Tuesday, December 10, 2013

12 Angry Men: three versions of this film

12 Angry Men, US Film  (1957)

This film appeared in the theaters in 1957 and, while a critical success, did not attract an audience and disappeared from the theaters.  Since then, however, it has steadily grown in critical estimation and audience appeal.

The plot is simple:  a young boy has been tried for killing his abusive father.  He claims he did not kill him.   The film opens with the judge's instructions to the jury, which then retires to the jury room.  The film then never leaves the jury room.  Once there, several of the jurors (this is 1957 so the jurors are all white males) are convinced it's an open-and-shut case and call for an immediate vote without having any discussion.  Several of the jurors are in a hurry:  one has tickets for a baseball game that night and another has to catch a flight for an important business meeting.  The vote comes out 11 for guilty and 1 not guilty.  The lone dissenting vote is cast by Henry Fonda's character, Juror 8.  When pressed for his reasons for voting "not guilty," he says he doesn't know whether the boy is innocent or guilty, but he does feel that, since a guilty verdict mandates execution, there should some discussion about the case.

"Beyond reasonable doubt"  is the troublesome criterion facing the jury.  A guilty verdict can only be rendered if the prosecution has proved its case beyond reasonable doubt, and this is the point that Juror 8 focuses on.  Is the evidence strong enough to move a person to be convinced beyond reasonable doubt.  If not, then they must render a verdict of not guilty.

The deliberation concentrates on the evidence.  Is it strong enough to convict him of murder, thus resulting in his execution?  Juror 8 and the other jurors spend considerable time discussing, attacking, defending, interpreting the evidence.  Occasionally a juror will say something that involves a personal issue as a way of making a point, but this is rare.  The issue is the evidence: is it strong enough to justify his execution?

Juror 8, the Henry Fonda character, is clearly the central character.  He is the leader of the gradually increasing group that argues for a "not guilty" verdict.  Juror 8 is a familiar character--strong, plain-spoken, confident, calm, measured, determined in behavior-- in other words, Henry Fonda as he has been seen in many roles.

It soon becomes clear that the evidence is only part of what moves many of the jurors to insist on a "guilty" verdict.  The other part, which emerges much more strongly as the evidence becomes more and more questionable, is prejudice; however, the target is never really specified.  It is always "them."  Typical references are "You know what they are like..."  I thought that was an interesting tactic as it allows the viewers to plug in whatever group is on the receiving end in their personal experience and doesn't limit the references to prejudice or bigotry aimed at any special group.  The optimistic viewpoint of the film seems to be that as the jurors become aware of their prejudices, they are more able to see clearly that the evidence is not strong enough to convict the boy. 

In spite of Perry Mason and countless other legal thrillers, finding the "real" murderer does not play a role here.  One of the jurors belligerently demands to know who killed the father if the boy didn't.  Juror 8 (Fonda) responds that the issue for them is determining the son's guilt and only that, nothing else. 

Overall Rating:  a superb film, the issues raised back in 1957 are still with us, but not brought out as clearly now as it was then.  The attitudes are still here, just more subtly put forward.

--highly recommended.

12,  Russian version  (2007)
While the basic idea of the film had not been changed, the Russian version contains much more about the back story of the way the boy and the Russian soldier met and how the soldier adopted the him.  Some of this was confusing, and I wonder if scenes had been left out.  In this version, the boy is a Chechen orphan who was adopted by a Russian soldier and brought to Moscow.  Contrary to the US film, there was no suggestion here that the father had been abusive. 

While watching the film, I felt that I was missing something.  Russians are good at burying unacceptable (to the government, regardless of the type it is) ideas and issues in their poetry, stories, and films that are critical of the official line of thinking in order to get them by the official censors.   I suspect that a Russian would have gotten much more out of the film then I did.

Juror 8, as in the US film, is the only one who voted "not guilty" in the first ballot taken shortly after retiring to the jury room.  However, he did not appear to play a strong role in what followed.  In fact, he was silent much of the time.  It was much more of a communal effort with various individuals taking control throughout the deliberations.  Again, I may have missed something here--something that suggested he was playing a central role but that in my ignorance of the Russian culture I missed the cues.

Another significant difference was the roles played by individual experience on the one hand and on the other hand  the focus on the evidence during the deliberations.  Jurors told stories about their experiences and past that did not appear in the US version and sometimes it was hard for me to see the relevance although they appeared to be significant to the other jurors.  There was discussion of the evidence, but it seemed to  play a lesser role here than it did in the US version.

Another difference between this film and the US version comes up briefly when Juror 8 is asked who else might be the murderer if the boy isn't.  Juror 8 responds that determining the boy's guilt is the issue, not the identity of the real killer.  However, one of the other jurors offers a theory as to whom the killer might be, but when asked where he got this information, he just smiles and refuses to answer.  This comment has an interesting effect at the end of the film, something which does not happen in the US version.

The issue of prejudice and bigotry was also raised in this film but again the treatment differed from the US version in that two groups were brought forward in the Russian film as the targets--Jews and Chechens.  Since the defendant was a Chechen, the relevance is obvious.  What escaped me though was that the first expression of prejudice was directed at the Jews.  Again, perhaps I'm missing something here.

Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, Hindi language version (1986)
In spite of the wretched subtitles, it seems clear that this version is very close to the US version.  Some minor changes have been made, but it is a very close remake.  I would guess that the US script had been translated into Hindi.   Then the subtitles had been created from the Hindi language script as I could frequently recognize dialogue from the US version. The sequence of events was also the same or at least as far as I could tell.

Juror 8, as in the US version, played the central role in the deliberations.  Again, while there were some personal issues and stories brought out, the focus for the most part was on the evidence as in the US film.  The problem of prejudice also appeared as a significant issue, but its treatment was almost identical to its handling in the US film.   No particular group, aside from vague references to the lower social classes--the poor and the destitute--was named. 

The question of who the real killer might be comes up also, but again it is handled the same way as in the US version.  The jury's concern is the guilt of the boy, not determining the identity of someone else who might be the killer.

I would recommend viewing all three versions; however, if you don't have that much time, then I would suggest seeing at least the US and the Russian versions, since the Hindi version is very close to the US film.

1 comment:

  1. Good review. I do like the American version and have watched it several times. I have also had the pleasure seeing the play done with some very talented players at a local community theatre. Most engrossing storyline.