31/10/2011

12 Angry Men (1957)



Sidney Lumet’s enduring legal drama 12 Angry Men is an undeniably worthy piece of work – it almost feels like a public information film at times – and perhaps not as cool as Otto Preminger's Anatomy Of A Murder (1959) but it's also a perfectly argued and optimistic defence of democratic values and the American criminal justice system. The film is all the more astonishing for the formal constraints Reginald Rose’s script imposes upon itself, making use of just one set – the stifling jury room of the Supreme Court Building in New York’s Foley Square – and taking place in real-time with no action to speak of, just the titular dozen sweating out their deliberations and picking over the evidence in minute detail. It’s a truly amazing feat of writing, acting and directing from all concerned that still manages to keep audiences hooked over half a century later.

If you’ve never seen 12 Angry Men, the film concerns the trial of an impoverished Hispanic youth charged with murdering his own father in New York City. When the jury retires to consider its verdict, 11 members instinctively vote guilty in an initial straw poll. The only dissenter is Henry Fonda’s unnamed bleeding heart liberal who happens to feel that a man’s life is at least worth a conversation and has no time for complacent assumptions. Fonda’s architect assesses the all white, male (and politically representative) faces before him and seeks to persuade and debate his way to an alliance between those among his fellow jurors who are naturally sympathetic to his moderate, left-leaning point of view and those self-made conservative reactionaries in opposition, typified by hateful, perspiring Lee J. Cobb and a racist Ed Begley. Fonda asks his fellow jurymen to reconsider key passages of testimony and aspects of the circumstantial evidence before them and realises in the process that convincing Wall Street stockbroker E.G. Marshall - an enlightened corporate capitalist and early neo-con but, crucially, a man of reason - is the key to ensuring an acquittal for a boy whose guilt no one can honestly be sure of.



Ultimately Lumet’s film champions universal humanitarianism, reasoned argument and dispassionate group decision-making in pursuit of consensus rather than the deeply ambiguous notions of common sense justice and black-and-white moral certainty. 12 Angry Men also asks whether any criminal case is ever truly free from reasonable doubt and invites us to revisit the very concepts of “truth” and “fact”, arguing that all perceived reality is subjective and a matter of interpretation, susceptible to influence by prejudice, bias and narcissism. At one point a frustrated Begley shouts, “I’m sick of the facts – you can twist ‘em any way you like!” and in so doing a profound philosophical point is made in an accessible, box office-friendly manner. A real public service of a film.



Although Fonda, civilising the land just as he did in My Darling Clementine (1946), is undoubtedly the star here (he also served as producer), there are no weak links in the cast, with some strong turns on show from Cobb, Begley, Marshall, foreman Martin Balsam and a meek John Fieldler (the voice of Piglet in Disney's Winnie the Pooh franchise). Jack Warden is especially memorable as intellectually lazy, wisecracking baseball fan, as is Robert Webber as a crass Madison Avenue man. Balsam and Warden would, incidentally, be reunited in the editorial offices of The Washington Post for another American cinematic monument, All The President's Men, in 1976. You can watch 12 Angry Men in full here and, frankly, it would be a crime not to.

P.S. Fans of period British comedy should check out the following episode of BBC sitcom Hancock's Half Hour from 1959, in which comedian Tony Hancock and sidekick Sid James find themselves re-enacting Lumet's film when they are called up to serve as jurors on a robbery trial at the Old Bailey. A neat and affectionate skewering of the source.

30/10/2011

Cape Fear (1962)



Gregory Peck raises a formidable eyebrow at a meddlesome Robert Mitchum in J. Lee Thompson's classic thriller about a Georgia attorney stalked and terrorised by an ex-con he helped put away eight years previously. Thompson's film was based on John D. MacDonald’s 1957 novel The Executioners and the director brought together some natural casting choices for the job. Peck, Mr Integrity, would play his signature role, Atticus Finch (another lawyer), that same year in To Kill A Mocking Bird while ageing tough guy Mitchum had already played a psychotic pursuer in Charles Laughton’s brilliant, expressionistic The Night Of The Hunter (1955). Similarly, Martin Balsam was fresh off Psycho (1960), where he met a grizzly end as Detective Arbogast, so was a shoe-in for Cape Fear’s voice of law and order, Sergeant Dutton. All are great – as are Polly Bergen, Lori Martin and Telly Salvalas in support - but it’s Mitchum’s performance as vicious rapist Max Cady that keeps us fascinated. Squinting out at Peck’s Sam Bowden from beneath his Panama hat, a cigar jutting contemptuously from his alligator grin, the man oozes menacing insouciance, an American Nightmare invading a cosy middle-class idyll in a similar vein to Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie in Shadow Of A Doubt (1943). Cady clearly enjoys watching his prey squirm on the hook. So much so, in fact, that you start to wonder whether his actually going through with the killing of Bowden and his family wouldn’t rob him of his sole raison d’ĂȘtre. His disturbed sexual interest in Bowden’s young daughter (Martin) remains shocking to this day and Thompson’s film – often parodied, most notably in The Simpsons – still looks beautiful, its cool black-and-white cinematography accentuated in recent high definition releases. Perhaps its biggest selling point, however, is composer Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable score, as tense and tied to the action in its way as John Williams’ for Jaws (1975).


Mitchum, Balsam and Peck (above) all returned for cameos in Martin Scorsese’s really rather unnecessary remake of this three little pigs tale in 1991, starring Robert De Niro and Nick Nolte in the leads with Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis providing support. Herrmann’s theme was also recycled from the original, albeit rearranged by Elmer Bernstein, though screenwriter Wesley Strick did beef up Cady's motive for pursuing Sam Bowden, the latter having suppressed evidence that might have seen the defendant receive a reduced sentence in this version – a fatal act of moral judgement on Bowden’s part stemming from his certainty over Cady’s guilt. This certainly helps muddy the waters but you should stick with the original anyway - De Niro's tattooed Appalachian religious nut soons becomes a hysterical caricature and operatic silliness ensues, particularly in Scorsese's overblown houseboat dĂ©nouement.

23/10/2011

Brothers In Law (1957)



A befuddled Ian Carmichael takes the lead in another all-star British Lion comedy from the late fifties, this time a broad-brush satire of the legal industry from John and Roy Boulting. The film was intended as a follow-up to the brothers' military spoof Private's Progress from the year previously, taking a swipe at another great British institution in all its bewildering briefs, flying paperwork, convolutions, circumlocutions and archaic quirks. "The law is an ass", Charles Dickens once observed, and that's very much the standpoint taken here in a screenplay adapted from Henry Cecil's popular 1955 novel.


Carmichael stars as naive junior barrister Roger Thursby, who enters the Inns of Court off Fleet Street as a trainee in Miles Malleson's busy chambers, guided along the way by his more worldly flatmate Henry Marshall (Richard Attenborough). Essentially a comedy of embarrassment, Brothers In Law sees Thursby fluff his lines, forced to take guidance on points of law from clearly guilty career-criminal defendants and exasperate any number of judges (especially John Le Mesurier on the golf course) with his inexperience. It's all rather slight and gentle in truth but the film packs bags of charm and an excellent supporting cast including the beautiful Jill Adams as the object of Roger and Henry's affections, Terry-Thomas in a proper character part as cockney geezer and serial swindler Alfred Green as well as minor though amusing turns from such stalwarts as Irene Handl, playing a maddeningly inarticulate witness, Leslie Philips as a smooth tailor and radio panel show personality Nicholas Parsons as a car-obsessed stock broker. Future Billy Liar (1963), Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Marathon Man (1976) director John Schlesinger also makes a brief blink-and-you'll-miss-him appearance. Brothers In Law is available in full here, m'learned friends.

12/10/2011

Shane (1953)



Alan Ladd and young Brandon De Wilde in George Stevens' unusual and enduring pacifist Western Shane, about a jaded former gunslinger who drifts into the middle of a conflict between greedy Wyoming cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) and a gaggle of homesteaders who just want to live peacefully on land Ryker considers his. Shane (Ladd) eventually takes up with the Starrett family after intervening in a skirmish between pater familias Joe (Van Heflin) and Ryker's posse and tries domesticity for a while, exchanging his trail duds for work denims and firmly buttoning his holster, much to the disappointment of Starrett's impressionable son Joey (De Wilde). Eventually Shane's non-violent stand is challenged by Ryker's crew who bully, humiliate and beat on him until he is finally forced to take arms against this sea of troubles and by opposing end them. But personal vengeance is not Shane's motivation. He enters the final shoot-out as an act of self-sacrifice in the stead of a proud but better man, knowing that he will never be able to live in the second Eden he's helped create as, like Ryker or Victor Mature's Doc Holliday in My Darling Clementine (1946), he's a relic from a savage past that must die before the West can truly be won. Sure enough, Shane rides off into the sunset at the film's close like many a cowboy star before him. But unlike them, he's bleeding from a bullet wound to the guts that will presumably prove fatal. Shane leaves us a self-imposed exile on the dirt road to Cemetery Hill, a legend in the territory and, perhaps more importantly, a hero in the eyes of Joey, its future. There'll be peace in the valley. But not for Shane.



Shane's story, taken from a 1949 novel by Jack Schaefer, is a simple one but packed with hard-felt emotion and mood. Like the brooding purple mountains looming over this disputed stretch of boggy grazing country, there's an overpowering melancholy about the film that stem's from the grim inevitability of its subject's end, something the man himself appears to recognise and understand implicitly all along, accepting it with a stoicism and dignity that underscores the character and is subtly evoked by Ladd. OK, so De Wilde's idolising youngster is a tad cloying and a heavy-handedly allegorical role to begin with, but most of the performances here are first-rate with Jack Palance fascinating as Ryker's enigmatic, man-in-black hired gun and Jean Arthur as lovely as ever in her final screen appearance. For me, the stand-out scene is probably Ladd's brutal punch-up with Ben Johnson's cocksure barfly Chris Calloway, who has earlier splashed whisky on Shane and insulted him as a "sod buster", which is as physical and adrenaline-fuelled an action scene as you're likely to see. Apparently Paramount nearly canned Shane in pre-production because Montgomery Clift, William Holden and Katharine Hepburn were not available to play the leads.

09/10/2011

Devil Girl From Mars (1954)



This charming British B sci-fi concerns the crash landing of a Martian spaceship in the Scottish highlands. The UFO's pilot, a leather-clad dominatrix named Nyah (Patricia Laffan), turns up at the nearest pub, the Bonnie Charlie, in which a gaggle of representative types have gathered for the evening, and explains that she is on a mission to capture earth men to take back to the red planet in order to breed with its womenfolk, who have just eviscerated the last of their male counterparts following a civil war between the genders and are thus without a means of propagating their species. A quite literal battle of the sexes, you might say. Surprisingly, the normally red-blooded Scots are quite against the idea of becoming interplanetary sex slaves and plot to blow-up Nyah's spacecraft instead.

Despite its horny schoolboy's fantasy of a premise and splendid title, there are long stretches of Devil Girl From Mars that are dreadfully dull while the acting on show is of a decidedly mixed bag. Perhaps only the mesmeric and winningly serious Laffan and the wild-eyed, future Dad's Army star John Laurie stand out, although there's some credible, grounded support from Sophie Stewart and Hazel Court as no-nonsense hostess Mrs Jamieson and her incongruous fashion model guest, respectively. Director David MacDonald's special effects are above average for a film with such an obviously small budget but it has to be said that Nyah's tree-zapping robot subordinate Chani does resemble a waddling fridge-freezer. A very poor relation to Gort from The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). What is arguably most surprising about Devil Girl From Mars, however, is that it was reportedly based on a play. Written by James Eastwood and John C. Maher, who adapted it for the screen, this little opus is extremely hard to find anything out about and it's hard to believe it was ever staged. If anyone out there has the skinny I'd dearly love to know more.