One of the interesting quirks in American cinematic history is that Sidney Lumet is not at the tip of the tongue of most movie lovers when great directors are mentioned. Scorsese, Coppola, Stone, Ford, Lee, all have fervent admirers – and justifiably so – but it is funny how Sidney Lumet falls through the cracks. Perhaps it is his lack of a unifying theme – there is no pre-Vatican II looming sense of personal guilt (Scorsese), no study of race (Lee), no shaking one’s fist at God (Bergman – I know, not American, but work with me). But when you consider Lumet, it is hard to even recall what movies warrant putting him on any first page … but look at the movies. Twelve Angry Men, Network, The Verdict, Dog Day Afternoon – all are fascinating, intelligent American movies of the modern era, and even a couple of signature AFI scenes to boot. (“I’m mad as hell …”, “Attica!”) I guess in a way this is one of the sincerest compliments of Lumet – that we remember his movies more than his hand in them. This is certainly not meant to denigrate Scorsese – some great bands (U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers) have their fingerprints all over any song they make, some great artists (Prince, Sting to a degree) have a skill in almost being invisible – but Lumet’s resume and career show a director of tremendous import among American filmmakers – though he does it almost offhand.
Twelve Angry Men, from 1957, is a story just about everybody knows. We start with the judge giving instructions to the jury on a murder case involving a teenager. The judge looks bored and the kid looks spooked – in a way these scenes almost set up like a nightmare, and not exact realism. But then we are swept into the jury deliberation, and that is where we stay. At the first vote 11 of the jurors have voted guilty, with only one of them, Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) raising a hand in the not guilty direction. What is interesting here is that ocho is not saying he believes in the kid’s innocence, but that at the very least a case of such gravity (the kid would die if guilty) ought to be discussed.
For the remainder of the 96 minutes, what we get is talking. What is fascinating is how Lumet is able to take what was a television play and leverage the form’s strength. The action takes place over one set fundamentally (there is a bathroom). Often movies based on plays feel the need to open up locations, but here the action closes in. We get a lot of closeups of the guys – and the closeups are effective, especially the rather chilling looking old guy – who almost always supplies a key observation. Lumet uses angles, close-ups and a lot of the classic film grammar to keep the set interesting.
The tension is palpable, as the guys are lined up against Ocho and then suddenly things start to turn. Lumet uses some of the great character actors of the time (Ed Begley, EG Marshall, Jack Warden, Jack Klugman), and like the case itself, they create psychic space around their characters. Warden as a blase guy who wants to get to the game, Klugman as a man coming from a background not unlike the kid’s, Marshall as the logician. What emerges is a portrait of these men – even though we get no real biographical information. Their world, their society, is reduced to this case. This is particularly punctuated in a awkward almost-exchange between Ocho and the old guy in the final scene. And as we start learning about the case – about testimony and about notions (but the case is never explained to us – a huge strength) – things sort of become less clear. This creates a bit of a Rashomon effect as story layers and planks that do not quite fit come together. Of course, this brings us to the real subject of the story – reasonable doubt. The proof in these cases is on the prosecution to establish guilt without a reasonable doubt – did they?