Friday, April 13, 2012

'12 Angry Men' Still a Compelling Film

Today, it almost seems like an obvious thing, a cliche of moviemaking.

"12 Angry Men," originally a TV play, made its debut as a movie 55 years ago today. I wasn't around in those days, but I have to think that the basic premise — a solitary member of a criminal jury votes "not guilty" and persuades his fellow jurors to change their votes — wasn't new then.

It probably just hadn't been used as much as a plot device by 1957 as it has in the 55 years since.

If that was so, it must have gotten a fresh spin as a movie.

"12 Angry Men" has been remade a few times since then — and with some pretty big names, too — but I always maintain that the '57 version was the best — if only because of Henry Fonda, who played the lone juror.

Fonda was the perfect actor to cast if a director and/or producer of a movie had a lesson to teach, and Juror #8 (that was all the audience knew to call him — until the very last minute of the movie) had plenty of lessons to share.

But the roles were kind of reversed on this project.

Originally, Reginald Rose wrote the play for TV's Studio One, and the TV production did so well that Sidney Lumet was persuaded to direct a movie adaptation. Rose co–produced the movie along with Fonda — Fonda's only foray into movie production — and the two of them were responsible for bringing Lumet into the project.

The brilliance of the story lies in the way that each juror's true colors were revealed through a series of fairly typical jury discussions (I've served on my share of juries). After I watched "12 Angry Men" the first time (I was visiting my grandmother, as I recall, during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college), I felt that I knew the characters of each of those "jurors" better than I knew the characters of some people I had known most of my life.

In our polarized culture, I think there are lessons in "12 Angry Men" that might actually promote civility and tolerance of dissenting opinions.
"It's always difficult to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth. I don't really know what the truth is. I don't suppose anybody will ever really know. Nine of us now seem to feel that the defendant is innocent, but we're just gambling on probabilities — we may be wrong. We may be trying to let a guilty man go free, I don't know. Nobody really can. But we have a reasonable doubt, and that's something that's very valuable in our system. No jury can declare a man guilty unless it's sure."

Juror #8

As great as that piece of dialogue is, it really took someone of Fonda's moral authority to give it meaning.

For modern movie viewers, raised on the slick and the gaudy, the absence of splashy special effects — or even much variety in the setting (nearly the entire movie takes place in the jury room) — may be an obstacle to their enjoyment of the great story.

But anyone who has ever served on a jury will recognize at least some of the personalities of the jurors — the rather timid clerk; an anxious businessman whose thoughts are of his estranged son; a laborer; a sports fan eager to complete his jury obligation so he can attend a baseball game; a thoughtful older (and presumably retired) man; an immigrant; a bigot.

And more, much more.

I've watched it many times since that first time back in my college days, and I find it compelling each time. When it is over, I can't say enough good things about it.