Both of the remaining nominees of 1957 seem, at first glance, to be fairly straightforward and realistic. However, despite being nearly perfect films in terms of technique, acting, cinematography, direction, and scoring, realistic they are not. One would be utterly ruined by realism, and the other would be infinitely better with it. Let’s begin with the former.
The ultimate courtroom (or rather, jury room) drama, 12 Angry Men is a masterclass in…well, just about every aspect of filmmaking and storytelling. Directed by the great Sidney Lumet (a leading member of the Master Directors who Never Won an Oscar Club), the film unfolds in real time and follows the deliberations of a jury on a murder trial that seems open-and-shut…but is it really???
“No, it’s not. Any of you punks wanna say different?”
It’s difficult to know where to begin with a review of this film. 12 Angry Men hot takes are few and far between, as it’s probably one of the most-analyzed American films of all time. The dialogue, acting, pacing, cinematography, and direction are all outstanding, and the synergy that develops between all these elements creates an almost perfect film in every respect. It falls down (pretty hard) when one digs even slightly into the narrative conceit, but we’ll come to that in a bit.
First, the good stuff. Director Sidney Lumet and cinematographer Boris Kaufman (who won an Oscar for his work on On the Waterfront three years prior) are the true stars of 12 Angry Men, because they found a way to create suspense and a real sense of dread with nothing more than a dozen middle-aged white men bickering for two hours. Maybe not suspense about the final outcome (Henry J. Fonda doesn’t lose arguments, damn it), but about how the final outcome can possibly be achieved with everyone still in one piece.
And about how this guy will make it to Yankee Stadium in time.
The stark, austere black-and-white photography adds to the claustrophobic and serious nature of the proceedings. As the deliberations proceed and tempers (and temperatures) rise, Lumet and Kaufman eschew wide shots and high angles, gradually bringing the camera down to face level and shooting everyone in intense close-ups with telephoto lenses, creating the illusion that the room itself is closing in on the jurors (and the audience). The final shot inside the jury room, after the last holdout breaks down and joins the others in voting for acquittal (spoiler alert, I guess), returns us to the safety of the wide angle and its comforting depth of field, and is the perfect “exhale” after everything that has transpired.
It’s a brilliant technique that shows the power movies have to transport their audiences into worlds like no other visual medium can. Not “worlds” in the sense of Middle Earth or anything like that (though, those, too), but ordinary places like an office, a home, or a jury room, and with an intimacy that cannot be achieved on the traditional stage. Sometimes, as here, this intimacy can be uncomfortable, as we watch, silent and invisible spectators, hovering inches from the faces of ordinary, flawed people struggling against one another and against their own prejudices and objectives. 12 Angry Men did not invent this, of course, and was far from the last film to push the boundaries of this intimacy (later filmmakers, such as Gaspard Noé, would take it to new extremes to inspire shame and guilt in the viewer), but it’s all about knowing how to use it most effectively, and in that regard this movie rises to the level of greatness.
Of course, great technique can only get a director so far. Sidney Lumet also managed to get twelve unique, memorable performances out of his actors, with, let’s be real here, very little to go on. The nameless jurors are all caricatures whose personalities can be summed up in five words or less:
- Juror #1 (Martin Balsam) – meek, ineffective
- Juror #2 (John Fielder) – meek, but then not
- Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb) – the angriest man
- Juror #4 (E.G. Marshall) – logical, rational, bad at parties
- Juror #5 (Jack Klugman) – former slum kid, Orioles fan
- Juror #6 (Edward Binns) – workman, your ideal drinking buddy
- Juror #7 (Jack Warden) – wisecracking baseball guy
- Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) – Jesus
- Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney) – old guy (the good kind)
- Juror #10 (Ed Begley) – old guy (the bad kind)
- Juror #11 (George Voskovec) – what “diversity” meant in 1957
- Juror #12 (Robert Webber) – smarmy, mindless, grey flannel suit
Either a jury, or the hardest police lineup in history.
For all that, though, each of the actors turns in a stellar performance, turning those star sign summaries into real people with believable motivations and reactions. None of them go through any real change over the course of the film, other than in terms of their vote…Lee J. Cobb remains angry and shortfused, Ed Begley remains racist, and Henry Fonda remains Henry Fonda. But then again, it’s not a film about how people change, but rather about how people of varying temperaments and sociopolitical backgrounds handle themselves when forced to work together.
Which, by the way, was the original pitch for Gilligan’s Island. No, seriously.
This isn’t to say the characters don’t have arcs…far from it, every one of them does. As the evidence against the defendant begins to unravel, it is fascinating to watch the inner struggle at work in each juror, which the actors convey beautifully and, for the most part, without going over the top. Lumet (working from a script by Reginald Rose, who also wrote the original play) keeps the momentum moving steadily forward and ensures that when each man flips from guilty to not guilty, it is, if not for a “good” reason, believable, which for a movie is much more important.
It pains me to say that the only performance I take issue with is that of Lee J. Cobb as Juror #3, painful because he’s one of my favorite actors and was more than capable of knocking this role out of the park. He’d done complex, “slow burn” antagonists before (notably as Johnny Friendly in On the Waterfront), so his part here should have been easy for him…starting as outwardly calm and rational, only to slowly unravel and betray his true motivations and flaws as the story progresses, leading to his climactic outburst and tearful epiphany (again, spoilers). Unfortunately, in the film, he skips the middle part, going from softspoken to clearly-this-guy’s-got-some-issues before Henry Fonda even begins to sway anyone to his side. This makes his final diatribe less the explosion it should be, and more just a simple continuation of what we’ve been seeing all along.
“You’ve made me SLIGHTLY ANGRIER than I was in Act One!!!!”
Maybe this was a deliberate choice so that he, and his character, didn’t steal the film away from Henry Fonda’s saintly Juror #8. Actually, given the fact that Fonda produced the film, this makes some sense. Probably best not to overthink it…even with his sometimes hammy gesticulations, Cobb is still phenomenal here, and there is a feeling of true catharsis and empathy when he finally admits that (he believes) the defendant is not guilty.
Which brings us to the narrative, and this is, as I said, where the film begins to falter. Or, to be frank, it completely comes apart at the seams. I said at the start that realism would ruin this film, and that’s because, if it truly were realistic, it would be over in about three minutes.
When I say “realistic,” I’m not talking about how a jury composed entirely of middle-aged white men over 40 would be anachronistic even in the 1950s. I’m also not talking about how the film clearly establishes the New York Supreme Court Building at 60 Centre Street as the trial’s location, despite the fact that that particular courthouse houses the Civil and Appellate Courts, not the Criminal Court. I’m not even talking about how horribly dated and lazy the final “twist” is, when the final holdouts for guilty are swayed by an argument that essentially boils down to “women sure are vain, amirite?”
“Meh, I’m sure the judge won’t press us on that. He knows.”
No, it’s the fact that the whole film completely misses the point of what juries are supposed to do, which is decide the guilt or innocence of a defendant based solely on the evidence as presented by the attorneys at trial. Had they done that, as I said, the film would take a few minutes and would be shown to juries as a shining example of exactly what their job is. Instead, it is a two-hour tutorial on how not to act on a jury, and has had a tangible effect on jurors ever since, turning everyone into potential Fondas, hoping to be a hero who prevents a dastardly miscarriage of justice. But the simple fact is that Fonda’s Juror #8 is a terrible juror, and Juror #3, who by his own words has been on many juries, should have had the wherewithal to bounce him out and get him replaced by an alternate, which he would have been entirely justified in doing.
Let’s start with the obvious…jurors are not allowed to present evidence (the duplicate knife), conduct investigations (go walking in the boy’s neighborhood to acquire said knife), make arguments (assessing the noise level of a passing el, recreating the crime scene, etc.), or second-guess the competency of witnesses (the old man “trying to be important” or the woman whose testimony is entirely dismissed when it is suggested she might wear glasses). It’s obvious why: jurors are supposed to be impartial, and the moment they start to “dig” themselves, they lose that disinterest and become advocates for one side or the other. And we already have people whose job it is to do that…they’re called lawyers. Maybe it’s true that the boy’s lawyer didn’t do the best job in the world, but that doesn’t give any juror, even one in a symbolic white suit, the right to step in and fill that role.
Even if this film takes place in an alternate universe where jurors can do all those things, then Juror #8 is just a manipulative bastard. He plays the mild-mannered truth-seeker at the start, timidly raising his hand and hedging about why he won’t vote with the others (“I don’t know, I’m just not sure…I just want to talk”), which is quite sensible…until he reveals the knife he had in his pocket the entire time, just waiting for that issue to come up so he could dramatically stick it into the table.
“What now, bitch?”
That’s when he tips his hand…not to the rest of the jurors, who are too shaken by the realization that they are dealing with a maniac, but to the audience. He wasn’t undecided about anything; he walked into that jury room knowing exactly what he wanted to do. I can’t guess as to his motivation, but at a glance, it would appear that he maybe harbored dreams of being a trial attorney, and this was as close as he would ever get and by god he was not going to let this chance slip by just because his actions were against the law.
“I know what I’m doing. I’ve seen Perry Mason point like this a hundred times.”
Also…I’m pretty sure metal detectors existed in 1957 (and in 1954, when the original TV play was broadcast). Why was he even allowed to sit in the jury box with a goddamn switchblade in his pocket?
Anyway, I know what you’re thinking…the film isn’t meant to be taken as a literal representation of jury work. It’s really about power dynamics, about the ability of one person to effect change, about differences in perception amongst individuals, and all the rest. First, let me just say, hi, and thanks a bunch for reading this, it’s been a lean time for Oscars & I. And second, you’re right, it is. But because of the aforementioned influence the film has had on potential jurors (and heaven knows we already have plenty of misconceptions that demonstrably prejudice juries, we don’t need more), I think it’s important to at least note the extreme break from reality the story takes in order to tackle those themes.
All of that doesn’t detract from the film’s power; one simply needs to suspend disbelief and accept that the inaccuracies are there to service the story, and so long as the internal logic of the movie is coherent and consistent, it doesn’t matter.
12 Angry Men was pretty badly represented at the 30th Academy Awards, earning only three nominations–Picture, Directing, and Adapted Screenplay, unforgivably ignored in the fields of cinematography and art/set direction, which may have been due to this being the first year that these awards were no longer split between Black & White and Color films–and losing all three to the year’s winner…
12 Angry Men would have won Best Picture if it came out a decade earlier, but in this post-1956 world, the Academy was still promoting the advantages of cinema over television…and a picture that began as a TV play just wasn’t going to cut it. So instead, the top prize went to The Bridge on the River Kwai, a Technicolor, Cinemascope production that transported audiences to the jungles of Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka, subbing for Burma, present day Myanmar). But like 12 Angry Men, this is a near perfect film, so you won’t hear me complaining about their decision.
No one would listen, anyway.
Kwai manages to be that most rare of films, having every appearance of a war epic while managing to stay close and intimate and entirely focused on character development and humanity. This makes sense, seeing as it was directed by David Lean, who showed in great films like Brief Encounter (1945) and Hobson’s Choice (1954) that he possessed great range and was a master at eliciting true human performances from his actors (he also co-directed In Which We Serve, but let’s ignore that). And he brought this all to bear with Kwai, and was known as a director of big-budget epics from then on.
Let’s get one thing perfectly clear before we move on: The Bridge on the River Kwai, apart from everything else, is a gorgeous film. Jack Hildyard, a cinematographer who cut his teeth on Olivier’s Henry V and was a frequent collaborator with David Lean, turns nearly every shot into a painting, making the colors of the jungle pop against the dirt and grime that covers the camp and its prisoners. He had a beautiful country to work with (Sri Lanka), and he got everything he could out of it.
The story is simple enough: a group of British POWs is brought to a remote, desolate Japanese prison camp and put to work building a bridge (on some river whose name escapes me for the moment) needed to provide a vital link in the Burma railway. They are under the command of the impossibly posh Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), who is so by-the-book that he endures torture rather than allow his officers to perform manual labor…though not so by-the-book that he would consider not building the bridge that the enemy so desperately needs. For him, the bridge isn’t for moving troops and matériel across the river…no, it’s a symbol of British ingenuity and craftsmanship.
“Obviously, gentlemen, our pride is more than worth the additional years of war and the thousands of deaths that the bridge will make possible. Now, sing boisterously.”
As Nicholson is never shown as being secretly the son of the Emperor or having suffering a closed head injury, we can only guess as to the reasons why he chooses to act the way he does…indeed, no one in the film can seem to fathom his actions, either, and he doesn’t entertain any questions. But more on that later.
Running in tandem to this is the story of Major Shears (William Holden), a cynical American POW who, just after meeting Nicholson and immediately ascertaining that he is a danger to himself and others, manages to escape the camp and make it to the safety of Ceylon and the embrace of the nurses there. Shears is the film’s voice of reason, always at odds with the idealists (or rather, to his mind, idiots) surrounding him, and always arguing for the course of action that results in the least death (especially his own). As was his wont, Holden plays the role with a quiet stoicism always threatening to boil over into outright mutiny.
It was 1957, so he was still contractually obligated to be shirtless for at least 75% of his screentime.
During his sojourn at the hospital, he comes to the attention of a group of British commandos, and just before he is to be invalided back home, he is asked to go back to Burma to blow up the bridge. Then we learn the truth: Shears, as it turns out, is not Shears at all, but an enlisted man who donned a dead officer’s uniform just before being captured by the Japanese, hoping it would earn him preferential treatment (it did not). This scene is a gem, with Holden smirking like a schoolboy as he confesses, only to be told that the army already knew about his subterfuge and have seconded him to the British because they don’t want to deal with the paperwork. It’s a scene straight out of a wacky Billy Wilder comedy, but it works so damned well and gives us a ton of insight into Shears’ (and his soon-to-be commanding officer, Major Warden’s) character.
Holden and company cross the arduous jungle and mine the bridge…only to have their efforts uncovered by none other than Nicholson, who nearly wrecks the whole plan in his zealousness to see the bridge stand for a thousand years. They share a brief moment together at the very end, and the utter contempt, hatred, and frustration that Holden expresses for Nicholson with just a single word is one of the highlights of his entire career.
Nicholson’s dumbfounded “You?” is also a treat, as is, moments later, his long overdue epiphany that maybe building a marvel of modern engineering for the enemy in wartime might not earn him the Victoria Cross after all.
“What have I done?” is British for “Ooohhh, fuck…”
From his very first moment onscreen, Nicholson is probably the most punchable character I’ve seen in a film in quite some time. He’s impossibly officious, stubborn about the stupidest bullshit, and, oh yeah, he makes his men build a solid bridge for the enemy. His first “great stand” against the commandant (the longsuffering Colonel Saito, played with patient exasperation by Sessue Hayakawa) is refusing to permit his officers to work alongside the enlisted men, and subjecting himself and his officers to torture until the Colonel relents. The enlisted men, meanwhile, are so used to being of an inferior class that of course they agree with Nicholson.
“We’ve been told since childhood that we only exist to work for our betters, so naturally we’re happy when they win back the right to order us around!”
After this, to the confusion of absolutely everyone (including, probably, Saito, who by now has learned to just keep quiet to avoid any further heartache), he is appalled that his men are goofing off instead of aiding and abetting the enemy, and immediately sets them straight. And after they build a damned fine bridge, he waxes poetic about his long career and how this bridge will be his legacy to…something. I think he even confused himself at this point, and I have to admit I’d pretty much started to tune him out by this time.
(Funny side note: Guinness had the audacity to question Lean’s decisions on camera placement during this monologue, which led to Lean angrily exclaiming, on completion of the scene, “Now you can all fuck off and go home, you English actors. Thank God that I’m starting work tomorrow with an American actor.”)
As the above clip shows, Nicholson eventually redeems himself and blows up the bridge. It would have been a damned sight simpler if he’d just listened to, I don’t know, everyone around him before that, and then maybe William Holden wouldn’t have had to die. But, that’s the way it goes…or at least, that’s what the film (and the novel upon which it is based) would have you believe. The truth is, there is precious little historical fact in this thrilling tale (even down to the destruction of the bridge…it was actually used for a couple of years before being destroyed from the air), and even less in its unflattering depiction of Nicholson as camp leader.
In the real life construction of Bridge 277, the senior POW officer was Lt. Col. Philip Toosey, and from all accounts he was an inspired and compassionate leader, unlike Nicholson. He worked with his men to quietly sabotage the construction, including gathering large numbers of termites to eat at the supports, and organized escapes (which are forbidden by Nicholson in the film). If you have the chance, check out the book The Man Behind the Bridge, which was based on interviews with Toosey about his time on the Burma railway. It’s quite fascinating.
For this reason, a lot of people (including Alec Guinness) felt the story was anti-British, and it generated quite a bit of bad feeling amongst the survivors of the camp that built the real bridge (and of the Burma railway in general, who felt the film underplayed the torturous conditions under which it was constructed). Meanwhile, the Japanese resented the portrayal of their engineers as so incompetent that they needed to be rescued by “superior” British knowhow, which also wasn’t even close to true.
As I said at the top, this film would have benefitted from more realism, from sticking to the true story. It’s very cinematic as is, but so, too, would be the story of soldiers risking death and torture to sabotage the enemy with little to no hope of survival. Instead…well, instead we get the nearly perfect film I’ve been talking about up until now, but still.
Tell the true story, and we don’t get the scene of Holden having a smoke while he gets smeared in tar. So, it all balances out.
Alec Guinness rightfully won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal as Nicholson, mainly because he listened to David Lean’s insistence that Nicholson be played as a “bore” and not, as Guinness wished, played with a wry sense of humor to inspire audience sympathy. Lean, at least, recognized that Nicholson was a satire, and as such had to be shown to be almost without personality. One can see how this would irk Alec Guinness, who was coming off roles like this:
The Ladykillers (1955)
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Roles brimming with personality and that Alec Guinness je ne sais quoi. So to play someone like Nicholson, a man utterly devoid of spirit, must have been a challenge for him. In my opinion, Lean’s interpretation won (not once in the film did I look at Nicholson and think, there’s a man with a sense of humor), and I think the film is all the better for it. Sessue Hayakawa was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and while I do think that Red Buttons deserved it for his role as Joe Kelly in Sayonara, Hayakawa knocked his role as Colonel Saito–the constantly put-out commandant just trying to make deal with Nicholson as best he can–out of the park.
That nomination was the only one of Bridge‘s eight that the film lost; in addition to Best Picture, Best Director for Lean, and Best Actor, it also picked up Best Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing. The Screenplay Oscar was awarded to the novel’s author, Pierre Boulle, despite his having done no work on the script and also not speaking a word of English, because the two real screenwriters, Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman, were blacklisted at the time and were not recognized by the Academy until well after their deaths.
The score of the film is, of course, a classic. I have always found it difficult to tell the main theme apart from that of The Great Escape (1963), and I don’t think I’m the only one…they both start very similarly, and are both best heard whistled. This is a good guide, though…if it’s the tune of this classic song, that’s The Bridge on the River Kwai theme.
We’ll be seeing more of The Great Escape when we get to 1963!
And so this verbose entry comes to an end. Thanks for sticking with me, hypothetical reader! I’ll remember your cogent interjection as I move on to the Academy Awards’ fourth decade, beginning with 1958…coming soon!