I saw this quite a while ago, jumping way ahead of schedule in order to do it, because my dad—who wasn’t so thrilled with the idea of the Project when I started out—did at least warm to the idea that I would at some point be watching a lot of his favorite movies, 12 Angry Men being one of them. So we watched it together, I loved it, and from there I went on to watch it a couple more times and to read director Sydney Lumet’s book Making Movies, in which he reveals some of the craftsmanship and thought that went into making it.
And there was a lot of craftsmanship. A lot of thought.
12 Angry Men, without being overly profound or even particularly cinematic (it’s adapted from a teleplay by Reginald Rose), is, I think, one of the most distinctly American pieces of art to come out of 20th century cinema, if I can claim the credentials to make such a statement, and that’s because, without being preachy, without being a florid celebration of Americana (an accusation I think you could rightly make of The Ten Commandments or Oklahoma! and maybe even The Searchers), 12 Angry Men gives us a portrait of a single pocket of the American justice system, the jury in a trial, and turns that into a portrait of the entire justice system and, by extension, the American “experiment”: it’s a portrait of 12 people trying to do the right thing and tripping over themselves in the process, their needs, their biases, their pride.
Henry Fonda plays juror #8 in a murder trial determining the fate of a teenager who’s been charged with stabbing his father to death. Embodying some blend of the humility he showcased just a minute ago, in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, and some of the righteous anger that characterized his turn as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, Fonda hangs the jury. He’s the only one who doesn’t think the kid on trial is guilty, despite a slew of testimony against him. The movie then walks us through #8’s effort to turn the jury.
Or, at the very least, to have a conversation.
So there’s twelve guys in this room, obviously, but they exist between two polarities: the open-minded compassion of juror #8, and the narrow-minded prejudice of Lee J. Cobb, juror #3, who is so vehement about the kid’s guilt, sings it with a kind of familiar poisonous charisma that we see from the White House, that he elevates the kid and the trial to something larger than their occasion. Makes it sound like this sin’t one domestic heat-of-the-moment murder we’re looking at, but a portrait of both how the modern moral fiber has weakened and the, uh, sorts of people who’ve weakened it.
It’s kind of a dramatic crescendo when juror #3 finally speaks the epithet that’s been strewn between the lines of all his earlier commentary.
And Cobb, as he did in Man of the West and will alter do with The Exorcist, completely steals the movie. He’s a fat, frothy, swaggering prototype for Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly: it isn’t just that he’s angry, that he’s pessimistic and cynical—it’s that he’s made performance art out of the role. And I don’t mean Cobb here, but the juror, the character: juror #3 is performing a sort of righteous disenfranchised victimhood to mask his anger at the fact that success wasn’t just handed to him.
In Lumet’s book he talks about the obstacle of doing more than just filming a play, of somehow using cinematic tools and strategies to enhance a story that, at least in terms of setting, has relatively little breathing room but a lot to capture: twelve men, twelve performances, twelve sets of reactions…
So Lumet, to create an accumulating vibe of claustrophobia, begins the deliberation (the movie) with his protagonists all seated—but the camera, insofar as it’s a character, is standing. It’s looking slightly down at all of the characters and therefore making them feel small. Then as we get into the thick of their argument, and people begin to stand up and move around, the camera meets them at eye level. Confrontational. Then, in the third act, as Cobb is finally in the minority (rich bit of irony for a racist), the camera is looking up at the jurors, only slightly, so that now we, the audience, feel smothered by them just as they, in their accumulated sweat and dishevelment, are smothered by the literal and metaphorical heat of the room.
When I was in middle school and first started realizing I liked moves a lot, that I was maybe a little more avid about them than my peers (which took a while to realize, since kids generally flex a pretty uniform interest in movies), I’d talk about it with my friend’s step-dad, Roberto, who once asked me, “Have you ever watched a movie where it’s just a few people in a room talking for two hours?” And I hadn’t, but the idea was so novel—I realized I’d never given thought to the fact that, oh wait, the movies I like do seem to have lots of different settings, tons of characters, action sequences…
I imagine 12 Angry Men is the kind of thing he was referring to. Every time I see such a movie, I think about him, and how he opened my eyes with just that question.
Similarly, Lumet’s opened my eyes here with the tricks he employs to keep us interested, cinematically, in what’s going on. Tricks we might or might not notice.
Although, with Lee J. Cobb moving about with the smarmy grace of a silent fart, who needs tricks to hold our attention?