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The Great Movies IIby Roger Ebert
12 Angry Men
In form, 12 Angry Men is a courtroom drama. In purpose, it's a crash course in those passages of the Constitution that promise defendants a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. It has a kind of stark simplicity: Apart from a brief setup and a briefer epilogue, the entire film takes place within a small New York City jury room, on "the hottest day of the year," as twelve men debate the fate of a young defendant charged with murdering his father. The film shows us nothing of the trial itself except for the judge's perfunctory, almost bored, charge to the jury. His tone of voice indicates that the verdict is a foregone conclusion. We hear neither prosecutor nor defense attorney, and learn of the evidence only secondhand, as the jurors debate it. Most courtroom movies feel it necessary to end with a clear-cut verdict. But 12 Angry Men never states whether the defendant is innocent or guilty. It is about whether the jury has a reasonable doubt about his guilt.
The principle of reasonable doubt, the belief that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty, is one of the most enlightened elements of our Constitution, although many Americans have had difficulty in accepting it. "It's an open-and-shut case," snaps Juror No. 3 (Lee J. Cobb) as the jury first gathers in their claustrophobic little room. When the first ballot is taken, ten of his fellow jurors agree, and there is only one holdout—Juror No. 8 (Henry Fonda).
This is a film where tension comes from personality conflict, dialogue, and body language, not action; where the defendant has been glimpsed only in a single brief shot; where logic, emotion, and prejudice struggle to control the field. It is a masterpiece of stylized realism—the style coming in the way the photography and editing comment on the bare bones of the content. Released in 1957, when Technicolor and lush production values were common, 12 Angry Men was lean and mean. It got ecstatic reviews and a spread in Life magazine but was a disappointment at the box office. Over the years it has found a constituency, however, and in a 2002 Internet Movie Database poll it was listed twenty-third among the best films of all time.
The story, based on a television play by Reginald Rose, was made into a movie by Sidney Lumet, with Rose and Henry Fonda acting as coproducers and putting up their own money to finance it. It was Lumet's first feature, although he was much experienced in TV drama, and the cinematography was by the veteran Boris Kaufman, whose credits (On the Waterfront, Long Day's Journey into Night) show a skill for tightening the tension in dialogue exchanges. The cast included only one bankable star, Fonda, but the other eleven actors were among the best then working in New York, including Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, and Robert Webber. They smoke, they sweat, they swear, they sprawl, they stalk, they get angry.
In a length of only ninety-five minutes (it sometimes feels as if the movie is shot in real time), the jurors are all defined in terms of their personalities, backgrounds, occupations, prejudices, and emotional tilts. Evidence is debated so completely that we feel we know as much as the jury does, especially about the old man who says he heard the murder and saw the defendant fleeing, and the lady across the street who says she saw it happen through the windows of a moving El train. We see the murder weapon, a switchblade knife, and hear the jurors debate the angle of the knife wound. We watch as Fonda imitates the shuffling step of the old man, a stroke victim, to see if he could have gotten to the door in time to see the murderer fleeing. In its ingenuity, in the way it balances one piece of evidence against another that seems contradictory, 12 Angry Men is as meticulous as the summation of an Agatha Christie thriller.
But it is not about solving the crime. It is about sending a young man to die. The movie is timely in view of recent revelations that many death row convictions are based on contaminated evidence. "We're talking about somebody's life here," the Fonda character says. "We can't decide in five minutes. Supposing we're wrong?"
The defendant, when we glimpse him, looks "ethnic" but of no specific group. He could be Italian, Turkish, Indian, Jewish, Arabic, Mexican. His eyes are ringed with dark circles, and he appears exhausted and frightened. In the jury room, some jurors make veiled references to "these people." Finally Juror No. 10 (Ed Begley) begins a racist rant: "You know how these people lie. It's born in them. They don't know what the truth is. And let me tell you, they don't need any real big reason to kill someone, either . . ." As he continues, one juror after another stands up from the jury table and walks away, turning his back. Even those who think the defendant is guilty can't sit and listen to Begley's prejudice. The scene is one of the most powerful in the movie.
The vote, which begins as eleven to one, shifts gradually. Although the movie is clearly in favor of the Fonda position, not all of those voting "guilty" are portrayed negatively. One of the key characters is Juror No. 4
(E. G. Marshall), a stockbroker wearing rimless glasses, who depends on pure logic and tries to avoid emotion altogether. Another juror, No. 7 (Jack Warden), who has tickets to a baseball game, grows impatient and changes his vote just to hurry things along. Juror No. 11 (George Voskovec), an immigrant who speaks with an accent, criticizes him: "Who tells you that you have the right to play like this with a man's life?" Earlier, No. 11 was attacked as a foreigner: "They come over and in no time at all they're telling us how to run the show."
The visual strategy of the movie is discussed by Lumet in his Making Movies, one of the most intelligent and informative books ever written about the cinema. In planning the movie, he says, a "lens plot" occurred to him: To make the room seem smaller as the story continued, he gradually changed to lenses of longer focal lengths, so that the backgrounds seemed to close in on the characters. "In addition," he writes, "I shot the first third of the movie above eye level, shot the second third at eye level and the last third from below eye level. In that way, toward the end the ceiling began to appear. Not only were the walls closing in, the ceiling was as well. The sense of increasing claustrophobia did a lot to raise the tension of the last part of the movie." In the film's last shot, he observes, he used a wide-angle lens "to let us finally breathe."
The movie plays like a textbook for directors interested in how lens choices affect mood. By gradually lowering his camera, Lumet illustrates another principle of composition: A higher camera tends to dominate; a lower camera tends to be dominated. As the film begins we look down on the characters, and the angle suggests they can be comprehended and mastered. By the end, they loom over us, and we feel overwhelmed by the force of their passion. Lumet uses close-ups rarely, but effectively: One man in particular--Juror No. 9 (Joseph Sweeney, the oldest man on the jury)—is often seen in full frame, because he has a way of cutting to the crucial point and stating the obvious after it has eluded the others.
For Sidney Lumet, born in 1924, 12 Angry Men was the beginning of a film career that has often sought controversial issues. Consider these titles from among his forty-three films: The Pawnbroker (the Holocaust), Fail-Safe (accidental nuclear war), Serpico (police corruption), Dog Day Afternoon (homosexuality), Network (the decay of TV news), The Verdict (alcoholism and malpractice), Daniel (a son punished for the sins of his parents), Running on Empty (radical fugitives), and Critical Care (health care). There are also comedies and a musical (The Wiz). If Lumet is not among the most famous of American directors, that is only because he ranges so widely he cannot be categorized. Few filmmakers have been so consistently respectful of the audience's intelligence.
[The Adventures of Robin Hood
The Adventures of Robin Hood was made with sublime innocence and breathtaking artistry, at a time when its simple values rang true. In these cynical days when swashbucklers cannot be presented without an ironic subtext, this great 1938 film exists in an eternal summer of bravery and romance. We require no Freudian subtext, no revisionist analysis; it is enough that Robin wants to rob the rich, give to the poor, and defend the Saxons—not against all Normans but only the bad ones: "It's injustice I hate, not the Normans."
The movie involved some milestones: It was the third Warner Bros. film shot in the three-strip Technicolor process, the fifth of twelve times Flynn would be directed by Michael Curtiz, and the third of nine films that Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland would make together.
And it is a triumph of the studio system. The producer, Hal B. Wallis, was the most creative executive on the Warners lot, and when the studio's biggest star, James Cagney, walked off the set in anger and left Robin Hood without a leading man, Wallis immediately cast Flynn—the rising star from the Australian island of Tasmania, who had starred for him in Captain Blood (1935) and Charge of the Light Brigade (1936). It was Wallis who decided to use the new and expensive Technicolor process, Wallis who fired an early writer who wanted to dispense with Maid Marian, Wallis who was powerful enough to replace the original director, William Keighley, with Curtiz—because Keighley fell ill, according to one story, or because Wallis wanted Curtiz to pump up the action scenes, according to another. Keighley did most of the outdoor scenes; Curtiz did most of the studio shooting.
The result is a film that justifies the trademark Glorious Technicolor. "They just don't make movies with this level of tonal saturation anymore," writes the British critic Damian Cannon. Consider the opulent tapestries of the castle interiors, and reds and golds and grays and greens of Milo Anderson's costumes, the lush greens of Sherwood Forest (actually Bidwell Park at Chico, California). The cinematographers, Sol Polito and Tony Gaudio, were using the original three-strip Technicolor process, which involved cumbersome cameras and a lot of extra lighting but produced a richness of color that modern color films cannot rival.
For all of its technical splendor, however, the film would not be a masterpiece without the casting—not just of Flynn and de Havilland, who are indispensable, but also of such dependable Warners supporting stars as Claude Rains, as the effete Prince John; Basil Rathbone, as the snaky Sir Guy of Gisbourne; and Patric Knowles, Eugene Pallette, and Alan Hale as Will Scarlett, Friar Tuck, and Little John, the fearless Merry Men. Unlike modern films where superstars dominate every scene, the Hollywood films of the golden era have depth in writing and casting, so the story can resonate with more than one tone.
Because in later life Errol Flynn became a caricature of himself and a rather nasty man, it's exhilarating to see him here at the dawn of his career. He was improbably handsome, but that wasn't really the point: What made him a star was his lighthearted exuberance, the good cheer with which he embodies a role like Robin Hood. When George C. Scott was asked what he looked for in an actor, he mentioned "joy of performance," and Flynn embodies that with a careless rapture. Watch his swagger as he enters John's banqueting hall and throws a deer down before the prince, knowing full well that the punishment for poaching a deer is death. Surrounded by his enemies, he fearlessly accuses John of treason against his brother Richard the Lion-Hearted, then fights his way out of the castle again. Another actor might have wanted to project a sense of uncertainty, or resolve, or danger; Flynn shows us a Robin Hood so supremely alive that the whole adventure is a lark. Yes, his eyes shift to note that the exit is being barred and guards are readying their swords; he observes, however, not in fear but in anticipation.
This is the scene at which Maid Marian first sees Robin, and we first see her. That Olivia de Havilland was a great beauty goes without saying, but as I watched the new DVD of The Adventures of Robin Hood I found myself more than once pausing the film to simply look at de Havilland in close-up, her cheeks rosy in Technicolor, her features fine and resolute. The shift in her feelings about Sir Robin is measured out scene by scene. It is not a sudden transition but a gradual dawning upon her that this is the man she loves, and that she must escape her arranged marriage to Gisbourne.
Their love scenes, so simple and direct, made me reflect that modern love scenes in action movies are somehow too realistic; they draw too much on psychology and not enough on romance and fable. It is touching and revealing to see the lovers in middle age in Robin and Marian (1976), with Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn bridging the poignancy of their long separation, but how much more satisfying on an elementary level to see Flynn and de Havilland playing their characters as the instruments of fate; they come together not simply because of love or desire but because they are so destined. Their union suggests the medieval ideal of chivalric love, in which marriage is a form of God's will.
The swashbuckling in the movie is thrilling precisely because it is mostly real. The weakness of modern special effects pictures is that much of the action is obviously impossible, and some of the computer animation defies the laws of gravity and physics. It is no more possible to be thrilled by Spider-Man's actions than by the Road Runner's. It is more exciting to see the real Jackie Chan scampering up a wall than to see the computer-assisted Jackie Chan flying.
Stuntmen were used in some shots in The Adventures of Robin Hood. But many daring scenes obviously use the real Flynn, who, like Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in the 1922 Robin Hood, wanted it known he took his chances. Some stunts are the same in both pictures, as when Robin cuts the rope holding a gate and then rides the rope up as the gate comes down. Others include carefree leaps from ankle-breaking heights, and of course the swordfights. The new Warners DVD assembles the historians Rudy Behlmer, Paula Sigman, Leonard Maltin, Bob Thomas, and Robert Osborne for a documentary about the making of the film, and from them I learned that it was fencing master Fred Cavens who was primarily responsible for the modern movie swordfight; he believed "it should look like a fight, not like a fencing match," and Flynn, coached by Cavens, hurls himself into the sword scenes with a robust glee.
From the Hardcover edition.
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