Wednesday, 30 March 2016

12 Angry Men

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In recent years, there has been a fascination in my household with crime, justice and the legal process. Since we moved into our flat in May of last year we binged on Breaking Bad, and following that we struggled to find something to match the salivation we had for watching episodes at a continual pace.

I will always remember how me and my girlfriend watched the final four episodes up to the very last episode of Breaking Bad culminating in a 1am bedtime. The next night we finished the series and then we wandered the Netflix gallery looking for something.

Then late in the year we watched Making A Murderer, the fascinating documentary on Stephen Avery's cruel miscarriages of justice in Wisconsin. Following on from that we have watched Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line amongst other crime stories. It culminated with the viewing of Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men from 1957.

Based on the teleplay by Reginald Rose, and co-produced by Rose himself along with lead actor Henry Fonda. Lumet tells the story of a jury made of 12 men as they deliberate the guilt or acquittal of a defendant on the basis of reasonable doubt.

Fonda plays Juror No.8, the one man who suggests the young defendant is not guilty of murdering his father with a knife. Fonda, I shall refer to him as that as he is given no name, takes it upon himself to convince all the others that the facts they have been given are in fact false and not legitimate, ergo there is enough reasonable doubt to not send the boy to the electric chair.

On a hot day in New York, Fonda is the only one dressed in white, like an angel of Liberty placed in this room to tell the others that they are wrong to think the case is as open and shut as they believe. Fonda has to contend with racial bigotry from a number of the jury specifically Lee J. Cobb and Ed Begley, class prejudice from E. G. Marshall and ignorance by Jack Warden, a salesman who would dearly like to get to Yankees Stadium and is indifferent to the whole process.

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The original armchair detective

Fonda plays the role as an armchair detective, a man who gives convincing arguments but would prefer the mixed bag of men just take the time to consider that the fate of one mans life is in their hands and they should give it due consideration.

Lumet who would go on to direct such legendary films as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Network, found this as his directorial debut and it marked him as a sure hand with actors able to garner strong performances from many an ensemble. 12 Angry Men is no different, as he gains a real mix of empathy and credibility from all the players.

Lumet tellingly puts his camera at a distance and as the film draws closer to a conclusion only then does he decide to use close ups and extreme close ups such as when Fonda asks Marshall to recall what he did a few nights previously. Marshall sits in his chair sweat running down his face, a depiction of pressure and the climate.

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Lumet found solace in the role of Fonda, a harbinger of justice and truth beyond doubt. The film helped pave the way for a global fascination with true crime and how any story has many sides. From the prosecutors to the defence to the victim to the jury, you need only look at the current series of The People vs OJ Simpson to see how a television series goes about showing differing viewpoints of a huge case.

The magic of the film comes from forgetting you are watching twelve strangers deliberating a young man's future. You forget you are watching a film, helped by the claustrophobic nature of Lumet's camera which builds up the tension in the room.  You also forget you are watching a black and white picture, so much colour and life is injected into the piece by the ensemble that 12 Angry Men has essentially become timeless, and that is beyond reasonable doubt.

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