For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
So I have started this entry a couple of times, and am still a little unsatisfied. It is hard for me to articulate why a film about twelve men in one room is so emotionally engaging and visually compelling. Each time I start the entry I feel like I’m doing a disservice to “12 Angry Men,” but believe me, this film is great.
So far on the AFI 100 Years, 100 Movies list there have been a couple of films that if changed only slightly would have been slow or boring. Think of “The Last Picture Show” without Cloris Leachman or Ben Johnson or its beautifully constructed shots of the empty town.
If you take Meryl Streep’s performance away from “Sophie’s Choice”, the film would suffer greatly. These films each have only a handful of locations, and rely entirely on performance and shot composition.
With “12 Angry Men”, director Sidney Lumet uses a single room, but pushes the limitations until they look like strengths, and comes out with a stunning film.
When you limit yourself to a single location and a cast of 12 you had better have some strong characters, great acting and really clever, compelling shots. “12 Angry Men” has all three. It is the story of a jury in deliberation for a murder trial. The young man on trial, if convicted, will be sentenced to death.
One room, twelve dudes, go.
Let’s start with the acting. There are a handful of recognizable actors including Henry Fonda, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, Jack Klugman, and Lee Cobb, but even the actors who aren’t current household names are really solid. Henry Fonda is great, but when I watched “12 Angry Men” this time, it was Klugman who knocked my cinematic socks off. His performance is subtle and understated, and he allows his character to build slowly, and methodically. Just watch this scene:
The characters in “12 Angry Men” feel real. There are no short cuts taken, no quick answers, only struggle from the very beginning. These characters are entrenched in their own views, prejudices, and moral drives. Watching each one grow and change over the course of the movie is a joy.
As for as Lumet’s direction and ability to add drama with his choice of framing and editing, this scene between Fonda and E.G. Marshall should do the convincing:
Seven shots, that’s it–all intercut to make this scene. Two wide, two medium, and two close shots, one each of Fonda and Marshall, and one cut away close to John Fielder are all that are needed. Look at how pronounced and important Fonda appears, and how Marshall continues to become more meek and unsure.
Of course, the actors are giving their performances, but the shots reinforce the acting and play on the viewer’s perception. Each shot is a specific choice that moves this scene and the film forward. We move from wide to close throughout the argument. This is why films that are cut based solely on coverage instead of what a wide shot or close up mean are not as satisfying.
With the content of “12 Angry Men” and the control exerted by each of the actors over their characters and Lumet over the film as whole, this film could have felt stiff and didactic, but it doesn’t. For such a heady, intellectual film, it’s also a really enjoyable and satisfying one.
Next up #86
“Coming Home in a Bodybag” err, I mean “Platoon” (1986)