Monday, September 07, 2015

Criterion Thoughts—12 Angry Men (1957) ****

Juror #1: Martin Balsam
Juror #2: John Fielder
Juror #3: Lee J. Cobb
Juror #4: E.G. Marshall
Juror #5: Jack Klugman
Juror #6: Edward Binns
Juror #7: Jack Warden
Juror #8: Henry Fonda
Juror #9: Joseph Sweeney
Juror #10: Ed Begley
Juror #11: George Voskovec
Juror #12: Robert Webber

United Artists presents a film directed by Sidney Lumet. Written by Reginald Rose. Running time: 96 min. Not Rated.

I was lucky enough to have performed in a stage production of Reginald Rose’s “12 Angry Men”. It’s hard to find a play that offers such a diverse set of characters that each inhabit the stage for a play’s entirety. It’s kind of an actor’s dream play. Even if you’re playing one of the smaller roles in terms of number of lines, you still get to flex your acting muscles throughout.

Not that line count was a problem for me, I was also lucky enough to land one of the primary roles of the production, that of Juror #3, the antagonist to Juror #8. I hadn’t seen the movie at that time, and as a purist, I didn’t seek it out in order to preserve my original interpretation of the character. I wish I had, though. For one, I’m not much like Lee J. Cobb, who played #3 in Sidney Lumet’s 1957 big screen adaptation. I couldn’t have stolen his mannerisms or instincts. The main reason I wish I’d seen the film, though, is because of a key mistake my young acting mind made in my interpretation. I judged him.

Judgment is the key element of this story. It takes place in the deliberation room of a Chicago courthouse. It follows the entire deliberation process of a jury that is mostly convinced of the guilt of an Hispanic-American charged with murder. We never meet the defendant. We never meet anyone other than the 12 jury members and the bailiff who leads them into their chambers. I don’t believe the bailiff ever speaks, however. It’s all about the jurors and how their judgment changes when forced to see different points of view.

In fact, by strict dramatic definitions of a protagonist—which is often incorrectly identified as the “good guy”—Jurors #8 and #3 really share aspects of a protagonist’s purpose. While the protagonist represents a cause or social issue, as #8 most certainly does; he should also have the most significant dramatic arc in which he learns or grows as a human, as Juror #3 does here. If I’d looked at Juror #3 as the protagonist, I believe my interpretation would’ve served the play much better.

Lumet’s amazing production does just that. He presents almost all of the characters as if they are the protagonists in their own journeys toward enlightenment, making this one of the most unique film productions I’ve ever seen. Being based on a play, there is a cinematic danger of presenting a visually stagnant production. Lumet stays true to the play here by keeping all of the action contained within the deliberation room. There is a lavatory that provides a brief relocation, but its proximity to the deliberation room really doesn’t provide a place of privacy for the characters. This choice not to remove the audience from the deliberation room retains the claustrophobic nature of the play during which the audience and characters can never escape the opinions of others. This notion is even more poignant in today’s internet/24-hour news cycle culture where we can hardly form our own opinions under the constant inundation of others’.

Lumet’s camera never seems stagnant. Perhaps this is because he focuses it so pointedly at his characters, who are forced into each others heads by their circumstance. This is where a lack of judgment against the jurors is so important. They aren’t judged by Lumet’s camera so we as an audience can see how they judge themselves. Henry Fonda’s Juror #8 sets this theme into motion with his initial dissention as the sole vote against conviction. He seems very conflicted by his choice to dissent. Fonda plays him so introvertedly that his struggle internalizes for the audience right from the start. Then we see other characters move from a very surface approach to something more personal throughout.

One of the longer holdouts for conviction is Juror #7, played here by Jack Warden. His reasons are never very deeply rooted. He’s hoping to get to a baseball game and initially feels that it will be so much easier to argue for conviction than acquittal. Later, he just can’t let go of his initial judgment, but eventually he can no longer deny that his initial reasoning had more to do with his personal agenda than a true evaluation of the facts. If only Facebook users could come to such conclusions before they click on “Post.”

While most of the film adapts the play’s stage direction realistically into this one room cinematic drama, there is one moment where Lumet drops the illusion of realism to present a much more obviously staged scene. The change in style is significant because it represents the one moment of judgment against a character on the jury. Ed Bagley’s Juror #10 represents the only member whose judgment is based purely on racial bias. As the other jurors finally decide to put an end to his racist rants, Lumet adds very stage-like lighting and has each character physically turn away from #10. While in reality at that time, and quite possibly in our current time, a larger percentage of the jury might have a genuinely racist outlook, Lumet is making it clear that racism is an unacceptable reason for dissent and that this is not what the rest of the production is exploring. Racism is perverted, so he deals with it by perverting the reality he’s established. The rest is a study in natural human perception and the difficulties we have looking at things from another point of view, which certainly plays a role in racism but is not mutually exclusive.

Certainly social media and our newly refreshed civil rights movement have made the social issues at the heart of this story just as poignant today as they were when it was originally filmed. It teaches a lesson that most of us see ignored on a daily basis on our social media news feeds. The Bible tells us not to judge others and yet reserving judgment is still incredibly difficult for most of us. I’m not trying to teach some religious or even political agenda by saying this. I find it ironic that those who do often have the most difficult time implementing this lesson in their lives. What this message’s existence in the Bible proves, however, is that our inability to reserve our judgment has hindered our progress on this Earth since the beginnings of our historical documentation. “12 Angry Men” doesn’t solve our problems with the judgment of others, but by looking at it in non-judgmental way, it shines a spotlight on how to face this problem. The story concludes that it often takes other opinions to remove our own personalized judgment.

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