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. ^

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

2011 #43
Sidney Lumet | 120 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Director Sidney Lumet sadly passed away a week ago today. In tribute, I watched one of his many highly-regarded films…

Dog Day AfternoonOn August 22nd 1972, John Wojtowicz and Salvatore Naturile attempted to rob a Brooklyn bank to raise money for Wojtowicz’s male wife to have a sex change operation. The ensuing hostage situation was watched live on TV by millions of New Yorkers. If you made it up people wouldn’t believe it — especially in the ’70s — which is why this film, closely based on those events, strives so hard for naturalism. And it succeeds, and then some.

There are multiple reasons it works so well, and I’m glad I for once got round to watching all the DVD extras because they reveal these factors very nicely. I’m going to use a liberal sprinkling of those facts as a way into my thoughts on the film, so if you’ve watched those features some of this may seem too familiar. Sorry.

Let’s start where all films do (well, should): the screenplay. Written by Frank Pierson, based on a magazine article about the true story, it was his screenplay that attracted both director Sidney Lumet and star Al Pacino to the project. It’s immaculately structured, from the excitement of the opening — a confused, amateurish bank robbery — through negotiations with police, emotional telephone conversations, and on to a nail-biting finale at JFK airport. The pace is well considered. It doesn’t rush through events but it never flags; the tension is maintained but important emotional scenes are never sped through. More on that in a moment. Importantly, the plot’s numerous reveals are well managed too — for instance, Sonny’s homosexuality and transgender partner are revealed quite far in, by which point we’ve already built a firm opinion of the characters. This was important for a ’70s audience (as Lumet suggests in his commentary), Sonnyto try to circumvent built-in prejudices that would’ve adversely affected an audience’s reaction too soon. It still works now — it’s not a twist, per se, but it is likely to change one’s perspective on the film and its characters mid-flow, which is always interesting.

The dialogue is also spot-on, but that’s not all down to Pierson. While rehearsing, Lumet was so keen to capture a realistic tone that he allowed the actors to improvise the dialogue. This was working so well that he had it recorded, transcribed, and Pierson rewrote the dialogue based on the cast’s improvisation. (His scenes and their order remained intact, just the words were changed.) This, coupled with additional improvisation techniques used on set, lends a believable tone to the characters’ actions and words — they’re not speaking dialogue, they’re just speaking.

In terms of performance, this is a real showcase for Pacino. As Sonny — the movie’s version of John — the whole film rests on his shoulders, and he’s more than capable of bearing the weight. Some roles allow an actor to subtly be good throughout the film; others allow a few grandstanding set-pieces where they can Act; but Dog Day Afternoon gives Pacino both. The latter are, naturally, easier to recall: the way he works the crowd (“Attica!”), the pair of draining phone calls to his wives; but most of all, the will-writing scene. As the climax looms, Lumet allows the time for Sonny to dictate his will in full to one of the bank girls. Pacino is brilliant, understated but — in a combination of performance and writing (though, in this case, the text is taken from the real-life will) — revealing, cementing some of the conflicting forces that have pulled on Sonny throughout the film.

BankIn trying to get a handle on the real Sonny when he was starting on the screenplay, Pierson talked to various people who knew him, but struggled to reconcile their conflicting accounts of the same man. The link he found was that Sonny was always trying to please people, and that’s what he used: in the film, he’s not just out for himself or his boyfriend, but also trying to placate and please his hostages, the police, the media, his partner, his mum, his other wife… Pierson and Pacino do indeed make him a different man to all of them, and this is one of the reasons Sonny is such a great character and a great performance: he’s genuinely three-dimensional. All of us behave differently, to some degree, when we’re with different people — we don’t necessarily realise it, because they’re all facets of the same us, but we do it — so to put that into a character is to make him real.

Pacino is propped up by a spotless supporting cast, all of whom get their moment(s) to shine and use them to excel. Of particular note is John Cazale as Sal, the other robber. It’s a largely quiet role, but he nonetheless conveys an awful lot with it. Lumet says that Cazale always seemed to have a great sadness in him, which you can always see come out in his performances, and he’s certainly right here. We learn very few facts about Sal during the film, but we still know him, you suspect, as well as anyone does.

Chris Sarandon is also superb (and Oscar nominated) as Leon, the gay wife who wants a sex change. Lumet was keen to avoid presenting a stereotypical homosexual type, Leonthroughout the film trying to avoid turning any of these unusual characters into freaks, and Sarandon pitches it right. He plays the truth of a conflicted, confused character; a man who is perhaps easily led but hard to please, I think. As with the rest of the cast, the little touches he brings — such as starting a sure-to-be-emotional phone call to a man currently in the middle of a tense hostage situation with “so how are you?” — sell the reality of the piece.

Capturing reality is clearly Lumet’s prime concern — it’s reiterated multiple times across all the special features — and I think he succeeds admirably. Some things we might not even notice — the film is lit with natural light outside, the bank’s real fluorescent lights inside, and the nighttime sequences by a genuine police van reflecting off the white front of the bank — while other things, like the complete lack of a musical score, are more readily apparent. I say that, but that’s not readily apparent: one may well notice, but it’s such a perfect decision that it never rears it’s head. Lumet argues that having an orchestra chime in to underline an exciting or emotional moment would have broken the realism of what we’re watching, and he was right — there’s not a single scene here that could be improved by music, but several that would have been damaged by it.

The way the film’s shot supports this too. This is from the ’70s remember, before the craze for faux-documentary and everything being handheld, so it still looks like a film, but it’s not one that’s been precision-staged. Indeed, quite the opposite. Everything is kept loose — sometimes actors block each other’s shots, or talk over each other, or the handling of a prop goes wrong, and so on — but Lumet leaved it all in, even plays it up at times, and makes it work to his advantage. Rather than being the obvious “we’re trying to make this look real” Policeof today’s grainy shakycam stuff, this just feels real; the heart and truth of it come through, not the surface sheen of it being documentary footage. That’s more important.

There’s great editing by Dede Allen too, though most of the time it goes unnoticed: in keeping with the aim of letting the audience ‘forget’ this is a film, most of the cutting is simple and natural. Two examples leap to attention, however, and those are the two times (the only two times) guns are fired. Lumet and Allen recreate the confusion and violence of such an event with a smash of fast, sub-one-second cuts on both occasions. We see mindless fast cutting all the time now, but this incongruous example shows the effectiveness a fast montage can have when done by the right hands. The soundtrack also jumps with each cut, which is equally vital to the slightly disconcerting way it works — they’re not just smoothing over this series of flashing images, we’re being deliberately disorientated by them.

Remember earlier I mentioned Pierson’s pace? The editing plays a role in that too, naturally. After the film had been tightened for the final time, Lumet felt it had lost something, especially when it came to the will-dictating scene, which now felt slow. So with Allen he went back and added six or seven minutes of footage back in — as with his staging, making it a bit looser, more naturalistic, and in the process fixing the pacing issue and making the important will scene feel right again. Without being able to see that cut it’s hard to say just how necessary it was, but as the final result feels so right it seems his instinct was a good one.

SalPierson’s screenplay won at the Oscars. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor and Editing, but this was the year of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest so that took most of the big awards. That’s another of those all-time classics I’ve not seen, so I can’t offer my personal take. What I will say is that it goes to show (as most of us I’m sure already know) that the Oscars are as much about the year you’re in as the film itself: Dog Day Afternoon is better than masses of films that have won the same awards before and since, but clearly it got an unlucky year.

I’ve written quite a lot here but, brilliantly, I’ve still only got a certain way beneath the surface — there’s plenty more in there. That’s always the mark of a good film. And there’s certainly more memorable anecdotes and interesting directorial techniques I learnt from the special features that I’ve left out. Lumet set out to make a believable film about an unbelievable situation, and I do believe he achieved that goal. These are normal human beings with normal emotions — not like you and I, perhaps; taken to an extreme, certainly — but in a very bizarre set of circumstances. It was important to Lumet that they didn’t come across as freaks and, with the help of Pacino and the rest of his cast, I think they’ve achieved that too.

Coming outThe film treads a delicate line between drama, comedy and thriller, but doesn’t once tip too far in any direction. It’s got several genuine laughs, but none compromise its serious side or claim to reality — it’s tense and touching too. Anyone else making a film about an extraordinary situation, be it a true story or from the mind of a crazed writer, would do well to look at Lumet’s work here.

5 out of 5

Dog Day Afternoon is on ITV tonight, 19th November 2014, at 2:30am.

See also my review of the documentary short about the making of Dog Day Afternoon, which is also on the DVD, Lumet: Film Maker.

Lumet: Film Maker (1975)

2011 #43a
Elliot Geisinger & Ronald Saland | 10 mins | DVD | PG

This ten-minute documentary short is made up of behind-the-scenes footage of some of the filming of Dog Day Afternoon, with the occasional on-set interview with some (to be honest, minor) crew members, snippets of audio interview with Lumet himself, and a voiceover narration.

Today it’s the kind of material that would come out as part of the EPK and be included on the DVD — it has a largely promotional tone, talking about how great Lumet is to work with, how great Pacino is, that kind of thing. From a modern perspective, much of the information is duplicated elsewhere on the DVD, but for those not interested in a two-hour audio commentary it’s here.

What it does still add is footage of Lumet at work. Based on what we see, you can well imagine how he managed to finish the shoot a whole three weeks ahead of schedule, and how he produced such an authentic-feeling final result. There’s the soundman, for instance, who humorously has to dash off halfway through his interview for the next setup.

It feels a bit daft reviewing what would today be just an EPK and/or DVD featurette. But as this comes from a time before those things existed, when it wasn’t designed to go straight to the DVD just for the interested (though I don’t know where it was shown — in cinemas as a kind of extended trailer, I presume? It doesn’t look like a TV special, especially at just ten minutes), it’s a “documentary short” — look, IMDb says it is.

But then, are feature-length DVD ‘making of’s a kind of film too? Lost in La Mancha would have just been the DVD extras, had the film not gone tits up. What about Hearts of Darkness, which is now, pretty much, placed as ‘just’ a Blu-ray extra?

Oh dear, I fear there may be another lengthy and inconclusive waffle coming on…

4 out of 5

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

2009 #94
Sidney Lumet | 122 mins | TV | PG / PG

Murder on the Orient ExpressMurder on the Orient Express is arguably Agatha Christie’s most famous novel, perhaps because of its widely-known twist ending, or perhaps because it’s inspired in part by a high-profile true story, or perhaps because of this multi-Oscar-nominated all-star adaptation.

The plot is the stereotypical Christie set up: a group of fairly well-off people find themselves in a confined setting, one is killed, a sleuth works out who. This time it’s a train rather than a luxurious mansion, but the basics are there. This isn’t a criticism — I enjoy a good Christie adaptation as much as everyone else who’s kept the current TV incarnation on air for 21 years (and counting) — and here at least Christie has a number of twists to her usual style. As mentioned its launching point is a true story, the Armstrong kidnapping and murder being based on the Lindbergh kidnap of 1932 (just a couple of years before the book was written); the snow-bound train’s location (very apt after our recent weather) is certainly different to a stereotypical country estate setting; and then there’s the infamous ending.

I won’t spoil it here, just in case anyone doesn’t know it. Some are very critical of this particular denouement, labeling it an unsatisfactory cop-out that doesn’t make sense. Neither of these things are true. It is not reliant on an extraordinary coincidence — it might look that way at first, but the full explanation reveals it to be anything but — and there are numerous clues along the way as to what it might be, even if some are more thematic than the actual red herrings that almost lead Poirot astray. It’s a shame that knowledge of the ending is quite widespread these days, though that’s perhaps inevitable for a 76-year-old story. Still, I’ve done my bit.

In the lead role, Albert Finney’s Poirot may have received an Oscar nomination and, more importantly, been approved by Christie herself (according to some; according to others, she wasn’t impressed), but he now pales in the inevitable comparison with David Suchet’s definitive portrayal of the Belgian detective. Suchet has defined Poirot in a way few other major franchisable characters have been (Connery may be widely accepted as the best Bond, but there are plenty who’d choose Moore, Craig, Dalton and Brosnan, and you may even find someone who likes Lazenby; equally, Sherlockians may divide themselves between Rathbone and Brett, not to mention Cushing and hundreds of others). He has the advantage of being able to perfect the role across hundreds of hours of television, but nonetheless stands proud as the high-watermark that others can only try to reach (even those who played the role 15 years earlier).

Finney’s version is more obviously comical than Suchet’s. Where humour in the latter is derived from his serious fastidiousness, Finney plays it more for laughs; where Suchet seems almost solemn in his investigations Finney frequently bursts into laughter. It’s a broader interpretation of the character, one that ultimately lacks subtlety. At least Finney is thoroughly subsumed in the role, which means that after a while one does become accustomed to it.

The rest of the cast are well suited to their roles. Ingrid Bergman won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role, though one wonders if it was a weak year for the category as her part is miniscule and not particularly memorable. Elsewhere, famous names such as Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Michael York, and many more, round out a truly star-studded ensemble where each has but a small part to play. It must be relatively easy to attract big names to Christie adaptations — as the TV series still do — when the author is so beloved and the amount of time required to shoot is (for a guest star) so small. Best here, perhaps, is Martin Balsam as Poirot’s friend Bianchi, who’s treated to several good scenes, not least the series of interviews where after each he confidently declares “it was them!”

As a standalone film, Murder on the Orient Express is a skilled effort (I can’t comment on its quality as an adaptation because I’ve never read the book). For a viewer so familiar with Suchet’s interpretation of the character, however, even an all-star cast can’t quite remove the feeling that it’s not quite right. The Suchet-starring adaptation of this particular case has been filming recently, hopefully for broadcast later in 2010 (though knowing ITV we could have to wait as long as 2012), but even though it’ll have the definitive Poirot leading its cast, this film leaves a lot to live up to.

4 out of 5

(Originally posted on 15th January 2010.)