Can we just talk about this a little more? Please?
First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro
Twelve Angry Men (1957). Directed by Sidney Lumet. Screenplay by Reginald Rose, from his prior teleplay. Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, others. 96 minutes. ****
12 (in Russian with Subtitles Available; 2007). Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. Screenplay by Nikita Mikhalkov, Alexander Novotsky-Vlasov, Vladimir Moiseenko, based on original screenplay by Reginald Rose. One third of the actors on the jury have the first name Sergei, and two others are named Alexei; it must have been fun whenever one got a phone call. 157 minutes. **
Others Mentioned Here But Not Discussed At Length: Twelve Angry Men (TV-movie directed by William Friedkin, 1997).
Other Known Versions: The original TV production (1954); Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (Hindi, 1986); many many other parodies and imitations.
The boy is on trial for his life. He has been accused of the brutal stabbing death of his father, and though he maintains his innocence, almost no exculpatory evidence has been introduced, and he is almost certainly facing a trip upstate. It’s a foregone conclusion. For the most part, the all-male jury looks forward to a quick vote, an immediate return to the courtroom, and from there a quick return to their everyday lives. But one juror isn’t so sure. He thinks that the matter is too serious for such casual disposal…and as he persuades his resentful fellow jurors to take a second look, more and more cracks appear in the prosecution’s case. It begins to look like the boy might be innocent after all. But some members of the jury are emotionally invested in a guilty verdict…and it becomes unclear whether justice, of any kind, is at all possible.
This was the premise of Reginald Rose’s 1954 teleplay Twelve Angry Men, and of the classic 1957 film directed by Sidney Lumet. A financial disappointment for star and co-producer Henry Fonda, it built its reputation with later TV showings and is now considered a major, influential classic. It was also the first theatrical film of the towering Sidney Lumet, who was among other things one of the great New York City directors and who, over the next fifty years, managed the admirable feat of directing at least one, and sometimes more than one, capital-G Great film per decade. (That list of one great film per decade would, according to this lifelong admirer, include Twelve Angry Men in the 1950s, The Pawnbroker and The Hill in the 1960s, Serpico, Murder On the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network in the 1970s, Prince of the City in the 1980s, Q & A in the 1990s, and his last movie Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead in the 2000s…and that’s before you start listing films that miss greatness by a hair or those like Fail-Safe or The Verdict that are merely very, very good.) It is part of our culture, and the latest word has it that it’s about to be remade again. We therefore take this opportunity to discuss both the original, which can be seen as a dramatization of what’s so great about America…and a recent version that can be seen as a dramatization of everything that’s gone wrong in Russia.
One point before we continue: readers of these essays always risk being exposed to plot spoilers, but this is especially true of what follows, and particularly in its coverage of the 2007 film. Beware.
Twelve Angry Men (1957)
Movie fans who want to know the difference between what a screenwriter does and what a director does could be profitably directed to this film.
The story, essentially a two-hour argument where the jurors supporting a not guilty verdict gradually break down and overcome the opposition of those who want the kid to go to jail, was all on paper long before Sidney Lumet ever got involved; what he added in this, his very first theatrical film, was a superb mastery of the form that over the course of 96 grueling minutes gradually moves the POV of most shots closer and closer to table-level, increasing the tension and the sense that all of the jurors are stuck with one another. He’s the one who makes this an astonishingly fluid and stylish film for one largely set all in one room, and it manages the trick long before the days of queasy shakicams and swooping, spinning, 360 degree pans. That is all Lumet, with his cinematographer Boris Kaufman and his editor Carl Lerner. Please note that it is not showy direction; the average moviegoer will never be consciously aware of Lumet’s craft. But it’s there. It can be felt, and it ratchets up the suspense to the breaking point.
Similarly, movie fans who want a primo demonstration of the importance of star power need look no further than the introduction of Juror #8 (Fonda), initially the only one who even wants to subject the evidence to discussion. He is the last one whose face we see, after the jury files into the room and everybody else expends the next few minutes in idle conversation and joking around; at the moment when he’s called to the table for deliberation, having spent the last few minutes gazing out the window in silent contemplation, he turns around and reveals himself for the first time as Fonda, from The Grapes Of Wrath and The Ox-Bow Incident onward an icon of American rectitude, and instantly the guy the movie audience wants to win. (Jack Lemmon, who played the same role in William Friedkin’s 1997 TV version, played decent men as often as Fonda did, and for all his talent couldn’t match the impact of Fonda’s big turn-around.)
The movie also benefits from being superbly cast. Any list of who’s superb here will amount to a simple recitation of the entire jury, but special attention should be paid to Lee J. Cobb, as the bullying juror #3, who is just as quickly the guy the audience will want to see lose; and to E.G. Marshall, as Juror #4, another antagonist who happens to be the most level-headed, logically-driven person in the room; he never raises his voice and, until a memorable moment late in the film, never sweats. (There’s also Jack Klugman, who just a few years later played tribute to this movie with another deadlocked-jury story on an episode of his sitcom, The Odd Couple.)
The movie is filled with cheer-worthy moments. What audience doesn’t feel tremendous satisfaction when the old man changes his vote to support Juror #8? What audience doesn’t cheer when Juror #4 interrupts another’s bigoted rant by telling him to sit down and not open his mouth again?
Really. It’s like an action movie, with arguments instead of gunfights, so pleasurable with every frame that some viewers, this essayist included, can see it dozens of times with undiminished appreciation.
It’s so very terrific, in toto, that just making this next observation is extraordinarily painful.
It is also incredibly contrived.
It has to be. All courtroom dramas are. It’s one thing if they’re based on actual court cases, where the transcripts exist; but if concocted, they by necessity compress into an hour or two or at most three the high points of what is, in real life, often a mind-numbingly dull process, with testimony given in monotones and long stretches spent in wrangling over evidentiary minutiae. Creating an effective courtroom drama almost always depends on the careful concealment of, and timely unveiling of, straw men: obstacles that seem fatal but aren’t, evidence that seems iron-clad but isn’t, a closing argument that seems to put the final nails in the opposing side’s coffin but nevertheless leaves room for a rhetorical flourish that makes everything before it seem flimsy and stupid. In Twelve Angry Men, it’s the pile of evidence implicating a kid in the stabbing-death of his father – a case that Reginald Rose carefully designed to look air-tight at first, but to which he also carefully attached serious reasons to doubt.
Everything depends on the writer’s deliberate placement of these straw men; if Henry Fonda’s character had not been able to buy an identical switchblade after the police failed, if the elderly witness had not been dragging a leg, if the woman across the street not rubbed the bridge of her nose in court, or even if the jurors had not changed their minds with the regularity that they did, the defendant would be on the first train upstate. In that sense, at least, Twelve Angry Men functions not as an indictment of our legal system, but as a fond tribute to the efficacy of having the case against you designed by an omnipotent screenwriter who wants it to fall apart at the first gust of strong wind. This has been discussed, at length, but Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who as an educator also characterized the independent investigation of Juror #8 as likely grounds for a mistrial. (And, by the way, if you want another case of a courtroom drama artfully hiding the fact that it all depends on a screenwriter carefully hiding straw men – in this case evidence that’s been squirreled away by the culprits, that the defense attorney protagonist uncovers at the last minute — look no further than that other Lumet drama, The Verdict.)
None of that matters all that much. The case may be designed to fall apart, but it’s designed to fall apart in a suspenseful manner, driven by the characters of the jurors; and it’s designed to fall apart in a manner than remains inconclusive at the end, leaving open the possibility that the kid might have killed his Dad after all.
William Friedkin’s 1997 version pretty much hits the same story points, with a just-as-impressive cast that included in addition to Lemmon such powerhouses as George C. Scott and Ossie Davis; it is effective enough, but lacks Lumet’s brilliant staging. On the plus side, we are no longer talking about Twelve Angry White Men, and indeed one of its more audacious touches is casting a young Black man, Mykelti Williamson, in the role of the film’s vengeful bigot. On the negative is the one reason we bring it up, the odd casting glitch that presents us with a large number of elderly men among the jurors, not just Lemmon and Scott but also Ossie Davis and Hume Cronyn. This is only an issue because, as in the original, much is made of Juror # 3 being scolded failing to show the proper amount of respect toward the frail and lonely retiree, Juror # 9. That makes a small degree of sense when Lee. J. Cobb, circa 1957, is being upbraided for the way he treats the “old man,” Joseph Sweeney; less so when George C. Scott, circa 1997, is told off for the way he treats old men like Hume Cronyn. They’re both old men, and it’s downright surreal when another old man, Ossie Davis, makes noises that seem to regard Cronyn, who’s admittedly somewhat older, as ancient by comparison. Look around you, people. If you count Armin Mueller-Stahl, who was 67 at the time and the youngest of this group by several years, almost half the jury is eligible for social security.
This award-winning Russian remake, which intends to be not just an examination of the elusiveness of justice in a system that depends on the fairness of human beings serving on juries, but also a harsh examination of the current state of Russian society, is a full hour longer – and a slog even for those of us who normally have little problem with lengthy films. Things just take longer they need to, and many of the jurors stop everything in order to regale everybody with long, dramatic soliloquys about their backstories, a number of which end with the jaw-dropping conclusion, “And that’s why I’m changing my vote to Not Guilty.” (Really? You rip off mourners at the cemetery where you work, use the money to fund schools, and that’s why you’re changing your mind? Really? That’s…um….different.)
Nobody in the film reacts to these extended personal monologues the way human beings would. Oh, sure, the other jurors ask leading questions like, “Why are you telling us this?”, but that just gives the speakers an excuse to continue talking. In real life, one or two of these might be tolerated, but as the tension level rose, somebody would react to the latest with an exasperated, “Oh, great. Now he’s starting.” Instead, everybody always freezes and allows the soliloquys to play out. I can’t be any clearer than this: in real life, eventually, they wouldn’t.
Also taking up time: a substantial number of flashbacks to the childhood of the young defendant, a Chechen orphan accused of killing his Russian stepfather. It is a past that includes huddling in a dark basement filled with corpses, and for what it’s worth these war scenes are both horrific and well-staged…but even the best-staged scenes can be tiresome if they interrupt the story we care about, and these serve to dilute the overpowering narrative momentum of the original, which takes place in something resembling real time. In 12, we leave the jurors regularly to catch up on some more images from the defendant’s tragic life, and return to clear indications that substantial time has passed for the members of the jury and that we’ve missed some of their deliberations. (If what we’ve missed amounted to more monologues, then this can be counted as a mercy.) As an extra added treat, we are shown a skirmish from the war in Chechnya, where many rounds of automatic weapons fire are exchanged between two buildings while the boy presses himself flat in the rubble-strewn street between them; thus making this the last thing anybody ever expected in this universe, a somewhat defensible remake of Twelve Angry Men with explosions in it.
That deserves repetition. This is a defensible remake of Twelve Angry Men with explosions in it.
That’s a remarkable achievement. I guess.
The sacrifice of the original’s claustrophobic setting extends to this film’s jury room, the gymnasium of a run-down high school. The jury members have plenty of room to move about, and sometimes wander far from the central table. This, surprisingly, works, and not just because the basketball tossed by one near the beginning, that refuses to fall through the netless rim and instead just lodges against the backboard, as clear a symbol of the belated verdict as anybody could have ever arranged. Much is made of the exposed heating pipe in the ceiling, and the broken window temporarily blocked off by a cement bag that, one juror discovers, has been there for decades. All around them sit manifestations of a nation’s crumbling infrastructure, and the widespread corruption that permits it. One juror, screwing around, discovers a hypodermic needle in a kid’s locker, while another discovers and oohs over an abandoned brassiere, and yes, both discoveries are part of it. There’s another nice touch involving the school’s upright piano, which is stored behind iron bars, and which a couple of the jurors manage to play anyway; you couldn’t buy more potent symbolism than that.
We must also give props to this film’s bailiff, who unlike the glorified prop of the original film is actually a living and breathing personality, who uses the jury’s confiscated cell phones to make his own calls, and reacts with open, comic, and a precisely modulated level of confusion to the antics going on in the jury room. We don’t get any more of the him than the film needs, just enough. And that is a plus.
The murder, and the means by which the various members of the jury poke holes in what had seemed an airtight case, are similar to the ones originally posited by Reginald Rose. We get the supposedly unique knife used in the crime, the limping old man from downstairs who says he witnessed the boy’s flight but couldn’t have, the unlikelihood of the boy blithely returning to the scene of the crime hours after the killing, and even the woman with compromised eyesight who claims to have witnessed the murder from across the street. There is no passing elevated train, but that’s a difficult story element to translate to Moscow and a loud construction site works just as well. The unlikelihood of a boy used to handling knives stabbing a much taller man with a downward thrust also comes up, and that scene is, here, wonderful; the proper method of knife-handling is demonstrated by a surgeon among the jurors who happens to be a Chechen himself and who turns out to be a frightening wizard with a blade. Some of the dramatics work identically, as well; for instance, the main antagonist is a bully of a juror who has issues involving his relationship with his own son, though the details are very different (and are related in the last and best of the film’s many extended monologues).
Some of the character stuff is genuinely hilarious. The cemetery guy is eager to get back to his hot 21 year old wife, who according to him looks like Angelina Jolie. He has had three wet dreams in three consecutive nights, thinking of her. He demands to know of his fellow jurors whether they still have wet dreams at their age. (To the film’s credit, this results in helpless laughter on the part of everybody.) The film’s bully keeps attacking the film’s elderly Jew, who just takes it with a knowing amusement that would infuriate any bigot more than any tirade. This is good stuff.
But that’s all before we get to some of the strangest and most extreme departures from Reginald Rose’s original story.
You have already been provided with a spoiler warning. Proceed past this sentence at your own risk.
One juror puts together the evidence and comes up with an alternative theory that not only fits the facts, but seems to be the story’s objective truth: i.e. the father was murdered, the boy framed, and the elderly witness downstairs paid off, by the construction company working on the building next door, that wanted to force them all out of their homes. The police and the prosecution have been paid off to see to it that the boy is railroaded.
Again, that deserves repetition.
This is a version of Twelve Angry Men where the jurors actually solve the crime.
Subsequently, the foreman, a retired ex-intelligence officer who has said almost nothing during the film, reveals that he put together this theory almost immediately and still intends to vote guilty, as the boy has nowhere to go and will certainly be assassinated by the true culprits if freed. In prison, at least, he will live longer. He asks the others if they’ll take responsibility for the boy’s future now, knowing what they know. They all demur, as they all have lives to live. He reluctantly joins them in a Not Guilty verdict. At the end, post-trial, he not only tells the defendant that he knows what really happened and that he will not rest until the true killers are exposed…he tells the kid to come home with him.
That also deserves repetition.
This is a version of Twelve Angry Men where the foreman of the jury adopts the defendant.
I can’t be any clearer than this. 12 is a well-meaning and in many ways admirable version of the basic story, that tries to adapt the story skeleton for its own entirely defensible purposes. But The film’s several cogent observations about life in modern-day Russia notwithstanding, these touches make 12 about as ludicrous a re-imagining as we’ve seen at any point, even in the age of remakes.
Twelve Angry Men: an incredibly contrived, but brilliantly told film. 12: a lumpy and ludicrous but frequently powerful report on the state of life in Russia today.
And now, the wife produces an identical switchblade from her jacket pocket and stabs it into the table…
Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro
Twelve Angry Men (1957). Directed by Sidney Lumet. Screenplay by Reginald Rose, from his prior teleplay. Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, others. 96 minutes.****
12 (in Russian with Subtitles Available; 2007). Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. Screenplay by Nikita Mikhalkov, Alexander Novotsky-Vlasov, Vladimir Moiseenko, based on original screenplay by Reginald Rose. One third of the actors on the jury have the first name Sergei, and two others are named Alexei; it must have been fun whenever one got a phone call. 157 minutes.**1’2
Other Known Versions: The original TV production (1954); the William Friedkin TV-movie remake (1997); Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (Hindi, 1986); many many other parodies and imitations.
In my nearly 30 years working in and around court rooms and juries, I could never imagine a juror able to bring a weapon into the jury room. That being said, I have seen many odd bits of evidence in both civil and criminal trials. (OK, for you dying to know, everything from a human leg to a 1960’s era VW Beetle, not to mention a life size replica of a male plaintiff’s genitalia with removable parts to demonstrate his injuries!) But, after viewing these films, I wonder if screenwriters have a clue how juries really work.
I have seen the group who just want to get it over with, the group who want to sock it to the insurance company, the group who actually care and the jury that can’t understand a darn thing! The twelve men in our tales all begin as the primary and in the 1957 actually come full circle back to that with only their verdict changed. The jurists in the Russian film not only want the whole deal over with, they obviously also want group therapy. It seems the 2007 theme was we can heal ourselves by freeing the boy.
The Lumet-directed piece plays tight and tense, the climate in the room mirroring the temperament and tenor of the deliberations. The claustrophobic conditions only add to the exquisite morality play we witness. But, alas, it feels like a play. In my reality, the single hold out would have either been abused verbally and possibly physically, or requested to be excused before the abuse could begin. Seldom will one person be persuasive enough to sway eleven others, and in this case his opening gambit would never have been able to work. This is an idealization of the jury process, not the truth of the fallibility of our justice system.
The Russian piece, while hitting all the salient points, doesn’t have the edge to make it work. Again, we are dealing with prejudice and poverty, but this version needs to show us the depravity that the accused boy has lived through and the ongoing horror of his continued existence. Ok, great, but that’s not the story of justice served. The added sequences (including the repetition of the wet dog) do nothing to move the story forward and in my opinion bogs it down enough to cause serious breaks in what should have been some decent dramatic scenes. Yes, we are dealing with these twelve guys trying to work out their own problems through this deliberation, but the sense of urgency, the need to get this right, just doesn’t feel present here. The very fact that life or death is not only based on the verdict, but what happens afterward, blows the premise of the play to shreds.
I have been the fool left “babysitting” the jury. Hours spent sitting, running questions to the judge, getting evidence and meals. But, I have also been a juror. These idealized versions of courts and juries just don’t cut it, but then, truth is much more boring than fiction (in most cases).