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12 ANGRY MEN - February 2019

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 KlugmanJack WardenEd 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 BICYCLE THIEVES January 2019

Neorealism never got more real than in Vittorio de Sica's 1948 classic Ladri di Biciclette, or Bicycle Thieves - occasionally mistranslated as "The Bicycle Thief", though the plural is surely crucial. It turns out that there are two thieves: one at the movie's beginning, another at its end. This study of poverty in postwar Rome is now revived in cinemas as a somewhat astringent Yuletide treat. For me, it is as unbearable as any horror film.

Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) is a poor man who is thrilled when he is at last offered a job: delivering and putting up movie posters. But he needs a bicycle, and must supply his own, so his wife Maria (Lianella Carelli) pawns the family's entire stock of bed linen to redeem the bicycle he had already hocked. On his first day at work, the unlocked machine is stolen and Antonio drops everything to go on a desperate odyssey through the streets of Rome with his little boy Bruno (Enzo Staiola) to get his bike back, pleading and accusing and uncovering scenes of poverty similar to theirs wherever they go. They create uproar in classic crowd moments: in the streets, in a market, in a church mass. Faces always gather avidly around the pair, all commenting, complaining and generally magnifying the father and son's distress and mortification.

This is a story that magnificently withholds the comic or dramatic palliatives another sort of film might have introduced. Antonio and Bruno are a world away from Chaplin and his Kid. The son is the intimate witness of the father's humiliation, his inadequacy as a provider. The scenes at the beginning of the film, when Antonio casually leaves his bicycle unlocked but it remains for the moment miraculously unstolen, have to be watched through your fingers.

Antonio seems unable or unwilling to embrace the obvious redemptive moral - that his son is the important possession, not the wretched bicycle - and De Sica is unwilling to embrace it either, perhaps precisely because it is too obvious, or because this moral is a luxury that only well-off people can afford. The father is obsessed with finding a stolen needle in the urban haystack, obsessed with getting his job back. Again and again, he ignores his little boy while scanning the horizon for his bicycle. At one stage, he hears an uproar from the riverbank about a "drowned boy". With a guilty start, he looks around. Do they mean Bruno? No: there he is, safe and sound.

But the lesson is not learned. He doesn't even hold Bruno's hand! And, in a later scene, we see the poor boy almost run over by a car because his father isn't looking out for him. Bruno's simple physical survival is the movie's secret miracle, and he is finally to be his father's saviour, but in such a way as to render Antonio's humiliation complete. This is poverty's authentic sting: banal and horrible loss of dignity. Bicycle Thieves is a brilliant, tactlessly real work of art.

NOTES

The Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di Biciclette) is an Italian Neorealist film directed by Vittorio De Sica, with the screen play by Cesare Zavattini and shot in 1948. Neorealism, as a term, means many things, but it often refers to films of working class life, set in the culture of poverty, and with the implicit message that in a better society wealth would be more evenly distributed. Set in poverty stricken post-war Rome, the stories of the poor were close to De Sicca’s heart, he himself was born into poverty and only managed to escape through a career as a theatre and then film actor. De Sica’s first films as a director were light comedies like the ones he often worked in. However, maybe due to the harsh realities of World War II, his 1942 film "The Children are Watching," had mush more depth and sensitivity than his earlier work.

When De Sica was looking for a producer to finance his film, he finally found one, but on condition that the workman was played by Cary Grant. The mere statement of the problem in these terms shows the absurdity of it. Actually, Cary Grant could play that kind of part extremely well, but it is obvious that the question here is not one of playing of a part but of getting away from the very notion of doing any such thing, The worker had to be at once as perfect and as anonymous and as objective as his bicycle.

Creation from limitation

De Sica famously used non-actors, in location. Not one scene shot in a studio. Everything was filmed in the streets. As for the actors, none had the slightest experience in theater or film. The workman came from the Breda factory, the child was found hanging around in the street, the wife was a journalist.

In his journals, Cesare Zavattini writes about how he and De Sica visited a brothel to do research for the film, and later the rooms of the Wise Woman, a psychic, who inspires one of the film's characters. De Sica hunted for his cast for a long time and selected them for specific characteristics. Natural nobility, that purity of countenance and bearing that the common people have… He hesitated for months between this person and that, took a hundred tests only to decide finally, in a flash and by intuition on the basis of a silhouette suddenly come upon at the bend of a road.

With the disappearance of the concept of the actor into a transparency seemingly as natural as life itself, comes the disappearance of the set. Now De Sica's film took a long time to prepare, and everything was as minutely planned as for a studio superproduction, which, as a matter of fact, allows for last minute improvisations. Nevertheless, the numbering and titling of shots do not noticeable distinguish Ladri di Biciclette from any ordinary film. But their selection has been made with a view to raising the lucidity of the event to a maximum, while keeping the index of refraction from the style to a minimum.

Cinematography

The long, drawn-out takes add to the feeling of desperation and fear that Antonio faces in his pursuit of finding his bike. Bicycle Thieves can feel like a documentary in it’s subject matter, and though the cinematography is unpretentious it is incredibly beautiful. Bazin (who is regarded as one of the most important or influential writer on cinema and was a co-founder of the French film review "Cahiers du cinéma") stated that the film was "pure cinema"; that it tells a simple story composed of "real" events involving "real" people in "real" places. The truth of its extraordinary emotional impact is another element of the story's purity.

"The Bicycle Thief" had such an impact on its first release that when the British film magazine Sight & Sound held its first international poll of filmmakers and critics in 1952, it was voted the greatest film of all time.