Tuesday, May 03, 2011

12 ANGRY MEN (1957) - Sidney Lumet

Lucky for me, on the two occasions a dreaded jury duty notice arrived in my mailbox the court dates were soon canceled thereafter. I didn't have to attempt the "prior work obligations" excuse. Had I been assigned a murder case with the dozen ornery NYC palookas in 12 Angry Men I don't think I would have minded showing up. It's the all-star game of mid-20th century character actors. Just consider the roster: Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, Robert Webber, to name only half the team. It's like catching up with 12 of your favorite uncles for an hour and a half. You grouse about the heat, talk about the ball game you're headed to later, occasionally deliberate life or death matters, but only when pressed.

You'll know how this movie's going to end from the first moment clean-cut Henry Fonda walks into the cramped jury room and is the only one of the twelve to put in a "Not Guilty" vote on the accused Latino teen. You know Fonda's going to convince every last one of the others to swing the other way, calmly and with much conviction. The surprise isn't that he gets them to reconsider but which details sway each one, from the racist to the ad man to the effete snob to the solid brick wall that is Lee J. Cobb. Most surprising is which one of the twelve ends up being the most fun to watch, considering the big league talent involved. Surprise! It's this guy...

His name is Joseph Sweeney, the oldest but certainly not the angriest of the twelve. I'd never heard of him before, but the man is a treasure trove of reaction shots. Bemused, amused, befuddled, belligerent -- he does them all to a tee, acting circles around the rest of the angry young Turks half his age with the fewest words. It's a reminder that cinema once was a purely silent venture and maybe the better for it.

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