Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Lumet's 12 Angry Men (1957)



Peter Heath Baker wrote of 12 Angry Men in an article for Criterion:

"The 95-minute running time of the film is also the duration of the jurors’ decision-making. The camera, like the jurors, cannot leave the room until a verdict has been reached. Faithful to Aristotle’s prescription for classical theatre, 12 Angry Men observes the unities of time, place, and action, which is rare in a film. Sidney Lumet, in his debut as a film director, used the techniques of the theatre to evoke the claustrophobic tension of the jury room. Before shooting, he rehearsed his cast for two weeks, running through the script like a play. With the aid of On the Waterfront cinematographer Boris Kaufman, Lumet plotted the camera’s movements to highlight what developed during the intensive period of rehearsal."

I have served on a criminal jury. I was in my mid-20s and the accused was a guy charged with robbing a bank. 12 Angry Men echoes my experiences in that jury room. In my case the evidence was largely circumstantial and the jury included women, but the terrible fear in most minds was the same: what if we condemn an innocent man? We deliberated and found the guy guilty, though with no great sense of justice.

Sidney Lumet's first feature is a powerful movie, where Boris Kaufman's camera is not so much an observer as a participant in the cloistered confines of a jury room on a steamy summer day where the only fan doesn't work. After the opening scene where a weary and visibly bored judge instructs the jurors to consider their verdict in a murder case, we cut to the jury room and in an elegant long take the camera moves at eye level around the room, first observing a man staring out a window, then moving to other men in conversation, and moving on again and again to introduce each protagonist in turn. When the jurors are seated on the first vote around the table one man is holding out for not guilty - the man we earlier saw staring out the window who is played by Henry Fonda. The drama turns on this man's insistence on justice being done, and holding the jury down to a fair assessment of the evidence. A great ensemble cast holds the tension and expertly develops the melodrama of conflict and personality. The camera is often in close-up deftly taking a player's point of view in confrontations.

As the tension mounts and the personal dramas of the jurors take on as much significance as their deliberations, the camera moves progressively down to a lower angle to reveal the room's ceiling, adding to the volcanic emotional tension as the last hold-outs on a guilty verdict come under attack.

While the strength of the direction and the cinematography are integral, it is the tight script by Reginald Rose and the telling dialog that underpins the drama. Each protagonist is profoundly human - each with his own emotional baggage and differing characteristics.

When the jurors finally leave the jury room, the camera lingers and muses over the empty chairs and table. There is a palpable sense of melancholy for something memorable, important, that is now gone forever. The final scene shows the jurors descending the steps of the court-house, each returning to their separate lives. The oldest of the jurors, a canny old man played beautifully by Joseph Sweeney, makes a touching attempt to talk to the Fonda character, to hold on to something that he doesn't want to lose, but the short exchange goes nowhere, and he shuffles away down the steps a little bewildered, and suddenly very old and very tired.