This month we've got a few great films; '12 Angry Men' Wednesday 19th April, 19:30 & Thursday 27th April, 19:30. Then on Sunday 23rd, 14:00 we have Buster Keaton's 'The General' and Sunday 30th April, Charlie Chaplin's 'City Lights'. All at the Castle Cinema. Tickets are selling fast! More information about the films below:
Get your tickets: HERE
12 Angry Men (1957)
In form, "12 Angry Men" is a courtroom drama. In purpose, it's a crash course in those passages of the Constitution that promise defendants a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. It has a kind of stark simplicity: Apart from a brief setup and a briefer epilogue, the entire film takes place within a small New York City jury room, on "the hottest day of the year," as 12 men debate the fate of a young defendant charged with murdering his father.
The film shows us nothing of the trial itself except for the judge's perfunctory, almost bored, charge to the jury. His tone of voice indicates the verdict is a foregone conclusion. We hear neither prosecutor nor defense attorney, and learn of the evidence only second-hand, as the jurors debate it. Most courtroom movies feel it necessary to end with a clear-cut verdict. But "12 Angry Men" never states whether the defendant is innocent or guilty. It is about whether the jury has a reasonable doubt about his guilt.
The principle of reasonable doubt, the belief that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty, is one of the most enlightened elements of our Constitution, although many Americans have had difficulty in accepting it. "It's an open and shut case," snaps Juror No. 3 (Lee J. Cobb) as the jury first gathers in their claustrophobic little room. When the first ballot is taken, 10 of his fellow jurors agree, and there is only one holdout--Juror No. 8 (Henry Fonda).
This is a film where tension comes from personality conflict, dialogue and body language, not action; where the defendant has been glimpsed only in a single brief shot; where logic, emotion and prejudice struggle to control the field. It is a masterpiece of stylized realism--the style coming in the way the photography and editing comment on the bare bones of the content. Released in 1957, when Technicolor and lush production values were common, "12 Angry Men" was lean and mean. It got ecstatic reviews and a spread in Life magazine, but was a disappointment at the box office. Over the years it has found a constituency, however, and in a 2002 Internet Movie Database poll it was listed 23rd among the best films of all time.
The story is based on a television play by Reginald Rose, later made into a movie by Sidney Lumet, with Rose and Henry Fonda acting as co-producers and putting up their own money to finance it. It was Lumet's first feature, although he was much experienced in TV drama, and the cinematography was by the veteran Boris Kaufman, whose credits ("On the Waterfront," "Long Day's Journey into Night") show a skill for tightening the tension in dialogue exchanges.
The cast included only one bankable star, Fonda, but the other 11 actors were among the best then working in New York, including Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley and Robert Webber. They smoke, they sweat, they swear, they sprawl, they stalk, they get angry.
In a length of only 95 minutes (it sometimes feels as if the movie is shot in real time), the jurors are all defined in terms of their personalities, backgrounds, occupations, prejudices and emotional tilts. Evidence is debated so completely that we feel we know as much as the jury does, especially about the old man who says he heard the murder and saw the defendant fleeing, and the lady across the street who says she saw it happen through the windows of a moving L train.
We see the murder weapon, a switch-blade knife, and hear the jurors debate the angle of the knife wound. We watch as Fonda imitates the shuffling step of the old man, a stroke victim, to see if he could have gotten to the door in time to see the murderer fleeing. In its ingenuity, in the way it balances one piece of evidence against another that seems contradictory, "12 Angry Men" is as meticulous as the summation of an Agatha Christie thriller.
But it is not about solving the crime. It is about sending a young man to die. The movie is timely in view of recent revelations that many Death Row convictions are based on contaminated evidence. "We're talking about somebody's life here," the Fonda character says. "We can't decide in five minutes. Supposing we're wrong?"
The defendant, when we glimpse him, looks "ethnic" but of no specific group. He could be Italian, Turkish, Indian, Jewish, Arabic, Mexican. His eyes are ringed with dark circles, and he looks exhausted and frightened. In the jury room, some jurors make veiled references to "these people." Finally Juror No. 10 (Ed Begley) begins a racist rant ("You know how these people lie. It's born in them. They don't know what the truth is. And let me tell you, they don't need any real big reason to kill someone, either...") As he continues, one juror after another stands up from the jury table and walks away, turning his back. Even those who think the defendant is guilty can't sit and listen to Begley's prejudice. The scene is one of the most powerful in the movie.
The vote, which begins as 11-to-1, shifts gradually. Although the movie is clearly in favor of the Fonda position, not all of those voting "guilty" are portrayed negatively. One of the key characters is Juror No. 4 (E. G. Marshall), a stockbroker wearing rimless glasses, who depends on pure logic and tries to avoid emotion altogether. Another Juror No. 7 (Jack Warden), who has tickets to a baseball game, grows impatient and changes his vote just to hurry things along. Juror No. 11 (George Voskovec), an immigrant who speaks with an accent, criticizes him: "Who tells you that you have the right to play like this with a man's life?" Earlier, No. 11 was attacked as a foreigner: "They come over and in no time at all they're telling us how to run the show."
The visual strategy of the movie is discussed by Lumet in Making Movies, one of the most intelligent and informative books ever written about the cinema. In planning the movie, he says, a "lens plot" occurred to him: To make the room seem smaller as the story continued, he gradually changed to lenses of longer focal lengths, so that the backgrounds seemed to close in on the characters.
"In addition," he writes, "I shot the first third of the movie above eye level, shot the second third at eye level and the last third from below eye level. In that way, toward the end the ceiling began to appear. Not only were the walls closing in, the ceiling was as well. The sense of increasing claustrophobia did a lot to raise the tension of the last part of the movie." In the film's last shot, he observes, he used a wide-angle lens "to let us finally breathe."
The movie plays like a textbook for directors interested in how lens choices affect mood. By gradually lowering his camera, Lumet illustrates another principle of composition: A higher camera tends to dominate, a lower camera tends to be dominated. As the film begins we look down on the characters, and the angle suggests they can be comprehended and mastered. By the end, they loom over us, and we feel overwhelmed by the force of their passion. Lumet uses closeups rarely, but effectively: One man in particular--Juror No. 9 (Joseph Sweeney, the oldest man on the jury)--is often seen in full-frame, because he has a way of cutting to the crucial point and stating the obvious after it has eluded the others.
For Sidney Lumet, born in 1924, "12 Angry Men" was the beginning of a film career that has often sought controversial issues. Consider these titles from among his 43 films: "The Pawnbroker" (the Holocaust), "Fail-Safe" (accidental nuclear war), "Serpico" (police corruption), "Dog Day Afternoon" (homosexuality), "Network" (the decay of TV news), "The Verdict" (alcoholism and malpractice), "Daniel" (a son punished for the sins of his parents), "Running on Empty" (radical fugitives), and "Critical Care" (health care). There are also comedies and a musical ("The Wiz"). If Lumet is not among the most famous of American directors, that is only because he ranges so widely he cannot be categorized. Few filmmakers have been so consistently respectful of the audience's intelligence.
THE GENERAL (1927)
Buster Keaton was not the Great Stone Face so much as a man who kept his composure in the center of chaos. Other silent actors might mug to get a point across, but Keaton remained observant and collected. He seems like a modern visitor to the world of the silent clowns.
Consider an opening sequence in "The General” (1927), his masterpiece about a Southern railway engineer who has "only two loves in his life” -- his locomotive and the beautiful Annabelle Lee. Early in the film, Keaton, dressed in his Sunday best, walks to his girl's house. He is unaware that two small boys are following him, marching in lockstep--and that following them is Annabelle Lee herself (Marion Mack).
He arrives at her door. She watches unobserved. He polishes his shoes on the backs of his pants legs, and then knocks, pauses, looks about, and sees her standing right behind him. This moment would have inspired an overacted double-take from many other silent comedians. Keaton plays it with his face registering merely heightened interest.
They go inside. He sits next to her on the sofa. He becomes aware that the boys have followed them in. His face reflects slight unhappiness. He rises, puts on his hat as if to leave and opens the door, displaying such courtesy you would think the boys were his guests. The boys walk out and he closes the door on them.
He is not a man playing for laughs, but a man absorbed in a call on the most important person in his life. That's why it's funny. That's also why the movie's most famous shot works--the one where, rejected by his girl, he sits disconsolately on the drive-rod of the big engine. As it begins to move, it lifts him up and down, but he does not notice, because he thinks only of Annabelle Lee.
This series of shots establishes his character as a man who takes himself seriously, and that is the note he will sound all through the film. We don't laugh at Keaton, but identify with him.
"The General” is an epic of silent comedy, one of the most expensive films of its time, including an accurate historical recreation of a Civil War episode, hundreds of extras, dangerous stunt sequences, and an actual locomotive falling from a burning bridge into a gorge far below. It was inspired by a real event; the screenplay was based on the book "The Great Locomotive Chase,” written by William Pittenger, the engineer who was involved.
As the film opens, war has been declared and Johnny Gray (Keaton) has been turned down by a rebel enlisting officer (he is more valuable as an engineer, although nobody explains that to him). “I don't want you to speak to me again until you are in uniform,” Annabelle declares. Time passes. Johnny is the engineer of the General, a Southern locomotive. The train is stolen by Union spies, and Johnny chases it on foot, by sidecar, by bicycle and finally with another locomotive, the Texas. Then the two sides switch trains, and the chase continues in reverse. Annabelle was a passenger on the stolen train, becomes a prisoner of the Union troops, is rescued by Johnny and rides with him during the climactic chase scenes that end with the famous shot of the Texas falling into the gorge (where, it is said, its rusted hulk remains to this day).
It would seem logically difficult to have much of a chase involving trains, since they must remain on tracks, and so one must forever be behind the other one--right? Keaton defies logic with one ingenious silent comic sequence after another, and it is important to note that he never used a double and did all of his own stunts, even very dangerous ones, with a calm acrobatic grace.
The train's obvious limitations provide him with ideas. An entire Southern retreat and Northern advance take place unnoticed behind him, while he chops wood. Two sight gags involve his puzzlement when rail cars he thought were behind him somehow reappear in front of him. He sets up the locations along the way, so that he can exploit them differently on the way back. One famous sequence involves a cannon on a flat car, which Keaton wants to fire at the other train. He lights the fuse and runs back to the locomotive, only to see that the cannon has slowly reversed itself and is now pointed straight at him.
One inspiration builds into another: To shield himself from the cannonball, he runs forward and sits on the cowcatcher of the speeding Texas, with no one at the controls and a big railroad tie in his arms. The Union men throw another tie onto the tracks, and Keaton, with perfect aim and timing, knocks the second off by throwing the first. It's flawless and perfect, but consider how risky it is to sit on the front of a locomotive hoping one tie will knock another out of the way without either one smashing your brains out.
Between chase scenes, he blunders into a house where the Northern generals are planning their strategy, and rescues Annabelle Lee--but not before Keaton creates a perfect little cinematic joke.
He is hiding under the dining table as the Northerners confer. One of them burns a hole in the tablecloth with his cigar. Annabelle Lee is brought into the room, and we see Keaton's eye peering through the hole--and then there's a reverse shot of the girl, with Keaton using the hole in the cloth to create a “found” iris shot--one of those shots so beloved of Griffith, in which a circle is drawn around a key element on the screen.
“The General” was voted one of the 10 greatest films of all time in the authoritative Sight & Sound poll. Who knows if it is even Keaton's greatest? Others might choose “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” (1928). His other classics include “Our Hospitality” (1923), “The Navigator” (1924), “Go West” (1925) and “The Cameraman” (1928), in which he played a would-be newsreel photographer who lucks into his career.
Born in 1897, the same year as the cinema, he grew up in a vaudeville family. As part of the act, he was literally thrown around the stage; like W.C. Fields, he learned his physical skills in a painful childhood apprenticeship. He started in films with Fatty Arbuckle in 1917 and directed his first shorts in 1920. In less than a decade, from 1920 to 1928, he created a body of work that stands beside Chaplin's (some would say above it), and he did it with fewer resources because he was never as popular or well-funded as the Little Tramp.
Then the talkies came in, he made an ill-advised deal with MGM that ended his artistic independence, and the rest of his life was a long second act--so long that in the 1940s he was reduced to doing a live half-hour TV show in Los Angeles. But it was also long enough that his genius was rediscovered, and he made a crucial late work, Samuel Beckett's “Film” (1965), and was hailed with a retrospective at Venice shortly before his death in 1966.
Today I look at Keaton's works more often than any other silent films. They have such a graceful perfection, such a meshing of story, character and episode, that they unfold like music. Although they're filled with gags, you can rarely catch Keaton writing a scene around a gag; instead, the laughs emerge from the situation; he was “the still, small, suffering center of the hysteria of slapstick,” wrote the critic Karen Jaehne. And in an age when special effects were in their infancy, and a “stunt” often meant actually doing on the screen what you appeared to be doing, Keaton was ambitious and fearless. He had a house collapse around him. He swung over a waterfall to rescue a woman he loved. He fell from trains. And always he did it in character, playing a solemn and thoughtful man who trusts in his own ingenuity.
“Charlie's tramp was a bum with a bum's philosophy,” he once said. “Lovable as he was, he would steal if he got the chance. My little fellow was a workingman, and honest.” That describes his characters, and it reflects their creator. ROGER EBERT, 1997CITY LIGHTS (1931)
If only one of Charles Chaplin's films could be preserved, “City Lights” (1931) would come the closest to representing all the different notes of his genius. It contains the slapstick, the pathos, the pantomime, the effortless physical coordination, the melodrama, the bawdiness, the grace, and, of course, the Little Tramp--the character said, at one time, to be the most famous image on earth.
When he made it, three years into the era of sound, Chaplin must have known that “City Lights” might be his last silent film; he considered making a talkie, but decided against it, and although the film has a full musical score (composed by Chaplin) and sound effects, it has no speech. Audiences at the time would have appreciated his opening in-joke; the film begins with political speeches, but what emerges from the mouths of the speakers are unintelligible squawks--Chaplin's dig at dialogue. When he made “Modern Times” five years later, Chaplin allowed speech onto the soundtrack, but once again the Tramp remained silent except for some gibberish.
There was perfect logic here: Speech was not how the Tramp really expressed himself. In most silent films there's the illusion that the characters are speaking, even though we can't hear them. Buster Keaton's characters, for example, are clearly talkative. But the Tramp is more of a mime, a person for whom body language serves as speech. He exists somehow on a different plane than the other characters; he stands outside their lives and realities, is judged on his appearance, is homeless and without true friends or family, and interacts with the world mostly through his actions. Although he can sometimes be seen to speak, he doesn't need to; unlike most of the characters in silent films, he could have existed comfortably in a silent world.
In “Modern Times,” as Walter Kerr points out in his invaluable book The Silent Clowns, the Tramp is constantly trying to get back into jail, where he feels safe and secure. His most frequent refuge is a paddy wagon. In “City Lights,” his only friendships are with people who don't or can't see him: with a drunken millionaire who doesn't recognize him when he sobers up, and with a blind flower girl. His shabby appearance sets him apart and cues people to avoid and stereotype him; a tramp is not ... one of us. Unlike the Keaton characters, who have jobs and participate eagerly in society, the Tramp is an outcast, an onlooker, a loner.
That's what makes his relationship with the flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) so poignant; does she accept and treasure him only because she can't see what he looks like? (Her grandmother, who would no doubt warn her away from him, is never at home when the Tramp calls.) The last scene of “City Lights” is justly famous as one of the great emotional moments in the movies; the girl, whose sight has been restored by an operation paid for by the Tramp, now sees him as a bum--but smiles at him anyway, and gives him a rose and some money, and then, touching his hands, recognizes them. “You?” she asks on the title card. He nods, tries to smile, and asks, “You can see now?” “Yes,” she says, “I can see now.” She sees, and yet still smiles at him, and accepts him. The Tramp guessed correctly: She has a good heart, and is able to accept him as himself.
Chaplin and the other silent filmmakers knew no national boundaries. Their films went everywhere without regard for language, and talkies were like the Tower of Babel, building walls between nations. I witnessed the universality of Chaplin's art in one of my most treasured experiences as a moviegoer, in 1972, in Venice, where all of Chaplin's films were shown at the film festival.
One night the Piazza San Marco was darkened, and “City Lights” was shown on a vast screen. When the flower girl recognized the Tramp, I heard much snuffling and blowing of noses around me; there wasn't a dry eye in the piazza. Then complete darkness fell, and a spotlight singled out a balcony overlooking the square. Charlie Chaplin walked forward, and bowed. I have seldom heard such cheering.
He had by then for many decades been hailed as one of the screen's great creators. In “City Lights” we can see the invention and humanity that coexist in his films.
The movie contains some of Chaplin's great comic sequences, including the famous prize fight in which the Tramp uses his nimble footwork to always keep the referee between himself and his opponent. There's the opening scene, where a statue is unveiled to find the Tramp asleep in the lap of a heroic Greco-Roman stone figure. (Trying to climb down, he gets his pants hooked through the statue's sword, and tries to stand at attention during “The Star-Spangled Banner” although his feet can't find a footing.) There's the sequence where he tries to save the millionaire from drowning, and ends up with the rock tied to his own neck; the scene where he swallows a whistle and gathers a following of dogs; the scene where the millionaire and the Tramp encounter burglars; the scene in the nightclub where Charlie sees Apache dancers and defends the woman dancer against her partner.
And there are the bawdy moments, as when the Tramp, working as a street-sweeper, avoids a parade of horses only to encounter a parade of elephants; and when the millionaire pours bottles of champagne down the Tramp's pants.
Chaplin was a master of the small touch, the delayed reaction. Consider the moment when he goes to the blind girl's house to give her the money for an eye operation. He has prudently stashed $100 in his pocket for his own needs, but after she kisses his hand he shrugs, reaches in his pocket, and gives her the final bill.
Chaplin and Keaton are the giants of silent comedy, and in recent years the pendulum of fashion has swung between them. Chaplin ruled supreme for years, but by the 1960s he looked dated and sentimental to some viewers, and Keaton seemed fresher and more contemporary. In the polls taken every 10 years by Sight & Sound, the British film magazine, Chaplin placed high in 1952 and was gone by 1962; Keaton placed high in 1972 and 1982, and Chaplin replaced him again in 1992. The only thing such polls prove for sure is that a lot of film lovers think the work of both men belongs on a list of the 10 greatest films ever made.
Both filmmakers based their work on their fictional personalities, but took opposite approaches. Keaton plays a different character every time; Chaplin usually plays a version of the Tramp. Keaton's characters desire acceptance, recognition, romance and stature in the real world, and try to adapt to conditions; Chaplin's characters are perpetual outsiders who rigidly repeat the same strategies and reactions (often the gags come from how inappropriately the Tramp behaves). Keaton's movements are smooth and effortless; Chaplin's odd little lopsided gait looks almost arthritic. They appeared together only once, in Chaplin's “Limelight” (1952). Keaton steals the scene--but, as Kerr observes, Chaplin, who could have re-edited it to give himself the upper hand, was content to let Keaton prevail.
There was a time when Chaplin was hailed as the greatest popular artist of the 20th century, and his films were known to everyone. Today, how many people watch them? Are they shown in schools? I think not. On TV? Not very often. Silent film, the medium that gave Chaplin his canvas, has now robbed him of his mass audience. His films will live forever, but only for those who seek them out.
Having just viewed “City Lights” and “Modern Times” again, I am still under their spell. Chaplin's gift was truly magical. And silent films themselves create a reverie state; there is no dialogue, no obtrusive super-realism, to interrupt the flow. They stay with you. They are not just a work, but a place.
Most of Chaplin's films are available on video. Children who see them at a certain age don't notice they're “silent” but notice only that every frame speaks clearly to them, without all those mysterious words that clutter other films. Then children grow up, and forget this wisdom, but the films wait patiently and are willing to teach us again. ROGER EBERT, 1997