Wednesday, June 5, 2013
CANON OF FILM: "12 ANGRY MEN"
The “12 Angry Men” story formula: Get all your characters in the same space and have all/most of the rising and falling action based solely on them talking to one another. Other examples: “The Breakfast Club,” “Rope,” “My Dinner with Andre”… to name a few. At least that’s what I refer to stories that take this and similar forms,, although most film scholars will note “Grand Hotel,” as an early influence, as well as probably a couple other films, and I’m sure there’s other terms for it, like a locked-in story, or something along those lines, but I call it the “12 Angry Men” formula. Partly because of how simple the story at first seems, and how much more difficult it is to actually pull it off than one may think (I’ll get to that later), and because every time I have to write a short story, play, or a screenplay, especially very quickly write one, and even if I decide not to use that kind of formula, I always go back and rewatch “12 Angry Men.” I’ve seen it about 25, maybe 30 times now, and no, the ending isn’t hard to predict, the film is about the tension that builds as they eventually come towards the ending.
Originally based on a TV teleplay by Reginald Rose (Who’d later go on to create the TV show, “The Defenders”), “12 Angry men” is also the most plausible examples of how to achieve a situation within a formula. One man is accused of murder, 12 men are now in charge of having to decide whether or not he guilty, and essentially whether or not he should die. Of course, it’s unlikely that 12 men and no women would be on a jury, but it wasn’t too unlikely in certain racist districts of the country that the jurors would be all white, and having to decide a black man’s fate. We get one shot of the Juror, and he’s clearly of some ethnic origin, but what he is exactly is outright said. From the films first vote of guilty or not guilty, we just accept this, and except for Juror #10, (Ed Begley Sr.), none of the jurors even consider race in their decision process. At one point, Begley goes on such a racist rant that one-by-one even the jurors who still think he’s guilty can’t bear to listen him and stand-up and turn their backs towards them. (Which in 1957, was an especially daring scene)
This was director Sidney Lumet’s first feature film; and it was rehearsed for weeks on end, before shooting. He once described how he created tension in this film by shooting the first third of the film above eye-level and shooting with regular lens, the second half of the film is shot at eye level, with a longer lens. The third half of the film is now below eye level and shot with an even longer focal lens and now the room feels exceptionally smaller and claustrophobic, even the ceilings are visible in some shots, as though there room is caving in. By the time Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb), who’s been #8’s biggest antagonist throughout the film, gives his final speech about trying to defend his guilty verdict, we can feel his pain over his own son’s ungratefulness, maybe more so than we feel for the actual victim. Lumet’s book on directing, “Making Movies” is practically the Bible at most film schools, (either that or David Mamet’s “On Directing Film”, it’s counterpart/rebuttal) and the thing with Lumet is the technical precision in his films. You can argue that nobody was a more natural director, who seemed to be able to direct anything, and was becoming more and more experimental as he got older. His final film before his death, the wonderful “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which was made 50 years after “12 Angry Men”, seems more influenced by Tarantino and Scorsese than the old-school TV world he honed his craft in. And no one was better at creating tension in confined spaces than Lumet, he’d used variations on this formula, multiple times over with “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “Dog Day Afternoon”, “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Fail-Safe”, and it marks the beginning of his other two most famous themes in his work, New York City, and the law.
When you look back, it’s actually startling to realize that this Constitution crash course, was his first feature film, and that 50 years later, it’s still poignant today. Makes me actually want to almost want to be on a jury. Like I said, almost. It’s still growing in popularity too; it was remade on cable as a TV movie in the ‘90s, and most recently a great remake by the Russian Director Nikita Mikhalkov (“Burnt by the Sun,” among other films), earned a well-deserved Oscar-nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Whatever makes “12 Angry men” so inherently visceral to the human experience, it continues to grow on us. Maybe it’s the democratic process at its, or possibly the frailty of it, that twelve average, random men, can have such sudden and immense power, and seeing just how different they react to having such power.