Wednesday, June 5, 2013


12 ANGRY MEN (1957)

Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Reginald Rose based on his story.

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. 

3 comments: said...

A modern take on this film would be interesting. While I have not been selected for a Jury the process seems to attempt to weed out any free thinkers or intellectual types right off the bat. Hell I would not be surprised if the Lawyers would strike anyone who had seen this film from serving.

Interesting about the camera angles being used to shrink the room.

David Baruffi said...

LOL. I think will try, but I think a few still sneak on. It's not just the angles, but the lens' which are even more key to the film's claustrophobic feel. Those are the kinds of details that make Lumet such a great director.

You should look for "12", the Russian remake of the film that I mentioned that got a Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination back in '07, for a great modern take on the story. And that version, in particular, opens the story up a bit, focusing as much, if not moreso on the defendant, than the jury, but it works for that country, which is still, just getting used to the jury process. That film, just missed my Ten Best List that year. The story is the same, but a very different interpretation. You should search it out, it was a really good modern take on it, and it was intriguing to see, just how good the story held up, by changing the setting to a different country altogether.

David Baruffi said...

Meant to write "they try", as in the lawyers. Sorry, my tenses come out weird sometimes.