Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

2016 #157
Billy Wilder | 112 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U

Witness for the ProsecutionCharles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich shine in this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s play (in turn based on her short story), about a man accused of murder but who proclaims his innocence (Tyrone Power), the barrister who decides to take the case (Laughton), and the man’s wife who agrees to alibi him but seems somehow suspicious (Dietrich).

Despite expanding the action from the play, it’s still dialogue-heavy and a little stagey in places — but between the engrossingly labyrinthine plot, those captivating performances, and some humour added by screenwriters Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz, such potential criticisms are irrelevant.

Helluva twist, too.

5 out of 5

A new adaptation of The Witness for the Prosecution begins on BBC One tonight at 9pm.

Ben-Hur (1959)

2016 #143
William Wyler | 222 mins | Blu-ray | 2.76:1 | USA / English | PG / G

Oscar statue1960 Academy Awards
12 nominations — 11 wins

Winner: Best Picture, Best Actor (Charlton Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Director, Best Cinematography (Color), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Color), Best Costume Design (Color), Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Special Effects, Best Music.
Nominated: Best Adapted Screenplay.

All that you have read about Ben-Hur, all that you have heard about Ben-Hur, is surpassed by the actuality.

Ben-HurSo claims Ben-Hur’s 1961 trailer. They were cocky back then, weren’t they?

The third (of, to date, six) screen adaptations of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the 1959 version is certainly the most famous, in part because it was the sole holder of the title “winner of most Oscars” for 38 years (until Titanic equalised, followed by Return of the King just six years later), and also because of its chariot race climax — which comes almost an hour before the end, because it’s also really bloody long (over 3½ hours even without counting the overture, intermission, and entr’acte). It’s also really rather good, though it’s a tale that would be better without the Christ.

Although it begins and ends with that Jesus fella, it’s really the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a Jewish prince of Roman-occupied Jerusalem in 26AD. When Messala (Stephen Boyd), Judah’s childhood friend (and, possibly, lover — I’ll come to that), returns as head of the city’s Roman garrison, he asks for Judah’s help in capturing dissident Jews. Judah refuses, his loyalty more aligned to his faith and countrymen than the glory of the Roman Empire. Consequently, a spurned Messala uses a slip-up during the arrival of the region’s new governor as an excuse to arrest Judah, condemning him to slavery. Cue a couple of hours of desert treks, rowing, sea battles, ethnic dancing, a blackface Sheik, gambling, that chariot race, leprosy, and Jesus getting crucified (spoilers!)

I’m being flippant, but most of this is suitably dramatic. It’s a proper epic, a grand story with huge set pieces and world-changing events, and it’s executed with a scale suitable to that narrative. Despite the length, it’s almost constantly engrossing. I had planned to split it over two nights at the intermission (despite the imbalance that causes — Part One is an hour longer than Part Two), but was so invested that I stuck with it regardless. There are things that have aged poorly, be that the model effects in the sea battle or using a white actor in heavy make-up to portray an Arab, but I think you have to take these things with a certain element of the spirit of the era — I’m sure no offence was intended (see also: Lawrence of Arabia).

More harmful to the film’s quality is the Christ element. I guess this is seen as an integral part of the story by some people: it’s the subtitle of the original novel and the 1925 film; this version includes it on screen right after the title card; and both this film and the novel have received rare approval from the Vatican. Knowing this, I was prepared to be open-minded about it. At times, it’s fine. Jesus’ life is going on at the same time as Ben-Hur’s, and occasionally it intersects in ways that bolster the film’s story or help reflect some of its themes, like forgiveness (or otherwise). The problem comes at the end: the story climaxes, and then the narrative toddles on with what you might kindly call an extended epilogue that sees Judah realise Christ’s importance as he witnesses the crucifixion. Perhaps this could work in itself (though, without wanting to spoil developments, the way it’s used to solve some problems is incredibly pat), but it runs on too long with too little direct relevance. Apparently director William Wyler, who was Jewish, was keen to make a film that would appeal to all faiths, and insisted that it was the personal story of Judah Ben-Hur that was largely responsible for the film’s enduring success. I think he’s absolutely right about that: the story — the actual story — is wrapped up about half-an-hour before the film itself ends. It doesn’t prevent what comes before from being highly enjoyable, but it’s so tangential and long-winded that it becomes a problem. Ultimately, I knocked a whole star off because of it.

This Christian aspect contrasts sharply with the other subtext I alluded to earlier: the possibility that Judah and Messala were once lovers. The claim originates with screenwriter Gore Vidal, who may or may not have written some or all of the screenplay that was used for shooting. According to Vidal, he and Stephen Boyd discussed the idea before shooting began, and then Boyd played the scenes with it in mind. However, it was kept hidden from Charlton Heston because he’d never agree to it, and when the notion was put to him later he naturally denied there was any homosexual subtext. Whether this tale is true in the literal sense of that subtext being written into the screenplay and Boyd choosing to incorporate it into his performance, I don’t know, but the content of the film makes it easy to believe — the scenes between Messala and Judah, especially when they’re first reunited, absolutely play like there’s a romantic history between them. Bear that in mind and it seems to reoccur later, too: when the story returns to Jerusalem after several years, Messala seems particularly close to his deputy; and there are a couple of shots of Judah being chummy towards a random stableboy (I mean, they’re not much, but if you watch it with the assumption that Judah is gay or bi…) What does this signify? Perhaps not a great deal. I’m sure you can choose to completely ignore it. I imagine some would passionately deny even the possibility it’s there. Personally, I think it adds something to the characters’ relationship.

Believe that subtext or not, Boyd is excellent as Messala. He was overlooked at many awards in favour of Hugh Griffith as the aforementioned Sheik. Not that Griffith is bad, but there’s far more nuance, variety, and power to Boyd’s performance. He’s much more deserving of a gong than Heston, even, who’s a very capable leading man type, but I’m not sure his performance has the kind of depth that would pass muster for Best Actor today. That said, Mike at Films on the Box makes a good case for his defence! Either way, the technical awards the film scooped up are certainly merited. The cinematography is fantastic, with the landscape shots making particularly excellent use of the extra-wide frame. As for the chariot race, it stands up as an incredible action sequence even today, driven by thrilling camerawork and editing, and showcasing some daring stunt work.

When it’s dealing in this kind of material, the actuality of Ben-Hur does indeed surpass its reputation. It’s a shame there’s that other stuff that spoils the party.

4 out of 5

The new, sixth screen adaptation of Ben-Hur is released in the UK later this week.

Ben-Hur was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Pillow Talk (1959)

2016 #31
Michael Gordon | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG

Doris Day and Rock Hudson star in this Oscar-winning rom-com hit.

The “they hate each other, will they get together?” storyline is, of course, obvious, but that’s beside the point. The leads spark off each other wonderfully, director Michael Gordon finds enjoyably inventive uses for split-screen and voiceover, and the Eastmancolor cinematography looks gorgeous in HD.

The only major downsides are a ludicrously rushed ending, and a lack of clarity that the people who share a phone line aren’t in the same building (I assumed that’s how a shared line would work!) Still, minor niggles in a film this fun.

4 out of 5

High Noon (1952)

2015 #50
Fred Zinnemann | 81 mins | streaming (HD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U / PG

On the day marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) marries his young bride Amy (Grace Kelly), hands in his badge and plans to leave town, word reaches Hadleyville that a criminal he arrested, Frank Miller (presumably Will read DK2 and arrested him for crimes against literature), will arrive on the noon train, bent on revenge. Afraid that Miller and his cronies will terrorise the town and/or hunt down the newlyweds wherever they go, Will elects to stay and face the gang. But will any of the townspeople stand alongside him to defend their home?

Well, you probably know the answer to that — it’s one of the film’s more (in)famous facets. If you somehow don’t know and want to remain spoiler free, look away now, because the answer is: no. No one will stand with Will. Interpreted by the American left as an analogy for people being afraid to stand up to McCarthy’s HUAC witch-hunt, some on the right were less impressed: John Wayne and Howard Hawks made Rio Bravo as a direct riposte. Both are regarded as classic Westerns, so in that respect there’s no ‘winner’ there. Besides, High Noon was eventually embraced by the right as well, turning it around to see it as a celebration of one man’s dedication to his duty.

Some would contend it’s impossible to engage with High Noon and ignore that political allegory; others, like Mike at Films on the Box in his eloquent take on the film, would say it’s more than good enough to stand apart from such concerns. I have sympathy with both sides: the parallels are surely there, but it’s also a fine Western thriller in its own right. You certainly don’t need to know about the contemporaneous events it was reflecting to enjoy it. As to whether that subtext is a beneficial added dimension or a needless distraction, that’s down to personal preference.

There’s plenty else going on to keep a viewer engaged, anyway. It’s not an action-packed Western, the style many people at the time were accustomed to: according to Wikipedia, it faced criticism for its shortage of “chases, fights, and picture-postcard scenery”. In its place there’s the slow-burn tension of the clock ticking towards midday and the inevitable confrontation, as well as the moral and emotional dilemmas of the townsfolk, who’ve been happy to rely on Will’s marshalling ability for so long but refuse to help when he needs them.

There are personal relationships to contend with too: Amy is a Quaker and so a pacifist, and just wants to leave rather than face a violent confrontation; Will’s deputy, Harvey (Lloyd Bridges), refuses to help because Will refuses to recommend him for promotion; and then there’s hotel owner Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado), who’s currently Harvey’s lover, but used to be Will’s, and before that was Miller’s. She’s planning to flee town too because, well, wouldn’t you?

To top it all off, the film takes place in near-as-damn-it real time. Regular readers will know this is a plus for me, for reasons I still can’t quite fathom. In a narrative such as this, however, it only adds to the tension: you know it isn’t going to jump from 11:30 to the titular time, for instance — you’re going to live every one of those minutes with the characters; that’s exactly how much, or little, time Will has left to get ready.

Then it all culminates in a strong extended action sequence. Surely anyone feeling deprived of such thrills was satiated at that point? Maybe the now-more-familiar structure of building to a single big sequence at the end was less accepted back in 1952.

And the attitudes of 1952 do continue to surround the film. The activities of HUAC had a serious, enduring impact on Hollywood (you only have to see the footage of Elia Kazan receiving his honorary Oscar in 1999, and the varying reactions it provoked from the audience, to appreciate that), so it’s no surprise that a film that engages with those events, however allegorically, can’t wholly shrug off such an association. For those who aren’t interested in those affairs, however, it still has a tense story and powerful character drama. Either way you look at it, High Noon is a rich, well-made, rewarding picture.

5 out of 5

High Noon is on Film4 this afternoon at 2:55pm.

North West Frontier (1959)

aka Flame Over India / Empress of India

2015 #126
J. Lee Thompson | 125 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | U

British Army Captain Scott (Kenneth More) is charged with getting an Indian child prince and his American governess (Lauren Bacall) to safety as rebels attempt to murder him. With the palace under siege, their only hope is a barely-ready rust-bucket train engine, a single passenger carriage, and a long journey through enemy territory joined by a motley group of diplomats and hangers-on who’ve bargained their way on to this last train.

North West Frontier has been on BBC Two a couple of times in the last year or two (seven times in the last four years, to be precise), and on one of those showings I caught a few seconds and thought it looked fabulously shot — I confess, that’s the only reason I’d got hold of a copy. I’m so glad I did though, because it’s excellent stuff — a rollicking, action-packed, old-fashioned (in the good sense) adventure, full of peril, derring-do, chases and shoot-outs. In between all that there’s some great character stuff too. Judging from online reaction, some viewers seem to find these bits boring longueurs, but I thought they helped manage the pace and added to the whole feel.

In particular, it’s during those segments where you get to see that every cast member is excellent. More is surprisingly dashing as the heroic leader of this ragtag bunch on their ramshackle locomotive. Bacall is as feisty as you’d expect as the strong-willed, outspoken governess, creating an easy and perhaps-surprisingly plausible chemistry with More. For the rest of the cast, Herbert Lom seems to be channelling a little Peter Lorre as a critical Dutch journalist, Wilfrid Hyde-White is the perfect older English gent, I.S. Johar is fun as the train’s Indian driver, Ursula Jeans is redoubtable as the English lady forced to escape on the train by her governor husband, and Eugene Deckers is an arms dealer, who consequently no one likes but who remains unashamed of his trade. Through this prism there’s some discussion of the merits or otherwise of the British Empire and Indian independence, which some will judge to be extolling old-fashioned values, and others will take as little more than a (probably unnecessary) hat-tip in the direction of real politics.

And as for the reason I watched, success: it’s beautifully shot, in widescreen Eastmancolor by Geoffrey Unsworth, showing off stunning scenery lensed in India and Spain (with studio sequences shot at Pinewood, naturally). It may not be famed as a big-budget epic, but there’s nonetheless an impressively grand scale, with wide-open scenery, some extravagant locales, and hundreds of extras to fill out a few sweeping battle charges. They also come into play in one of the film’s most striking sequences, set at the scene of a horrid massacre, where a spread of blood-soaked bodies surely stretch the film’s U certificate. I’ve seen this part of the film described as unnecessarily dallied upon, but I think director J. Lee Thompson is more conveying the atrocity of such a tragic event.

In the US, the film was retitled Flame Over India (and Bacall was given top billing, as opposed to More in the UK), while in Australia it was named Empress of India, after the central train. That’s the best title, in my opinion. Flame Over India is pretty meaningless (Bacall didn’t like it either) and North West Frontier is a bit generic and bland, but Empress of India indicates the country and has meaning… though as it’s not about an Empress you could argue it’s misleading and sounds too romantic.

North West Frontier, on the other hand, sounds like a Western — which was perhaps the intention: the film’s structure and story style is fundamentally a fit for that genre, albeit British-made and geographically relocated. The storyline immediately brings to mind John Ford’s Stagecoach: a gaggle of mismatched strangers are thrown together as they cross hostile territory, interspersing conversations and arguments with adventurous survival challenges. In a review I otherwise pretty thoroughly disagree with, Glenn Erickson at DVD Talk makes the same comparison and offers this insightful point: “It may be a blatant reworking of Stagecoach as the original story was co-written by John Wayne’s son Patrick Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s husband Will Price. The final screenplay [by Robin Estridge] was adapted from a script by screenwriter Frank S. Nugent, the writer of eleven Ford films.” Sounds pretty likely, doesn’t it?

North West Frontier is a film I would certainly have overlooked were it not for some whim of fate. Thank goodness for coincidence and chance, then, because it’s a cracking adventure; one made, I think, with pure entertainment in mind. I rather loved it.

5 out of 5

North West Frontier placed 15th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of The Lauren Bacall Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

Forty Guns (1957)

2015 #61
Samuel Fuller | 76 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG

Forty GunsWestern with Barbara Stanwyck as a powerful landowner, and commander of the titular posse, whose bullying brother, Brockie, is consequently allowed to run riot over the town. Enter lawman Griff (Barry Sullivan) and his two brothers, whose moves to bring Brockie in line kickstart a chain of ruinous events.

Writer-director Samuel Fuller tells his brilliantly constructed tale in brisk and never dull fashion, finding time to sketch interesting characters and, alongside cinematographer Joseph Biroc and editor Gene Fowler Jr., craft much memorable imagery.

(For a more insightful and informative analysis, be sure to read this at Films on the Box.)

4 out of 5

Forty Guns is released on Blu-ray by Masters of Cinema tomorrow.

Rear Window (1954)

2014 #119
Alfred Hitchcock | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Rear WindowAdrenaline-addicted photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart) finds himself house- and wheelchair-bound during a New York heat wave. Whiling away time spying on his neighbours around their shared courtyard, he begins to suspect the man opposite, travelling salesman Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), has committed a murder and is trying to cover it up. Jeff persuades his high-society girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), visiting nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and police detective friend Doyle (Wendell Corey) to help investigate, but no hard evidence is forthcoming. Is Jefferies just bored and paranoid?

The end result of this, as a film, is a heady mix of suspicion, tension, voyeurism, and a light romantic subplot — Hitchcock through and through. It’s one of his best-regarded films, too: Vertigo may gain the Sight & Sound plaudits, but Rear Window is second only to Psycho on the IMDb Top 250; and, as I write, they sit precisely side by side, which on a list that long is tantamount to equality. (Not that S&S ignored Rear Window: it’s at #54 on their last list.)

At its most basic level, Rear Window is an incredibly effective thriller. The setup is intriguing, followed by a drip feed of facts and clues that invite us to play detective too, joining in with the characters’ speculation. Jeff believes Thorwald’s guilt almost unequivocally, but not all his friends and associates agree, which gives us permission to doubt the movie’s ostensible hero. Maybe this isn’t the story of a well-executed murder uncovered by a right-place-right-time layman, but instead the narrative of an adrenaline junkie driven half-mad by being cooped up at home? The final reveal might turn out to not be the truth of the crime, but the truth of Jeff’s paranoia. The romantic subplot, which pivots around the vastly differing lifestyle desires of the pair (Lisa loves being a fashionable New Yorker, Jeff desires to explore the dangerous parts of the world), only emphasises the notion that Jeff may just be unhappy being ‘settled’.

The titular portalHitchcock certainly didn’t consider Jeff to be an out-and-out hero, even aside from the very real possibility that he may be wrong — as he put it in one interview, “he’s really kind of a bastard.” After all, what right does he have to be poking his nose so thoroughly into other people’s business? Not only to spend his time spying on all and sundry, which in many respects is bad enough, but to then investigate their lives, their personal business, even break in to their homes. If he’s right, they’ve caught a murderer, and the methodology would be somewhat overlooked; if he’s wrong… well, who’s the criminal then?

So Jeff is a voyeur, a position that one can interpret the film as implicitly both condoning and condemning; perhaps not in equal measure, but there are pros and cons. Through his directorial choices, Hitchcock makes us into one as well. In a genius move, we’re limited to Jeff’s perspective: we only see inside his apartment and the view from his window, pretty much as he sees it. If he falls asleep, we most often fade to black. We don’t have the advantage of knowing much that he doesn’t (as is sometimes the case in this kind of movie), but we do know exactly what he does, no less. The only difference is we can consider the possibility that he’s fooling himself — we have slightly more objectivity. Nonetheless, placing us in his shoes so thoroughly makes us consider the feeling of being a voyeur too. For some it’s uncomfortable; for others, probably a thrill; for many, I suspect, it’s a bit of both.

All of this is made possible, in part, by the movie’s incredible set, which has to be one of the greatest ever constructed. To quote from IMDb’s trivia section:

The entire picture was shot on one set, which required months of planning and construction. The apartment-courtyard set… consisted of 31 apartments, eight of which were completely furnished… some of the buildings were the equivalent of five or six stories high. All the apartments in Thorwald’s building had electricity and running water, and could be lived in.

Rear Window courtyardClick to enlarge.

It’s an incredible toy box for Hitchcock to play in, and every technical element rallies to use it to its full effect. Virtually the entire movie is shot from within Jeff’s apartment, the camera panning from apartment window to apartment window as we follow Jeff’s voyeuristic gaze. (This choice has, decades later, led to at least one striking re-working.) In every film the camera’s lens is our window on the world, of course, but you rarely feel it so much as you do here. We share in Jeff’s frustration about not being able to get a closer, better look; at only being able to watch as his friends imperil themselves, so close — only the other side of the courtyard! — yet so far away. Nonetheless, he’s afforded something of the same perspective we get as film viewers: late in the film, as Lisa searches the suspect’s apartment, Jeff can see Thorwald returning home, but he has no way to warn his girlfriend — just like us in so many moments of movie suspense. (These days he’d just send her a text, of course. Though I suppose you could still milk that: He can’t handle predictive texting! Autocorrect’s got it all wrong! He’s dropped the phone! How did he load a Chinese keyboard?!)

There’s the sound design, too. The heat wave means windows are open, letting the sounds of parties and whatnot drift to all ears. It’s not as meaningful a commentary on the viewer’s experience, I don’t suppose, but it lends a veracity and sense of immersiveness to the situation, Suspense!further enhanced by the almost total lack of a score (only present in the opening few shots).

In crafting both a suspenseful thriller and a commentary on the audience’s perspective, Hitchcock created the kind of movie that can be appreciated by both the casual movie fan and the analytical cineaste alike. Whatever one’s reasons for appreciating Rear Window, it’s certainly a masterpiece.

5 out of 5

Rear Window was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.

The Big Knife (1955)

2015 #8
Robert Aldrich | 107 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

The Big KnifeJack Palance is an actor wanting out of his studio contract in this stagey film noir.

The entire film takes place in his house, with a parade of supporting characters coming and going to variously persuade him to stay, persuade him to quit, or persuade him to do other things (saucy!) It’s not just the limited location that makes it feel stagey, though, but also the style of dialogue and the performances. I’m never quite able to put my finger on it, but there’s a certain way playwrights seem to pen dialogue that just feels like it’s from theatre, and The Big Knife (which is adapted from a stage play) has it.

Palance is very good, playing against expectations as an actor who sold out his artistry and is now struggling to be brave enough to stand up to the overbearing studio execs, who have an additional hold over him. Rod Steiger is a bit OTT as the studio’s head, Stanley Hoff, but then the character’s meant to be a bit like that. Somewhat heavy-handed pillorying of a real studio boss? Perhaps. Also worth watching is Rear Window’s Wendell Corey as Hoff’s assistant, Smiley Coy. His is a more subtle performance, conveying his opinions and enacting his schemes mostly with looks. I suppose you don’t get much less stagey than that.

ShoutyPartially driven by a seeming twist that’s obvious from the outset (which, in fairness, the film reveals only 40 minutes in), the story never quite comes alive. Palance and Corey make parts worth watching, but at other times it’s a bit of a slog, not helped by an awful score that chimes in now and then, loudly. Expansive cinematography (so much headroom — was it shot to be cropped for widescreen? Perhaps it was) combats any feeling of claustrophobia the single location and oppressive moral situation might have leant it.

The Big Knife is not the finest film noir (certainly, if anyone’s looking for familiar genre tropes, you’ll find few here), nor the finest behind-the-sets view of moviemaking, but some sporadically strong performances prevent it being meritless for the patient viewer.

3 out of 5

Show Boat (1951)

2014 #110
George Sidney | 103 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | U

Show BoatYou’d be forgiven for thinking MGM want people to forget this movie even exists: it was dumped on US DVD back in 2000, it’s never had a UK disc release, and a long-rumoured special edition has never emerged. That’s a shame, because there’s a good-quality musical tucked away here.

The titular boat floats into a small community, where things immediately begin to go awry: someone reports the star couple (Robert Sterling and, more importantly, Ava Gardner) to the authorities for their interracial relationship, leading to them being carted off; fortunately, Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel) is around to hop on board in their place, owing in part to his instantly falling in love with the ship’s captain’s daughter (Kathryn Grayson). To be honest, I found much of this opening a little hoary, including an insipid and instantly forgettable love song between Keel and Grayson.

With that out of the way, however, things begin to warm up: the boat sets sail (not that any sails are involved) into the early-morning mist, to the strains of Ol’ Man River, a downright fantastic song. “I get weary and sick of trying / I’m tired of living and scared of dying”*Ol' Man Rivera bit fatalistic for a bright little musical about two people falling in love on a show boat? No, it’s just an indication of where things are going — into darkness, as modern parlance would have it, because from here on out everything goes to pot. To detail the ins and outs would be to spoil the narrative, but much of the film is more tragedy than cheesy Hollywood musical.

I think people forget just how many musicals actually are pretty glum. They’ve acquired the image of being happy-clappy-smiley-singy nonsenses, but many of them — and most of the best ones — come with a thick undercurrent of reality, or classical tragedy. I mean, West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet, for crying out loud — and doesn’t really sanitise the ending, as musical-haters might expect. Show Boat may build to a largely happy finale, but it’s not so for everyone, and the journey there is not all toe-tapping tunes and jazz hands.

This is the third film of Show Boat, based on a stage play that’s based on a novel. Apparently this version cuts back on both comedy elements and racial elements, so is presumably both less funny and less serious than some of the other versions. It seems many critics, scholars and fans consider one or more of the other versions to be superior. They may be right — I’ve not seen or read any of those — but, on its own merits, I think this is a very fine version of the apparent story, songs and themes.

The show boatPerhaps it isn’t a film to ease back with on a Sunday afternoon, but not every old film or musical needs to be. If you can get past the opening, Show Boat offers a tough, emotional, perhaps even challenging, view of the world that marks it out as a film deserving of some rediscovery. Can we have that special edition now, please?

4 out of 5

* In case anyone thinks I’m trying to deny black people their voice or something, the original lyric, as written, goes: “Ah gits weary / An’ sick of tryin’ / Ah’m tired of livin’ / An’ skeered of dyin'”. I changed it for clarity when read, though it being sung like that is in many respects vital to its intent. ^

12 Angry Men (1957)

2014 #44
Sidney Lumet | 96 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | USA / English | U

12 Angry MenTwelve people sit around in two rooms and talk for an hour and a half in more or less real time — sounds like a recipe for dull pretension, and yet 12 Angry Men is anything but. In fact, it’s probably one of the most gripping thrillers ever made.

The men in question are jurors in a trial we never see — we join the narrative as they retire to the jury room to debate their verdict. Except no debate is necessary: the kid in the dock, charged with murdering his father, is definitely guilty and destined for the electric chair. Or so eleven of the men think, because an initial count throws up one objector: Juror Eight, Henry Fonda. He doesn’t think the boy is innocent, he just thinks they should do their duty and discuss the evidence.

So discuss they do, much to the chagrin of the other men. It’s a burning hot day in New York City, we’re in an era before ubiquitous AC, and the cramped room they’re shut in doesn’t even have a working fan. The men want to get home, or to events they have tickets for, or what have you. But they have no choice, because Fonda won’t just change his vote. It’s through their deliberations that we begin to learn the facts of the case, though really these are neither here nor there: this isn’t really a trial of some minority teenager, but instead of the American justice system and these twelve men.

As the ghost of 82 discusses so well in his review, this is a film filled with first-rate performances. Fonda may be the only ‘name’, but there’s a host of recognisable faces, and every one of them is an essential cog in the film’s well-oiled machine. Screenwriter Reginald Rose has nearly doubled the length of his 51-minute teleplay*, but seems to have accomplished the extension effortlessly. The movie doesn’t feel padded, as other films with limited characters in a limited space can do, but like it’s precisely the correct length for the amount of material it needs to cover.

Killer evidenceSlowly, steadily, surely, Fonda’s juror leads a recap of the evidence, analysing it, picking it apart, challenging presumptions and suppositions. Gradually, other jury members begin to be won over. This could be trite — of course our hero has to start convincing the others — but this is where the writing and cast shine again, because even men who seemed unswayable have their minds changed in a plausible fashion. Even then, the outcome rarely seems certain, each victory hard won, so that the film holds you rapt, desperate for sense and reason to prevail. There are moments of tension which may literally push you to the edge of your seat; moments of exultant success which may elicit an exclamation of approval similar to a point scored in a sports match.

In his Criterion essay “Lumet’s Faces” (online here), law professor Thane Rosenbaum discusses the film’s groundbreaking and unique perspective on the legal system (how many other jury-room thrillers can you think of, before or since? Not many, I bet). The film has been seen by some as a defence of the jury system: even when a defendant has a poor defender in the courtroom (as, it seems, has been the case here), or an exceptionally gifted prosecutor, the truth will out among the jury. Rosenbaum disagrees:

The presumption that jurors are impartial is dashed within the first ten minutes of the film. … The virtues of the legal system are presented through the prism of its dark side. A jury is empowered to remedy the mistakes made by the defense… but will the jurors be able to overcome the imperfections of their own humanity[?] 12 Angry Men sends a warning to be careful in courtrooms. The custodians of the system make mistakes, and the corrective possibilities may be no better than a crapshoot.

Using the evidenceFor all that 12 Angry Men seems to show justice being served in the face of adversity, what it actually shows is justice being served thanks to blind luck: if Juror Eight had been a weaker-willed man, or another who was just as prejudiced as his eleven compatriots, then the debate would never have occurred, the teenager condemned to death in the blink of an eye. What are the odds on every jury room containing a Henry Fonda? I don’t fancy them myself.

Whatever (truthful) messages the film carries about the flaws of the legal system, there’s no denying its power as a thriller. You don’t have to debate its significance to the process it depicts, you can just be engrossed by the twists and turns of its story, be captivated by the twelve three-dimensional people it presents, complete with their own ideas, desires, and prejudices. Legal dramas are a dime a dozen on TV, but most still avoid the jury room. The unbetterableness of 12 Angry Men is probably why.

5 out of 5

12 Angry Men placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.


* Trivia time! Sidney Lumet directed over 40 episodes of television before this, his debut feature, but the original 12 Angry Men wasn’t among them. That was helmed by Franklin Schaffner. A lesser-known name than the acclaimed Lumet, I’d say, Schaffner went on to direct Planet of the Apes and Patton, and for the latter won a Best Director Oscar — something that, despite four nominations, Lumet never managed. ^