There's alot to be said for super-long, cripplingly dull bus journeys. When I had to make the 4-hour journey back and forth between Aberdeen and Glasgow, it gave me alot of free time to read the kinds of books I'd normally only buy just to look 'cool'. Sadly my childlike attention span meant I never got much further than however much I'd read on the journey, although some did stick with me... Peter Biskind's sort-of-trilogy for one (three?). Seeing Is Believing was mostly concerned with the 1950s, which I felt MUST be important since it was full of references to very important films I'd almost heard of, but never seen.
I read the chapter on Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men then immediately watched the film. I loved everything about it, especially after reading about it, although I did categorise it alongside Citizen Kane- one of those films you watch only every once in a while, to remind you of why you like it. Recently, Auld Sid's name has popped up in our Cinema History classes with Andy too, so I geeked out and got his book Making Movies out of the library. It's really interesting, concise, and Lumet comes across as a very likeable- but knowledgeable- guy. Once again, I skimmed some things he said about 12 Angry Men, which got me all excited to see it again. I knew the outcome, but I'd left it long enough between viewings that I'd totally forgotten how everything played out.
The basic plot involves a jury deciding the fate of an 18 year old Hispanic boy, from a poor slum area of New York, who is being tried for the seemingly open and shut murder of his father. We only see one shot of the boy's face, as the twelve jurors are escorted from the courtroom, and we know nothing about him. In fact, we know nothing about any of the characters. The next 90 minutes take place within the confines of one room, as the men try to reach a decision on the boy's fate. Eleven of them opt for 'guilty' straight away, after a few hurried introductions and small talk. Crucially though, none of the jurors' names are ever revealed. One dissenter (Henry Fonda) argues that since a 'guilty' verdict will entail the death penalty, they should at least discuss it.
I know, doesn't exactly sound thrill-a-minute huh? Well, surprisingly, it is. The film tricks you, kind of... It's an 'alternative' courtroom drama, focussed on the behind-the-scenes preconceptions of the jurors. Twelve men in one room, for 90 minutes, is a tricky thing to keep fresh, but the film pulls it off with aplomb. The dialogue and tautly-wound structure ensure that we only learn information as the characters do. Looking back on the first week of term with Richard, we learned about the importance of 'who knows what'... and here, we don't find out anything easily. It's a brilliant move that means we don't have any preconceptions either. We know the accused boy as well as the jurors do, and we know them as well as they do each other. As the story unfolds and personal prejudices and backgrounds are brought to the fore, tempers and patience begin to run thin. Henry Fonda's eloquent dissenter never loses his own temper, but tries to coax the remaining men using logic and dispelling prejudice.
The 'trick' here is that it ends up being completely different to what we thought we were in for... once you've seen one courtroom drama, you can tell how the next one's going to go. Here, however, we have no idea whatsoever. The performances are uniformly excellent, despite not being familiar with most of the cast. Each character is so firmly rooted in their own beliefs and opinions that it's hard to see how one man will be able to convince them all to have a change of heart. In a sense, it's a mystery/thriller too, the whole way through I was on the edge of my seat despite having seen it already. As each of the men begin to come round to Fonda's logic, it is revealed how their own backstories have influenced their decisions, opinions or lack thereof. The biggest revelation is Lee J Cobb who's feverish backing of the 'guilty' verdict stems from his fractured relationship with his only son. Nothing is played out for sympathy, and we're not given huge spoonfuls of exposition...
...instead we are given no more information than what any juror usually would. This is part of the film's brilliance, I think, as it means we are left to make up our own minds. There is a subtle shift from courtroom drama/whodunnit to in depth character study; each of the complex personalities of each of the jurors, and how they interact with one another, reveal why they've come to their respective decisions. It's seemingly simple, but despite a potentially dull premise my attention never wavered once. Subtle changes in the different lenses also helped with the shifting focus between all of the jurors. Admittedly I probably wouldn't have noticed this fully unless it had been pointed out to me, but thankfully it had. The room stays the same size yet to us gets bigger, more claustrophobic, contains twelve men or is focussed on one. Despite the characters not being distinguishable by name, we're never unsure about who's making a point.
OK, so it's perhaps not light viewing, but as a piece of film-making this is a classic. The tension cleverly mounts for the whole duration of the film, meaning the climax has an emotional gut-punch that takes you by surprise, even if you've guessed how it might end. Confusing? Maybe. But then, so is the intricacy of human nature and personal belief, and that's what is really on trial here. The morality of the film is not thumpingly heavy-handed, but played out with clever reason and logic, and for that reason this is a film which rightfully deserves its place as an all-time great.