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. ^

Backfire (1950)

2014 #43
Vincent Sherman | 87 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English

BackfireBefore he was the romantic male lead in musicals like Tea for Two, Oklahoma! and Carousel, Gordon MacRae starred as a war veteran out to prove his friend’s innocence in this underrated film noir.

MacRae is Bob Corey, our hero, whose hospital bed is visited by a woman (Viveca Lindfors) who tells him his army buddy Steve (Edmond O’Brien) has been in a horrible accident. The staff dismiss his story as an hallucination, but when he gets out, Bob and his new love, nurse Julie (Virginia Mayo), set out to find out what’s happened to Steve — who, it turns out, is wanted for murder — and find themselves negotiating a complex web of past events and future dangers….

Backfire doesn’t seem to be very well regarded on the whole (though, in spite of that, there’s a surprising amount of production detail on Wikipedia). This may be because at times it feels more like an Agatha Christie mystery than a film noir: a pair of clean-cut amateur sleuths bumble their way through a string of clues, learning more and more about the plot thanks to other characters’ flashbacks. I like a good Christie mystery though, so the pairing of styles isn’t a problem for me.

Friend or foe?Besides, even if the film seems to forgo the usual gritty noir trappings for a pleasant “English murder mystery”-type tale at first, it actually has its fair share of dark elements and noir-ish features, which only increase as it goes on: secretive gangsters, nightclub singers, revenge shootings… Then there’s the photography which, again, transitions from a fairly ‘regular’ (for want of a better word) style early on, to a world of rain-slicked streets and high-contrast lighting.

The story is reportedly “lifted from other, many times better, films”, which may well be true, but clearly I’ve not seen them. It all builds to a twist that I didn’t see coming, which is always good in my book; plus a final shoot-out featuring something that never seems to happen in films: the villain loses because he runs out of bullets! Along the way, the movie challenges the audience to keep up with which flashback is taking place when and how they’re connected to each other — indeed, the really attentive viewer might be able to use that to correctly guess the ultimate reveal.

MacRae is perfectly decent as the perfectly decent chap, who somehow manages to be a much better detective than any of the detectives. He’s aided by a sterling supporting cast, from the club singer’s tag-along roommate (Sheila Stephens — later Sheila MacRae) to the ex-army buddy mortician (Dane Clark), from the slightly creepy hotel desk clerk (who isn’t adequately credited) to the wisecracking police chief (Ed Begley).

That White Heat girl turning it on againIt’s in the latter’s case that the writing gets a chance to shine, too: the chief’s flashback is littered with snappy dialogue that feels kinda like he’s telling you the story himself, not just a matter-of-fact “here’s what happened earlier” objective account. Other flashbacks retain a degree of subjectivity — we only see events the characters could have witnessed, and in some cases the way they witnessed them (like the cleaning lady who only sees customers’ feet, before spying through a keyhole in a shot complete with keyhole matte) — but there’s an idea there, briefly glimpsed in that detective’s flashback, that would’ve made for an even more interesting film.

As it stands, Backfire isn’t all it could be, but I think it’s good for more than the consensus allows.

4 out of 5

Backfire is on TCM (UK) tomorrow, Saturday 15th November 2014, at 1:15pm.