12 Angry Men

12 Angry Men

This film review is brought to you by the number twelve.

A very long time ago, before I was born, and probably before you were born too… someone decided that twelve was the number of roses it takes for a man to show a woman how much he really loves her—or to get out of the doghouse—whichever the case may be.

And a very long time before that, someone decided that Christmas should consist of twelve days. They wrote a song about that, but I’m not sure why because I’ve never seen a twelve day-long Christmas in my life.

But way back, even before that, someone decided that clocks should measure the progression of twelve hour intervals. The plot thickens…

And still further back than that, someone decided that a year should consist of twelve months.

Now, since we’re talking about the number twelve, and because Bible nerding is what I do for a living, it would be remiss of me if I failed to mention that twelve is a very important number in the Bible. In about the middle of Genesis, for instance, God decides that a man named Jacob should have twelve sons, and that their descendants should be divided into twelve tribes. And much later on, a guy named Jesus who was descended from one of those twelve tribes came along, and he picked twelve men to begin the process of changing the entire world. And eventually, at the end of the Bible, you can read about the Heavenly City with its twelve foundations of precious stones, twelve gates going in and out, and twelve angels guarding the gates. The Bible doesn’t joke around with the number twelve.

And, of course, we also have a dozen eggs, a dozen donuts, a dime a dozen, the dirty dozen, and six and one half dozen of the other (which by my calculations is still twelve… I think.)

However! Somewhere back in the depths of history, in the middle of all this twelve business, some king in medieval England began using something called a jury, at times consisting of twelve men, to decide whether or not a person was guilty of a crime. He wasn’t the first person to have this idea, which according to some sources finds its origins in ancient Greece. But whatever its true beginnings may be, the idea caught on, and it was eventually adopted into English law, and from there it was passed on to the legal system in America. And then in 1957 Reginald Rose and Sidney Lumet made a movie about it called 12 Angry Men.

I’ve known about this film for many years, but this was my first time to watch the enduring classic that keeps resurfacing into contemporary culture from time to time—a testament to the ageless nature of what it explores and displays in regards to human nature. And despite my opening reflections on the number twelve, this movie has little to do with the number of “angry men” in the picture, and more specifically about what these men are doing, and what is making them angry. If I could boil it down to the simplest of terms—they’re trying to make a decision. They’re trying to decide if the 18-year-old kid on trial really did stab his father to death. If he did, he will most certainly be given the death penalty. And for an added layer of tension, the kid in question is from an un-specified (non-white) ethnicity, and he hails from a likewise un-named slum in New York City. In 1957 America, this kid is the lowest of the low.

A preliminary vote by the jury members results in 11 guilty votes and only one for not-guilty. And herein lies the drama. It takes a unanimous 12 votes to convict or acquit, so this one guy (played masterfully by Henry Fonda) is the only thing keeping the other 11 guys from quickly escaping the confines of the sweltering back room in the courthouse—and speedily condemning a young man to the execution that would follow. On this basis alone, Henry Fonda appeals to the rest of them saying, “It’s not easy to raise my hand, and send a boy off to die without talking about it first.

And so they talk. If you want to find out where they end up after the lengthy, heated, discussion that follows—go watch the film.

There are several different themes orbiting around the central discussion taking place in 12 Angry Men, including leadership, conformity, group dynamics, racism, class inequality, and personal prejudice. Each of these themes is personified by at least one or two of the jurors, but my favorite of these themes is the leadership exemplified in Fonda’s Juror Number 8, as he stands alone against the rest of the group, humbly beseeching them to carefully consider the gravity of their decision, and exhorting them to engage in honest dialogue with each other. Throughout the course of the film he takes the most punishment from the rest of the group, and still remains steadfast in his conviction despite their incessant criticism.

And it’s this theme of leadership that has continued to resonate in my thoughts over the last few weeks, as I’ve pondered the real meaning of a movie like this—not only what it meant when it was made some 62 years ago, but what it means today.

What is real leadership? Does this movie show us an example of what real leadership looks like?

Yes, I believe it does.

First off, real leadership seeks to reconcile opposing groups of people (if possible), rather than push them further apart. Henry Fonda, though standing alone against the rest of the group, never says or does anything to intentionally insult them. His goal is reconciliation between their decision and his, and he knows that this cannot be accomplished by alienating them. There are moments when he speaks sternly to them, and moments when he risks pushing them too far, but he does this only to keep them focused on the problem at hand. Bad leaders don’t know how to reconcile opposing groups or opinions. Bad leaders only know how to create more dissonance, confusion, and fracturing among people. The problem that these men in the movie are attempting to solve will not go away unless they can come together in some kind of agreement, one way or the other. Keeping them at the table, keeping them talking, encouraging them to dig down and really think together—this is the main task that Fonda’s character engages in from the beginning—and it makes him a good leader.

Second, real leadership is humble and kind. Fonda’s character never assumes a position of dominance over the other men. He doesn’t try to be the leader. But we the audience (like the other characters in the movie) recognize him as the leader by what he does, and how he does it. He meets arrogance with kindness, he counters emotional outbursts with the calm delineation of salient details, and he arrests pre-judgment with simple rationalism. His goal is not to make the other men agree with him, or force them into a decision they’re not comfortable with—his goal is to examine the issue as thoroughly as possible, and come to the best possible conclusion—together.

Third, and I’ll close with this point—real leadership doesn’t lie. The entire purpose of Fonda’s character engaging in an opposing dialogue with the rest of the men in the group is to find the truth. Moreover, he admits to them near the beginning of their discussion that he simply “doesn’t know” whether the kid is guilty or not, and that this is why they need to talk about it further—so they can be sure of what the truth actually is. We can see the doubt in his eyes at times, and we can see that he isn’t completely confident about his position, but he never tries to hide this from the other men. He doesn’t create a false persona of exuberance, or phony confidence to convince them that he’s right and they’re wrong. Bad leaders don’t care about this. Bad leaders just want to please the majority so they can go on being the boss.

As I said earlier, there are many other themes floating through the narrative of 12 Angry Men, not the least of which is how easy it is to make conclusions about anything without actually thinking. It’s much easier, for all of us, to formulate conclusions based on our emotions, or based on our past experiences, or to simply go along with whatever the closest crowd to us is doing… it’s much more difficult, on the other hand, to apply focused reasoning and critical thinking to our collective issues and problems. It takes time, it takes energy, and it takes a willingness to be ok with the fact that we could, possibly, be wrong. And it’s always difficult to do this with people who think differently, and who easily draw conclusions that are completely opposite to our own. But that’s how problems actually get solved.

We might all be able to learn a thing or two from this old movie.

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps

Many years ago, when I was just a young lad with a high-pitched voice that still sounded like my sisters’ … mom and dad read me the ancient story of one of the most mightiest of manliest of men to have ever existed – King David. Of course, due to my age, they were reading from an extremely abridged and docile version of the Bible with lots of pictures… that obviously contained none of the sex and violence that’s in the real Bible. If you’ve never read the sacred tomes of the Old Testament, and in particular the books of First and Second Samuel, they are more graphic and explicit than any episode of Game of Thrones. And that is not an exaggeration, but that is another review for another time. At any rate, what those fluffy 80s picture Bibles did not leave out, was the amount of running, chasing, and hiding that dominates so much of King David’s story. David was, quite literally, in regards to Judeo-Christian literature and culture – the original ‘man on the run.’ In his early years, before he became king, David was a hunted man. He was always on the move, unjustly accused, pursued by his enemies, pursued by the reigning authorities, hiding in caves, scrounging for food, ‘making his way… the only way he knew how…’  David’s early story is about how God protects him, guides him, and empowers him during this time in his life. It’s the story of how he remained faithful under constant duress, and how he waited patiently for the day when justice would be done, and he would finally become the king. This is one of the stories I found fascinating as a kid. And it’s one of the oldest stories in existence that is still being re-told to this day, and has been re-told, re-imagined, and re-worked over and over again so many times, in so many different ways. David’s journey from shepherd to king has been extrapolated, carefully pulled up by its deepest roots, stripped down to the core of its DNA, and transplanted into so many different stories that it’s probably impossible to list them all – I’m not even going to try. It’s the original seed from which so many other orchards have been cultivated.

As an example of what I’m talking about – I first encountered this re-grafting of David’s story when I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time. The character of Aragorn has a story arc, throughout Tolkien’s sprawling epic, that is taken completely from David’s early life. Aragorn’s story is an example of what I would call a pure distillation of the source material. It’s essentially the same general premise, with fantasy elements, names, and places substituting for counterparts in the original story. And of course, because it’s a fairy tale – not real life – it leaves out all the uncomfortable parts that the Biblical narrative isn’t afraid to show us.

Now, as I’m sure most of us are aware, The Lord of the Rings was eventually made into a landmark cinematic trilogy that was released between 2001 and 2003. But way back in 1935, at around the same time that Tolkien was crafting The Hobbit novel into its final form, another Englishman by the name of Alfred J. Hitchcock was releasing a film called The 39 Steps. And just to give credit where it is due, this film was an adaptation of a book written in 1915 by John Buchan, not an original work by Hitchcock. We can, however, give credit to Hitchcock for making (as far as I can tell) the very first masterpiece that translated the ancient literary example of the hero who is hunted down, on the run for his life, trying to find justice – The King David Motif, if you will – into a cinematic formula that has since been copied, tweaked, adjusted, and re-adapted many times over. Here’s a brief list of movies that I’ve seen, which employ some variation of this formula:

Running Man, The Fugitive, Enemy of the State, Waterworld, Mission Impossible, The Jason Bourne movies, Shooter, The Island, Minority Report, and Mad Max: Fury Road… just to name a few. There are many more of course, and the whole “Spy” genre itself, as we know it in movies today, is mostly an overgrowth from that indigenous sapling planted by Hitchcock so many years ago.

Side Note: Hitchcock himself used the same formula again in his later film, North by Northwest in 1959 – one of his most successful films.

In The 39 Steps, the hero is Richard Hannay, a Canadian traveling in Britain who is unwittingly caught up in an espionage conspiracy, accused of murder, and chased up into the Scottish countryside by both the criminals and the police. Along the way (just to make things interesting) he jumps off a train, meets some odd characters up in the moors, is almost fatally shot, accidentally propelled to the front of a political rally, forced to give a public speech, and gets handcuffed to a woman named Pamela who hates him, and then eventually falls in love with him… at least, I think she falls in love with him… I mean they’re holding hands at the end, and this was 1935, so… you know. I guess, in Hitchcock’s mind, if you’re handcuffed to the same person long enough, you just eventually go with it. Actually, the relationship between Hannay and Pamela reminded me a great deal of the relationship that forms between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in Capra’s It Happened One Night. But that’s another review.

Perhaps most interestingly, as is often the case with these kinds of tales, there is usually either some small flourish, sweeping gesture, or over-arching plot element that indicates the presence of the divine in the midst of the hero’s struggle. These act as clues; small trails of crumbs that lead back to the original loaf of bread that started it all. If the early story of King David really is the ancient progenitor of this literary genre, and Hitchcock’s film a true echo of that, then we could expect to find the same kind of evidence in The 39 Steps. And Hitchcock, who was trained by Jesuits in Catholic school to analyze art at an early age, does not disappoint. In this case, we see the divine presence most clearly on display in the form of a church hymnal; it’s conspicuously situated snuggly in the left breast pocket of Hannay’s coat where it stops the aforementioned bullit that would have otherwise killed him. Bullseye.

Believe it or not, this was the first Hitchcock film that I’ve ever watched, and aside from the plot, which is interesting enough on its own, the thing that really makes this old movie shine is how much anxiety it’s able to convey through the screen. This is where Hitchcock’s talent as a filmmaker becomes apparent. He really makes you feel like you’re the one handcuffed to Richard Hannay as he frantically trots from one place to the next. Moreover, it’s extremely frustrating to witness how no one believes Hannay when he tries to tell them what’s happening to him, leaving him with no choice but to lie in order to get help from people! Hitchcock is indeed the legendary master of suspense that he’s been made out to be.

I’ve known about Alfred Hitchcock, and been aware of his impact on the history of filmmaking for most of my life – even having never seen one of his films. But after watching The 39 Steps, I now know why he’s considered one of the greatest directors of all time. In this movie at least, he took an ancient, timeless story that had been distilled into something that fit the time in which he was living, and crafted it into a cinematic formula that we can still appreciate 83 years later.

Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity

I’m back into the Lunsford Educational Classic Film Series for my movie review this week on Double Indemnity (1944) starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, and directed by Billy Wilder. This was my second Wilder film, after seeing Sunset Boulevard a couple of months ago. The term “dark” would be a good adjective to describe the general feel of these two films by Wilder, but if we were looking for more specific descriptors, then Sunset Boulevard would be “cloudy with a chance of rain,” while Double Indemnity would be “pitch black at midnight during a new moon.” I’m not sure what happened to this guy, or what his life was actually like – although I did find out that he was a Jew who escaped Germany when Hitler came to power in the 1930s… but whatever the case may be, Wilder was obviously well acquainted with the darkness and depravity that humans are capable of inflicting on one another, and he wasn’t afraid to express it in his chosen art form—even when faced with the threat of censorship—which was much more strict back in those days. I appreciate the fact that he stuck to his guns and made this film the way he wanted to, even though it probably wasn’t easy at the time. Never the less, by today’s standards, this movie is extremely tame. What might have been considered nearly too violent or graphic in 1943, wouldn’t even get a PG13 rating in 2018. Actually, the genius of the movie, is how uncomfortable, anxious, and on edge it can make you feel just by using extremely intelligent dialogue and creating mystery without showing or explaining every little detail.

If you’re like me, before watching this movie, then you most likely have no idea what the phrase “double indemnity” means, so… it’s basically a term used in the insurance industry to denote a particular kind of life insurance policy that deals with accidental death. Indemnity means that the insurance company is responsible for compensating the grieved party, and double indemnity means they have to pay out twice as much—if specific, highly unlikely, circumstances are what results in the accidental death. The plot of the movie involves a woman named Phyllis Dietrichson who wants to get rid of her husband, and an insurance agent named Walter Neff who wants the husband out of the way—working together to devise a plan in which they can both get what they want, through murder, while tricking the insurance system into paying them for their efforts. In other words, they figure out a way to whack this guy and make the insurance company think it was a freak accident so they can get rich. The only thing standing in their way is Barton Keyes, the veteran investigator who has a sixth sense (which he refers to as “the little man living in his chest,” giving him heartburn) that won’t let him rest, telling him something isn’t right, and creating an insatiable need in him to dig until he gets to the truth. It’s this character, and Robinson’s performance that really kept me locked into the story, despite a few spots where I was beginning to nod off. But that wasn’t really the fault of the film—my stomach was full of Indian curry, and my air conditioner was having trouble keeping up with the 90 degree heat. But even when I felt like succumbing to my haze of weariness, Keyes would appear on screen and instantly bring me back to life with his intensity and determination. That’s good movie making right there – when the story, or the characters are so compelling that they can reach out to you through a black and white screen from 74 years in the past, tap you on the shoulder, and say, “wake up you idiot!” I really can’t say enough about these characters. I like new movies just as much as most people, and I’m not someone who thinks everything from the past is superior or better—but most movies are just made differently now, and it’s very rare nowadays to find characters, especially like Keyes, who are this well constructed, and that use dialogue this effectively.

Now, I actually watched this movie a couple of weeks ago with my girlfriend Anna, and we had a nice chat about it afterwards, but it has been difficult to take some time and get my thoughts about this film into the keyboard. I think one of the reasons for this, other than it just being kind of depressing and sad, is that it flips the hero and villain motif on its head – and that kind of threw me a bit of a cinematic, storytelling curveball. The protagonist in this story is the criminal, committing murder, and trying to cover it up, while the antagonist is the good guy trying to figure out what happened. By flipping the storytelling devices around it leaves you with a sense of not knowing exactly who to identify with or root for—your brain is telling you to connect with Keyes who is an extremely adept investigator trying to piece together this puzzle and see justice done. But the film is designed in such a way that it causes you to create an emotional connection with Walter the murderer—and you’re sort of hoping deep down that he gets away with it somehow. You know he doesn’t, because in the opening scene he’s sitting in a chair with a bullet wound in his shoulder, confessing everything into a tape recorder—but you still kind of want him to find some sort of redemption in the end. And I suppose he does find a little bit of redemption, realizing that he’s been horribly manipulated by his own evil desires, attempting to set the record straight before he is arrested, and scrambling at the end to keep some of the innocent people involved from becoming collateral damage… but even so, it made me kind of sad to watch this guy take his life and, to quote Biff Tannen, “flush it completely down the toilet.”

I’m not sure I would watch this movie again, but I can’t deny that it is extremely intelligent and well crafted–a classic in every sense of the word–film noir at its finest.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

A long time ago, in an America far far away…

A gifted director made a film about a greedy, imperial machine that was threatening freedom, and wielding its power over the innocent, the helpless, and the downtrodden. In the way of this immoral juggernaut stood the courage and the tenacity of one man—a man who grew up as a simple farm boy from the outskirts, suddenly finding himself thrust unwittingly into a struggle for truth, justice, and hope.

The director was Frank Capra, the year was 1939, and the film was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

1939 was a great year for movies, giving us The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind among others, but it was a tumultuous year for planet Earth in general. The world was shuddering as millions of white men began slaughtering each other in Europe, and eventually roping the rest of the world into the carnage with them. The United States had not yet entered the conflict, but tensions were high as the doom of its European allies looked certain. Only a month and a half after Germany invaded Poland, Capra’s film blitzkrieged its way into American theaters with a Washington D.C. premiere. It was not well received by the local establishment. Though it was eventually banned in German occupied territory, the powers that be—in our nation’s capitol—were afraid that the movie was too un-American, at a crucial time, when anything but unquestionable patriotism was unacceptable. Thankfully, none of the unwarranted denunciations produced any real fruit as more serious and credible movie critics defended the film’s integrity. Through the lens of time, it has become clear that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is not a film that criticizes Washington, democracy, or the political process—on the contrary, it’s a film that seeks to provide education on how Washington functions, defend pure democracy, and shine a light on elements that would seek to destroy the political process from the inside. And it’s meant to inspire hope. As Capra himself stated: “The more uncertain are the people of the world, the more their hard-won freedoms are scattered and lost in the winds of chance, the more they need a ringing statement of America’s democratic ideals.” History agreed with him, and 50 years after its release, having come full circle, the Library of Congress deemed it worthy of a place in the preservation vaults of the United States National Film Registry.

As for the plot… I’ll give you the overview. The ultimate villain of the story is a corrupt business mogul who has bought influence in the Senate by extracting the loyalty of those who are only concerned with maintaining their seats in Congress. The hero is Jefferson Smith, played by a young Jimmy Stewart; he’s the down to earth country boy that is appointed to the Senate by the Governor of his home state when the previous senator dies unexpectedly. The central conflict of the film revolves around a land appropriation bill that Smith introduces without knowing that the other senator of his state (an old family friend who he looks up to as a mentor) has already introduced legislation dealing with the same parcel of land—land which will profit his corrupt business mogul partner. As Smith is slowly drawn into a position where he is at odds with those he admires, and eventually threatened by them, we see him age from a wide-eyed, innocently naive, good guy, into a distraught, desperate, pariah who has had the wool pulled from his eyes. Jean Arthur plays the role of Clarissa Saunders, Smith’s secretary and aide who has spent enough years in Washington to know how things actually work. The relationship dynamic between her and Smith is on point, as she helps him to see the reality of his situation and understand the struggle in which he’s embroiled, while he, in turn, helps her to shed her cynicism and recapture some of the hopeful idealism that she has lost along the way. The two of them genuinely need each other as the main battle ensues on the floor of the Senate, before eventually spilling out into the realm of public opinion—public opinion that is bought and paid for by big business and the press outlets it owns.

As I watched this movie, I found myself becoming more and more sad as I realized the terrible truth embedded in its plot—Capra’s film is highly satirical of course, but it contains a warning that our government and political process might be in jeopardy by immoral forces seeking to buy it, own it, and sell it at their leisure. The story that Capra told was ultimately a hopeful one. As Stewart collapses like a sacrificial lamb on the floor of the Senate after a marathon filibuster, the corrupt senator who has been accusing him becomes overwhelmed with guilt and confesses that he has been compromised and is morally unfit to maintain his seat in the government. This brings the story to a satisfying ending… that would never actually happen in real life. While Capra’s film has a positive, redemptive conclusion that should leave one feeling hopeful, it did not leave me with this feeling. Because it was made in 1939—at a time when there was still a chance to prevent what was happening, and to salvage American democracy from the hands of greed, corruption, and indifference.

Maybe I’ve become too pessimistic about this subject… Maybe I’m just tired of hearing everyone talk about it, when most people have no clue what they’re saying… those are two very good reasons for me to end this review right here, lest I begin spilling my thoughts out into the open as well. I don’t want to be that guy. So I’ll just end with this final thought:

We are now living in a time when even the echo of Capra’s warning has long since faded away, and in the wake of its passing, we have exactly what he imagined could happen if corruption was allowed to mature and thrive.

Or maybe it’s just a really good movie.