12 Angry Men (1957)
Reviewed in December 2009
Director: Sidney Lumet. Cast: Henry Fonda, Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec, Robert Webber, John Savoca, Rudy Bond, James Kelly, Billy Nelson. Screenplay: Reginald Rose (based on his play and teleplay).

Photo © 1957 United Artists/Orion-Nova Productions
I know a lot of people adore this movie as a primer in ethical ratiocination and democratic duty, but am I wrong for thinking that Lee J. Cobb's bigoted blowhard basically gets the shaft at the end of the picture? Lumet's 12 Angry Men has been lionized for half a century for its skill at remaining visually alive inside a single locked room, give or take the largest bathroom that was ever attached to a cloistered office. He pulled the same trick more flexibly and with more nuance five years later in Long Day's Journey into Night, and a lot of his success comes down to moving the camera when many directors would leave it stationary, and to some arbitrary choices like filming a bunch of raised hands in compartmentalized close-ups, such that we're oddly unsure who's raising them. Still, he does a spry job of keeping the piece moving, and he has conferenced brilliantly with most of his actors, especially the ingeniously impassive E.G. Marshall, the believably hotheaded Cobb, the disaffected Jack Klugman, and the resolutely well-mannered George Voskovec. But it's a rigged and crooked piece of writing, and Lumet's direction in many ways makes it even more suspect. If you don't already know, from sheer structural intuition, that a jury that's teetering at an 11-1 vote in the first ten minutes is eventually going to undergo a profound reversal, care of the one fellow who's so high-minded he's staring pensively out the window while everyone else is taking their seats, Lumet stacks the deck even further by casting the most beatifically sad-eyed kid he can possibly find as the silent defendant, and then transitioning to the jury room through such an excruciatingly slow dissolve that the bathos of the kid's face suffuses the space forever afterward. True to Hollywood form, the tonily liberal descriptions of what life is like for "them" in the ethnic ghettoes and working-class neighborhoods of the city are appallingly patronizing, and only escape detection as such to the extent we are forced incessantly to compare them to the starkly xenophobic and racist trash talked by the helpfully underscored heavies.

There are signs in the opening movements that the film might outflank the dampest, most needless conceits of Reginald Rose's screenplay, inevitably set on "the hottest day of the year." I relished the evident boredom of the judge who reads the jury their instructions in the first scene, but Lumet just doesn't have it in him to undermine star-producer Henry Fonda, who gets his first straight-on close-up in response to someone else's incredulous question "You really think he's innocent?" and who benefits regularly, unlike any other actor, from some insulating accents of ennobling music, preferential framing and lighting, and fatherly speeches about democracy and reasonable doubt. 12 Angry Men has the smart idea of hinging not on a standoff between guilt or innocence but between certainty and doubt, and yet the case that Fonda's character argues is certainly delivered as some kind of automatic exculpation, and worse, the dug-in "villains" are held to a position of such inflexible certainty that the movie never allows them much room for a pointed response, much less a credible perspective, based on an apparently compelling array of testimony and argumentation that the structure of 12 Angry Men forbids us from hearing, or from taking seriously. That's also why Ed Begley, Jack Warden, Cobb, and Marshall, as the most redoubtable avatars of impermeability, keep having to play the same scenes and reactions over and over again, and that's why the whole script is jerry-rigged so that the jurors confront the most salient evidence and crucial witnesses at the end of their deliberations rather than the beginning. Otherwise, the movie would be too short, and romantic liberalism—and I say this as a fairly romantic liberal myself—wouldn't get to enjoy a full 95 minutes of roundly assured, grudge-match victory over inarticulate intolerance.

It's almost bemusing, how hard the movie tries to pitch this duel as a miraculous triumph of the underdog. The favoritism becomes so pronounced it can override the strongest semiotic cues as to the deeper, truer power dynamics of this narrative. By the end, Lumet frames Fonda and his armada of doubting (read: undoubting) converts with the kinds of claustrophobic, wide-angle close-ups that make them look like Joan of Arc's tormentors in the Dreyer film. If 12 Angry Men hadn't been maintaining so bluntly for so long where our sympathies are meant to lie, we would easily peg this as a montage of leering bullies, crowding out a final holdout until he buckles... and less because he's been logically convinced than because a deus ex absurdum of fatherly bitterness in relation to an offscreen son he can't help detesting suddenly gets the best of him. 12 Angry Men, to me, plays most interestingly as a snapshot of how American liberals can duplicate the same ganging-up tactics and falsely, flatteringly organized "logic" that they deride whenever they recognize it (as we so often must) among the most hidebound and cant-addicted conservatives; these kinds of lazy idealists pretend to moral victories when they're actually just wielding their own set of smug sophistries. Clearly, this isn't how 12 Angry Men means to play; if it were, we wouldn't learn in the final moments that Fonda's character is called David, so no wonder he fared so well against that eleven-headed Goliath, and no wonder the final shot asks us to regard Fonda as almost a literal, white-suited pillar of the courthouse edifice.

At its best, beside the energetic staging and laudable acting, the film does have its finger on how a certain ethos of sarcasm and flippancy is the particular black cloud that a certain kind of privileged masculinity will immediately start secreting, like a school of agitated eels, when their arrogance or customary assumptions are abruptly challenged, particularly by someone who had passed at first as one of "their own." That's why Jack Warner's wise-ass and Robert Webber's insufferable exec are so crucial to the movie, and why the adenoidal worrywort played, naturally, by Piglet voice-actor John Fiedler, is not the stooge that a more machismo-driven film would force him to be. 12 Angry Men has some shrewd observations to sell about argumentation and group behavior, but they're not the ones of which the film seems most proud. "I began to get a peculiar feeling," Fonda says about the prosecution's apparently open-and-shut case. "Nothing is that positive," he demurs, but the obvious exception is the cocky, unevenly advantaged progressivism of a Hollywood movie that's meant to teach us something. Nothing could be more positive than the rightness of the final verdict, though it has plainly been manipulated from the earliest moments, and guaranteed by whatever means necessary. Grade: B–

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Picture
Best Director: Sidney Lumet
Best Adapted Screenplay: Reginald Rose

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Sidney Lumet
Best Actor (Drama): Henry Fonda
Best Supporting Actor: Lee J. Cobb

Other Awards:
Berlin Film Festival: Golden Bear (Best Picture); OCIC Award
Writers Guild of America: Best Written American Drama
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Foreign Actor (Fonda)

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