Monday, October 08, 2012

Tonight's Movie: 12 Angry Men (1957)

Here we are moving into mid October, and I realized that until today I'd only seen three films on the list of 10 Classics it's my goal to see in 2012. Time to get moving if I'm going to see everything by year's end!  Tonight I checked another title off the list and watched Henry Fonda and company in 12 ANGRY MEN.

I generally enjoy most films I see, finding worthwhile aspects even in weak films, but this year in particular I've seemed to take a contrarian view toward a number of vaunted classics. Although it had redeeming qualities and I could understand why others admire it, SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) wasn't my cup of tea. I thought A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951) was silly, didn't care for the characters in THE APARTMENT (1960), and found INHERIT THE WIND (1960) quite dreadful on many levels.

12 ANGRY MEN was the best of this group, with a number of well-known actors sharing the screen. I had high hopes I'd really like it, as it's a favorite of a couple of my children, but quite honestly, it failed to move me. It was interesting and I certainly wasn't bored by it, but I found it overly theatrical, with characters I didn't particularly enjoy.

I also found the plotline rather flimsy, which I think stems in part from the fact that I've spent the better part of two decades proofreading murder trial transcripts for a living. There was too much dramatic license necessary for me to buy into the story, whereas other viewers -- such as my children -- aren't likely to have the same issues.

One of my problems with the plot is that at the outset, Juror No. 8 (Henry Fonda) seems to be grasping at what California jury instructions describe as "mere possible doubt" or "possible or imaginary doubt." There was no substance whatsoever behind his raising doubts, he just randomly said "What if?" Which is what modern jurors in many states are not supposed to do. Perhaps the instructions were different in the '50s, but his approach negatively impacted my attitude toward the juror and the film.

It would have been different if Juror No. 8 had only said "I'd like to talk over the evidence," which was a reasonable and quite responsible attitude. But in fact, he initially raised doubts not based on the facts but with an emotional appeal because the accused had had a hard life -- which was irrelevant. In fact, jurors are not supposed to be swayed by sympathy. The jurors may have eventually stumbled into some genuine doubt based on the evidence itself, but it struck me that they got there in the wrong way.

It also bothered me that Fonda's character went to the neighborhood where the crime was committed and bought a knife. Visiting the scene and doing personal research is a big no-no, at least for modern-day jurors in my own state, and again it influenced my attitude. Since Fonda's character is supposed to be the noble hero of the piece and I had issues with him fairly early on, that affected my perception of the film as a whole. I had trouble seeing anyone in the room as particularly admirable, even him.

I also felt that some of their doubts were rather weak. For instance, they saw dents on a woman's nose all the way from the jury box, which meant she normally wore glasses and wouldn't have had them on in bed? Okayyyyy.

In terms of the characters, I can't say it was a whole lot more enjoyable for me spending time with them than they felt about being with each other. Sure, it was kind of interesting seeing a bunch of reputable actors gathered in one room, portraying different "types" and examining group dynamics. But what is the pleasure in watching Ed Begley Sr. wipe his nose on his handkerchief for the better part of 90 minutes? Or in watching various characters hurl insults and trash around the room with equal abandon? Or in listening to the rants of a racist or...angry men? By the time Lee J. Cobb reached his closing histrionics, I was more bemused than touched or saddened when he changed his vote. Cobb is a terrific actor I've enjoyed in a number of films, but he lost me along the way as his character disintegrated.

As a matter of fact, my favorite performer in the film was E.G. Marshall, because it was a relief to watch someone approaching the case in a cool and collected manner. The other jurors not yet mentioned in this post were played by Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Jack Klugman, John Fiedler, Edward Binns, Joseph Sweeney, Robert Webber, and George Voskovec.

This 96-minute film was directed by Sidney Lumet and filmed by Boris Kaufman.

My son's owned a 50th Anniversary DVD of the film for a few years now, and I upgraded it to the Criterion 2-disc DVD in the last Criterion half price sale at Barnes and Noble. I watched the Criterion print and it was absolutely gorgeous, crisp and clear. The set comes with extensive extras including the 1955 television version, which will be interesting to compare to the film.

I haven't set out to have "minority" takes on so many classics this year, but I'm honestly calling 'em as I see 'em. It keeps things interesting, that's for sure, and I welcome comments with alternative viewpoints. The discussion which ensued on THE APARTMENT last summer was terrific!


Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

Oh that's disappointing. I really enjoy this film, it's constraints and the actors and their performances. It's really just a marvelous film.

12:35 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Raquelle! One of the reasons my son likes this movie so much is he likes films with groups interacting in small spaces, such as trains or in this case a jury room. Sounds as though that's one of the aspects you like too?

I enjoy hearing what people like -- you never know, there's always a chance it will strike me differently in the future. Thanks!

Best wishes,

12:47 PM  
Blogger Dave Enkosky said...

Can't say that I agree with most of your points (I love this movie), but you made some good arguments.

5:17 PM  
Blogger Marilyn said...

To be honest, I've been on a jury, and this kind of bad behavior was rampant. We were decided a products liability lawsuit, and one of the jurors brought a copy of THE JUNGLE in to read.

9:24 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Dave and Marilyn,

Thanks to you both for sharing your comments. Marilyn, that's fascinating regarding your own experience!

Best wishes,

9:49 AM  

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