characterized and represents a slice of America -- America circa 1950s that is. Modern viewers will quickly notice that this is twelve angry white men. Nevertheless, human nature hasn't changed and thus this film has aged well. 12 Angry Men is a brilliant study of group psychology, and demonstrates the truth that pressure brings out what's really inside a man -- like when you squeeze a tube of toothpaste, I once heard a preacher say. The fact that the deliberations take place on the hottest day of the year, in an era before air conditioning, only adds to the volatility of the situation.

Orson Welles said that every movie begins with the written word. It's fair to say that 12 Angry Men owes the lions share of it's success to the screenplay by New York writer Reginald Rose. But don't dismiss the contribution of first-time director Sidney Lumet. Still working fruitfully until his death early last year, Lumet was surprised when producer and star Henry Fonda personally recruited him to helm this project. It turned out to be a fortuitous choice.

Lumet faced the exquisite challenge of making what was in essence a filmed stageplay, taking place almost entirely on a single set, into gripping cinema. He achieved that goal with a multitude of inventive camera angles and masterful blocking worked out thru hours of rehearsal (blocking is the stage term used for the movement and positioning of actors within the frame of a film). He also hit on the idea of conveying the increasing tension and pressure of the situation by bringing his camera ever closer to his actors -- finally pushing his close-ups in so tight that the tops of the actors' heads are cut off by the frame. Below are two examples featuring Juror 3 played by Lee J. Cobb (TOP) and Juror 4 "the man who never sweats" played by E.G. Marshall (BOTTOM).

Here's a key scene. Juror 10 (played by Ed Begley) has had enough. At last his heretofor barely disguised prejudice spills out into the open. His memorable diatribe alienates his fellow jurors, even the ones still on his side. The reaction of the jurors who shun Juror 10 by literally turning their backs strikes me as a bit too theatrical, but it's a powerful scene nonetheless. Note the graceful way Lumet executes it in a single shot, concluding with a slow push-in on Fonda as he discusses the concept of reasonable doubt that their verdict hinges on, while his calm demeanor demonstrates the proverbial truth: "a soft answer turneth away wrath."

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