Posted by davidkalat on November 27, 2010
12 ANGRY MEN is a dangerous movie. It’s one of the worst threats to my productivity of any movie ever made—if I’m unlucky enough to come across it while channel surfing, I’m stuck. I won’t be going anywhere until it’s over. And once, the movie sucked me in pretty much literally, until I found myself living inside it, with the fate of an actual human being in the balance.
Before I get to that bizarre tale, some filmic context:
I’m going to take for granted that you’ve seen 12 ANGRY MEN. This is a movie geek blog on TCM, after all—if you’re here, I have to presuppose you’ve done your homework. (My wife once mixed 12 ANGRY MEN up with a Terry Gilliam movie, and referred to “12 ANGRY MONKEYS.” All I can say is, hoo boy do I want to see THAT movie!)
You know the basic premise: the jurors tasked with evaluating a man’s guilt or innocence find themselves broken into two camps. One camp is set to vote guilty, but that vote is premised on hidden prejudices, personal grudges, lazy thinking, and thoughtless acceptance of ambiguous evidence. The other camp is led by a charismatic and heroic juror who becomes something of a de facto defense attorney, burrowing holes of doubt into the prosecution’s case and exposing the biases of the more rabid jurors.
OK, you know that already, I know. But I needed to re-acquaint you with the setup, because it is in the recursive reflections of that story that we are about to be trapped.
The story is so simple and effective, it has what they call “legs.” It started as a TV movie by playwright Reginald Rose. It was such a powerful piece of TV drama that it won director Franklin Shaffner (PLANET OF THE APES) an Emmy, and another for his leading man Robert Cummings (DIAL M FOR MURDER). Rose went off and adapted the television script into a stage play that has toured the world ever since. The movie that everybody knows was made in 1957, by director Sidney Lumet with Henry Ford as the hero. And then there’s the 1997 TV remake by William Friedkin, with Jack Lemmon taking the Henry Fonda role.
There have been various foreign adaptations over the years. Here’s a scene from the German version, DIE 12 GESCHWORENEN. It’s in German with no subtitles, but I chose a familiar scene—if you’ve seen the 1957 film, you’ll follow this clip just fine.
I chose this scene because it represents an important aspect of the 12 ANGRY MEN paradigm. It’s not enough to just argue back against the other jurors—the best way to unmake their interpretation of the facts is to perform practical-joke-like stunts that present alternate theories. It’s the old screenwriter’s adage: she me, don’t tell me.
With that in mind, watch this clip:
What you’ve just seen is a clip from a 1950 B-movie called PERFECT STRANGERS. It differs from 12 ANGRY MEN in one crucial respect—it’s pitched as a romance, in which Ginger Rogers falls in love with fellow juror Dennis Morgan. The trouble is, they’re both married, unhappily, to other people. That, and the case they are sitting in judgment on involves an adulterous affair that seemingly turned to murder. They have a hard time disentangling their own personal feelings from the facts of the case.
But is that a difference?
12 ANGRY MEN is in part about the ways in which its jurors have mixed up their case with their own private agendas. Lee J. Cobb, for example, is enraged at his own son, and allows that personal pain to cloud his judgment.
Consider this parallel from PERFECT STRANGERS, in which a haughty socialite played by Margalo Gillmore argues the case against the accused:
I hope by now I’ve sufficiently established PERFECT STRANGERS’ credentials as a 12 ANGRY MEN-alike. If it had been made, say, a decade later, you might reflexively call it a rip-off. The fact that it hit screens four years before Reginald Rose’s first iteration of 12 ANGRY MEN should only make you more willing to forgive its passing flaws, and accept it on its own modest terms as a solid courtroom drama.
But it is an artificial drama, manufactured by artists. Real life is messier. In the real world, simply uncovering a prejudice doesn’t cause it to wither and die. And what if the prejudice in question isn’t driving you to condemn a possibly innocent man, but to exonerate a possibly guilty one?
I can’t tell you where or when I found myself living inside my own private 12 ANGRY MEN—I have an ethical obligation not to discuss the details of the case. But I don’t need to discuss those confidential details in order to talk about the interpersonal dynamics of the jury room. I’ll just try to skate around any identifying information.
All I can tell you about the facts of the case is that they were absolutely ridiculous. Long before we got around to debating the defendant’s guilt, our sense of “reasonable doubt” had been stressed to the breaking point by a series of facts that came straight out of the Wiley Coyote playbook. The crime in question was something more or less like this:
More than once, the jury foreman had to put a stop to heated debates in which we found ourselves arguing the plausibility of things that BOTH sides had stipulated. We had a hard time believing these things had actually happened, much less to come any sane conclusion about who was responsible.
But, the deliberations started to settle in on a verdict of guilty. Then a man who was the reincarnation of Henry Fonda stood up, and in a gentle but firm tone began to point out holes in the prosecution’s case, provide alternate interpretations of the evidence, and expose ugly racial prejudices in some of the other jurors. He looked more like Morgan Freeman than Henry Fonda, but he was playing the Fonda role, and being the movie geek I am I had no other option but to back him up.
I didn’t really agree with him, mind you. The holes in the case—they existed, sure, but they weren’t meaningful or significant. I’ve been a very bad and highly unreliable witness myself, so finding discrepancies in other people’s testimonies doesn’t strike me as all that unusual. And the alternate theories he proposed—they were even loonier than the nutball explanation the state wanted us to accept. I find it hard to say, Theory A is too crazy to believe, so I’ll instead choose the even crazier Theory B. And of all the prejudices he was laying bare—well, he had his own, a baldly stated unwillingness to convict, regardless of the evidence.
After a while, I realized I was doing nothing helpful by backing up his increasingly strange theories. The ONLY reason I was doing it, mind you, was because I was reminded of a favorite movie, and wanted the play “the right role.” Specifically, I had cast myself as Juror #9, the character played by Joseph Sweeney in the 1957 film and the original 1954 TV movie. He’s the first juror to side with Fonda, and the only other juror to be (eventually) identified by name.
If I had to live inside a real-life movie recreation, I was glad it was 12 ANGRY MEN and not something like, I dunno, ALIEN. That woulda sucked. And if I had to love inside a recreation of 12 ANGRY MEN, I would so much rather be Joseph Sweeney than, I dunno, Ed Begley.
In other words, in the exact same way that PERFECT STRANGERS’ Margalo Gillmore or 12 ANGRY MEN’s Lee J. Cobb got their mind snagged on some loose nail of past experience, I was allowing an irrelevant personal drama to play itself out in the jury room. I had no business allowing my fascination for a 1957 movie to play any role whatsoever in an actual jury deliberation, and it took effort to shake it loose from my mind and start acting sensibly.
Eventually, when all was said and done, and we filed out into the night, I couldn’t resist the urge to play out that one last scene between Sweeney and Fonda. I sidled up to the man I’d cast in the Fonda role—I couldn’t introduce myself to him the way Sweeney does to Fonda, because we already knew each other’s names and had spent several long days together. (That’s an aspect of 12 ANGRY MEN I was sorely missing—they hack out their deliberations in about 100 minutes!) But I could tell him the most important thing—I told him how I thought he was just like the hero of 12 ANGRY MEN.
Turns out he’d never even heard of the movie before. This disappointed me (although I do harbor the hope that after I told him about it, he went out and watched it). Then again, I wonder what kind of havoc we’d have wreaked if BOTH of us were hung up on recreating a classic movie.
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