For this week’s post, I wanted to explore one of my favorite genres, the courtroom drama. There’s a long rich history in this genre, but I decided to pick two that were a bit different. This week’s films are:
Sidney Lumet – 12 Angry Men (1957)
Otto Preminger – Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
12 Angry Men is one of the more famous films of all time, but rather than focus on the drama in the courtroom, it spends all it’s time in the jury room. And Anatomy of a Murder plays with the genre a bit, casting Jimmy Stewart not as the stalwart defender of justice, trying to save an innocent man, but a lawyer for hire, trying his damndest to get his client out of prison with whatever tools he has available.
The genre has a rich history, going back to films like The Young Mr. Lincoln, and of course, To Kill a Mockingbird, and there are a lot of modern examples like A Few Good Men, and comedy versions like My Cousin Vinny. The genre is so popular that it’s one of the most common television formats. If you live in America and have cable, chances are you can turn on your TV at any time, day or night and find some kind of courtroom drama on television. I think the genre speaks to the American sense of justice via the court system, and the genre often works like a suspense film, giving the audience enough information to root for one side or the other, not letting us know how things will turn out. It often follows a defense attorney, trying to exonerate their wrongly accused client. We could look at To Kill a Mockingbird and A Few Good Men as essentially pure forms of the genre(Damn, that would be a good Double Feature, too). But a lot of films play with these tropes. And both of the films I’ve selected this week go against these tropes a bit, and that makes them really interesting.
Let’s get into it.
12 Angry Men (1957)
We see the inner workings of a jury room, as a lone holdout on a 12 man jury votes not guilty, facing the wrath of his fellow jurors, fighting an uphill battle. The other jurors walk into the room ready for a quick decision. They’ve all decided he’s guilty. But this one man demands a discussion. Over the course of the discussion, the men reveal their values, and also their prejudices.
The film is directed by Sidney Lumet, in his directorial debut, and stars Henry Fonda, along with well-known character actors like Jack Klugman, EG Marshall, Jack Warden and Ed Begley among others. The entire film short of two sequences at the beginning and end are shot inside a small jury room, dominated by a table, with a bathroom off to the side.
Based on the simple staging, it would be easy to assume that the origins of this story were a stage play. But interestingly, this was originally done as a television special. In the 1950s, as television was emerging, anthology shows were common. These kinds of shows would have a 60-90 minute story told each week. Writers like Rod Serling and Tennessee Williams both wrote material for these kinds of shows, and 12 Angry Men originated on an anthology series called Studio One, written by Reginald Rose in 1954.
The film starts out in the courtroom, with the judge giving directions to the jury. As they walk out, we see the accused man, a young man, who we learn later is 18. His ethnic background is never explicitly mentioned, but it’s clear the film portrays him as a minority, and we get more information about this as the film continues. The judge also informs them clearly, that if they vote guilty, the young man will be sent to the electric chair.
A note, the jurors don’t really give their names, and they’re credited by number, but I’ve given them all little names in my head based on their character traits, which I will use to refer to them in this post. And Henry Fonda’s character I will probably just refer to as Fonda.
This is Sidney Lumet’s first film, and he does an amazing job. He went on to direct films like Dog Day Afternoon, and Network, but this is still his best known, and probably best film. Early in the film, we get lots of long shots, showing many characters at once. As the file into the jury room, we get little conversations between the characters, revealing little bits of information. One man is a stock broker, another man has tickets to a baseball game that evening. It feels almost like a Robert Altman film, where the characters never know when the camera is on them, so they just have to keep acting and stay in the moment. But it’s all carefully staged.
The dialogue throughout the film feels very natural as well. When the foreman of the jury, played by Martin Balsam calls everything to order, someone else points out that one of the jurors is still in the bathroom, so he redirects course, waiting for a moment before asking someone to call the missing juror in. The jurors also sit around the table by number, which helps the audience keep track of them.
The jurors decide to take an initial vote to see where everyone’s at, some express relief that they can get out early. They take the vote by hand, and discover that only one juror is voting not guilty, Fonda. The other jurors don’t hesitate to show their displeasure, demanding to know how Fonda could think the man was innocent.
Fonda’s demeanor here is almost sheepish. He explains that he just wants to talk about the case before deciding to send a man to his death. Some jurors find this position absurd, but the foreman agrees that they should at least go once around the table, so that everyone can say their position on the case, and try to convince the holdout.
Here we learn some more about their personalities. There’s the timid man, who cautiously explains it just seems obvious that the man was guilty. Then there’s the angry man, who gruffly explains what he sees as the facts of the case. There’s the straight-laced man, who we know as a broker, the next man refuses to make a case. Then there’s the workman, and the baseball fan. They pass over Fonda, then move to the old man, and then the process gets derailed by the openly racist man.
The openly racist man explains the case in terms of the young man’s ethnic heritage. Explaining that you can’t trust anyone of that race, they’re born murderers and liars, everyone from the slums is like that. The man who chose not to speak earlier stands up to him, telling him that he lives in a slum and has his whole life.
After talking for awhile, the other men are getting restless. It’s clear they’ve already decided, and no matter what point Fonda brings up, the men simply aren’t interested in looking any deeper into the case. Fonda makes a gamble, telling everyone that if they do an anonymous vote, if everyone still votes guilty, he will drop his objection and go along with it.
The men vote, and as expected, one man votes not guilty. The men immediately begin trying to figure out who it was, demanding answers. The angry man in particular starts throwing accusations.
I don’t want this to devolve too heavily into a plot summary, but the film continues like this, with Fonda struggling against the crowd, earning the respect and more importantly the faith of his fellow jurors, as they slowly change their votes the longer they talk about the case.
This is well-known as one of the greatest courtroom dramas of all time, and even further as a film with a particular point of view: that everyone deserves justice, even those who look different than us. It was a radical idea in the 1950s, before the civil rights movement really got started, and the film has all perspectives represented. But like the best films, it has a specific point of view.
There’s an amazing scene near the end of the film when the openly racist man stands up to once again denigrate an entire race of people. But rather than arguing with him, or shouting him down, the men at the table do something extraordinary. They simply get up and turn away from him, isolating him and his viewpoints. In the end, the victory here is for justice for sure, but not just for this young man. Instead, it’s a higher form of justice. Justice for everyone who faces injustice in the world.
It’s an incredibly inspiring movie, and the only real issue with it is it’s inaccuracy as to legal procedures. Fonda at one point produces a knife that he found in the neighborhood where the murder took place, proving that it isn’t a unique weapon, as the prosecution claimed. The jurors also do their own speculation about how the murder took place, ignoring evidence based on their own opinions, rather than on what was presented in court. This isn’t something that juries can really do, but it makes for a good story.
Let’s move onto the next film.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
A former prosecutor named Paul Biegler takes on the defense of a soldier after he killed a man after learning he raped his wife. The case is sensationalized in the small Michigan town, and Biegler, looking to reclaim some of his former glory, is willing to pull out all the stops to get his client acquitted. As he gets into the case, he must find a defense that will get accepted in court, and also keep control of his client’s wife, who has a bit of a wild side.
The film is directed by Otto Preminger, and stars James Stewart, along with Ben Gazzara as the accused man, Manion, and Lee Remick, as his wife, Laura. The film also stars George C. Scott in his first film role, as a rival lawyer.
Let’s talk about George C. Scott for a bit. The second he appears on screen, you can tell he’s a star. He shares all of his screentime with Jimmy Stewart, one of the greatest actors of all-time, and not only does he hold his own, he often draws focus, outshining the veteran actor. Scott’s character is a serious person, who is a strong rival to Stewart’s veteran lawyer. There’s a wonderful scene where Scott’s character Claude Dancer is cross-examining Laura Manion, and we can see Stewart attempting to peek around him to see the woman. Each time Biegler moves, Dancer moves as well, intentionally blocking his view, until Biegler complains. It’s a funny scene, and wonderfully played.
The film does a lot of work setting up Paul Biegler as a character. We meet him as he’s riding into town, coming back from a fishing trip. He wraps up the fish and puts them in the refrigerator, until his friend Parnell McCarthy comes over to talk. Parnell is a drunk, which is the second drunk character we’ve covered recently. To Have and To Have Not also featured a drunk character who was taken care of by a main character. It seems like a trope of the era, and this one in particular at least has a happy ending.
The discussion between McCarthy and Biegler is entirely Biegler’s backstory. He was a prosecutor, but when he was passed over for district attorney, he decided to go into private practice, but he hasn’t found stable clients, working on divorces, and other small bits of law wherever he can find work. He loves jazz, and plays the piano while they talk over drinks. We also later learn that he can’t even pay his secretary regularly.
As they talk, a returned phone call comes in from Laura Manion. Biegler’s been away all weekend, and hasn’t heard about the case, but McCarthy has and urges him to take the case before he even hears the details. On the phone, Laura Manion asks him to take the case, and Biegler agrees to at least meet with her and her husband.
Biegler begins his investigation, talking to both husband and wife separately, asking detailed questions about the crime. There’s not much question about the crime, Manion has already admitted to the crime, there were witnesses to the murder. Manion’s only defense is that the man he killed, Barney Quill, had raped his wife. Biegler explains there are only four ways to defend murder. Either it wasn’t murder, such as self defense, or he didn’t do it, or it was justified, or it can be excused. Beigler tells him the only one possible is that the murder was excused. When Manion suggests he might have been temporarily insane, Biegler tells him to start thinking about how insane he might have been.
This is a very different role for Jimmy Stewart. While most of his characters are completely stalwart, fighting for justice and the law, fighting evil and injustice, Paul Biegler isn’t that concerned about those things. He wants to win the case, get paid, and move on. He knows his client is guilty, and it doesn’t matter to him. He sees a way to win his case, and if his client has to lie about his state of mind to help him win, he’s ok with it. He sets up an appointment for Manion with an army psychiatrist.
When he meets Laura Manion, things feel very different. Lee Remick plays Laura as a woman very aware of how attractive she is, and willing to flirt with anyone. It’s almost a reflex, as soon as she enters a situation with a man, she begins smiling, using suggestive language, and so on. When she tells Biegler about the rape, it actually becomes fairly graphic, especially for a film from this era. But Preminger was known for his films that pushed boundaries on these kinds of topics, with films like The Man With The Golden Arm, about heroin addiction.
One of Biegler’s bigger challenges in the film is taming Laura’s wild streak. In one scene he finds her in a bar hanging out with a group of strange men, dancing and drunk. He drags her out telling her that until the trial is over she needs to act the part of the loving, prim and proper wife. She takes the advice to heart.
Biegler does his own investigation, introducing us to the bar where Barney worked, and some mystery surrounding a young woman named Mary Pilant, who is assumed to be Barney’s lover.
We should also talk about the music briefly. Duke Ellington does the music for the film, and if there’s a Mount Rushmore of Jazz, he has to be on it, probably right next to Louis Armstrong. He even appears briefly in the film, as a piano player in the bar Biegler finds Laura Manion in. The music isn’t overbearing, but like jazz, it essentially fills in some gaps. It’s in the background, but an important part of the film.
The film moves into the courtroom about one hour into a 160 minute film, and here’s where the film really shines. It introduces Scott as a rival lawyer, and also introduces the judge, played by Joseph Welch. he was never a particularly well-known actor, but he is wonderful in this role. He takes a backseat to the acting giants standing in his courtroom, but manages to make his presence known, in a very funny performance. Each decision comes with a funny little quip, delivered perfectly. He never failed to make me laugh.
As the trial begins, we see the real talent of Biegler, as he’s able to keep the jury engaged, and subtly move the arguments in the direction he wants them to go, making good counter arguments to the prosecution’s objection, flummoxing the local prosecutor, and keeping Dancer, his real competition from making too many arguments. For example, the prosecution doesn’t want the rape mentioned at all, but Biegler is able to turn the arguments in that direction, eventually getting it accepted as related to the murder by the judge, and telling the whole story.
But Dancer is also particularly adept, and when Laura is called to the stand, begins to question the whole story, making a very strong argument that perhaps her husband had simply caught her cheating on him with Quill, and then made up the rape story to keep him from blaming her. From everything we’ve seen in the story so far, it casts some doubt on the story we’ve been told so far.
And also unfortunately, there is a hefty dose of victim blaming. Laura is asked several times what she was wearing at the time of the rape, how she acted, and these are all brought up again in court. It’s a relic of the era, but it still happens frequently today, so it’s hard to be too surprised.
This is one of my favorite films, and probably my favorite Jimmy Stewart performance short of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. He’s able to use all that charm he’s famous for, but then turns it around, using it not to hold up strong values, but take a much darker view of the world. It’s not overt, but he clearly is playing a different character. This becomes really clear early on when he decides to take the case and asks Manion for his fee, $3000. Manion says he doesn’t have it, and Biegler suggests he might not take the case if he doesn’t get paid. When Manion offers a promissory note, Biegler accepts, but makes it clear, this is a pay day for him, nothing more.
It’s a fascinating look at the genre, which normally shows how powerful and good the justice system can be. In this case, it’s showing how lawyers work to manipulate the truth to their own ends.
The Double Feature
So these are both excellent films, but atypical courtroom dramas. One of them doesn’t even take place in a courtroom. I don’t know if they’re quite deconstructions of the genre, but they definitely play with the tropes in an interesting way. I think that’s what makes them both work well together. There’s also a nice contrast between them, one holding up the best ideals of justice, the other showing a darker side. So we get the ideal, and the realism.
It’s been a nice relaxing summer so far, and I’m looking forward to that continuing. I’ve got a major milestone on the way to my PhD this week, that will be happening essentially as this posts, but not much else to talk about.
So what about next week’s films? I’ve had this box set of Universal monster movies sitting on my shelf for years. I’ve watched a few of them, but lately they’ve been calling to me to do a post about them. And there are a lot of them, so I might do them for two weeks. But for next week, we’ll cover:
Todd Browning – Dracula (1931)
James Whale – Frankenstein (1931)
Should be fun. See you then.