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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: 12 Angry Men (1957)

Director: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Henry Fonda

Social issue movies always run the risk of being so dry and didactic in their eagerness to make their point, that the entertainment value of the films can get lost along the way. Sidney Lumet is a filmmaker who has always been able to find the right balance between the message and the medium, expressing what he has to say about the given subject without sacrificing his narratives to the level of tutorials. In 12 Angry Men he examines a facet of the justice system - namely how a jury renders its verdict - casting a critical eye on something we take for granted as being fair and just, when in truth it can be anything but. He also creates a riveting film experience out of just twelve characters - the jurors in a murder trial - and one room, proving once and for all that sometimes less really is more.

The trial in question is never seen and the defendant is seen only briefly in the opening moments. What we know about the case we learn in the jury room as it is debated and discussed. To eleven of the jurors, it’s an open and shut case and the deliberation is little more than ceremonial, something in which they will half-heartedly participate before rendering a guilty verdict. For Juror #8 (Henry Fonda), however, this will not do and he refuses to vote along with the rest, eventually making a deal with them so that they will discuss the case. He’s motivated less by the belief that the defendant is innocent than the belief that it is their duty as jurors to actually discuss the evidence rather than make a hasty pronouncement. Slowly but surely, he breaks down the prosecution’s case, turning one juror after another against a guilty verdict.

There are a number of memorable scenes in this film. In one, Juror #8 recreates the shuffling walk of a witness who claims to have seen the defendant fleeing the scene. In another, he produces a switch blade that looks exactly like the murder weapon, which the prosecutors have claimed is unique and could only belong to the defendant. In one of the most powerful scenes, Juror #10 (Ed Begly) makes a virulently racist speech about the defendant’s obvious guilt, throwing around phrases like “those people” as the other jurors, one by one, stand from the table and turn away, refusing to listen to him. The film deftly explores issues of race and class with regards to the justice system, and its success in this lies in the fact that it doesn’t go the obvious route of making the defendant the sympathetic protagonist, but rather by showing the prejudices and assumptions brought to the trial by people who’ve never even met the defendant. We don’t know exactly what is referred to by #10’s “those people,” but our brief glimpse of the defendant shows someone who is vaguely “ethnic” looking in a very general sense. There is also the presumption amongst many of the jurors that as someone from an impoverished family, the defendant is accustomed both to experiencing and perpetuating violence. Many of the jurors are ready to believe that the defendant is guilty simply because he appears to fit the mould of a “dangerous person” as determined by the dominant ideology. This attitude of course begs the question of how the defendant is supposed to get a fair trial by a jury of his peers when the jurors don’t consider themselves his peers, but see him very much as part of “them” who is in contrast to “us.”

The film’s strength lies not only in it’s message, but also in the way that it’s filmed. It begins with the jurors filing into the jury room on a hot summer day. The fan isn’t working and the room seems to swelter as Juror #8 holds out and begins making his case and most of the others fight him, refusing to be swayed. Watching, we feel how hot it is in that room just as we feel the tension that’s ever rising. There is a degree of intimacy in the way this is filmed that is heightened by the set itself. As the film progresses, the room seems to get smaller, more claustrophobic.

This film, which looks simple on paper, is amazing in its complexities, and in Juror #8, Fonda creates on of his many great characters, but the other eleven actors are also worthy of high praise. While they’re sequestered, we never get to know any of the jurors’ names, but we truly get a sense of each and everyone of their personalities, some of them are strong and determined to hold steady, while others easily succumb to a herd mentality and are afraid to speak up if they disagree, and one just wants to get the verdict over with so that he can make it to the baseball game in time. By showing us these people, the ways that some are swayed to change their minds, and the ways that others make up theirs, and the way that evidence can be presented without really being considered, the film makes a strong and critical commentary on a deep flaw in the justice system. The power of the film lies not in whether or not the defendant is guilty or innocent, or in whether #8 proves the defendant’s innocence, but in how the jurors come to the conclusion of their verdict. And that’s what makes a simple story about twelve men in one room so memorable.

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