By: Jon Sham
As you may know, one of the great directors, Sidney Lumet, passed away over the weekend at the age of 86.
Lumet was known for films such as 1976’s “Network” and 1975’s “Dog Day Afternoon,” but he also directed many films that focused on or around a courtroom.
He directed dozens of TV series and movies from the early 1950s to the late 2000s, ending with 2007’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke and Albert Finney.
But his first feature film – and arguably one of his best – came 50 years prior: it was 1957’s “12 Angry Men,” with Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb.
Part of what made Lumet’s courtroom dramas so memorable is that, while they did focus on a court case, the real story was about the people involved in that case, and that there is much gray in between right and wrong. “12 Angry Men,” if you haven’t seen it, is about 12 jurors who have to decide the fate of a young man accused of killing his father.
Eleven of the jurors are seemingly convinced of his guilt at the start, but when Juror #8 (none of them have names), played by Henry Fonda, raises doubts about the prosecution’s case and the defense’s ineptitude, the story becomes about the men in the room – their beliefs, priorities and prejudices — and about how the law is almost never black and white.
I always liked that you never knew the jurors names, and that the jurors don’t seem to know each others’ names, either. Then, they just became personalities, representations of different kinds of people.
To me, “12 Angry Men” inspired the idea that, at the very least, one out of every 12 people would care enough about the legal process in America that they would take a stand before sending in a “guilty” verdict. Juror #8 didn’t know he was right, but he knew he didn’t know. And that was enough for him to try to hang the jury.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said via The Washington Post’s obit for Lumet that “12 Angry Men” influenced her decision to go into the field of law.
Another of Lumet’s great works was “The Verdict” from 1982, where he directed Paul Newman (my personal favorite) as an alcoholic lawyer who hasn’t been successful in the courtroom in some time.
Newman’s character, Frank Galvin, takes up a medical malpractice case that he believes will settle for a lot of money. But wanting to prove his worth, he decides to take the trial to court.
Lumet, of course, focuses on the case, which is a compelling part of the story, but also on the character of Galvin. He’s not a real “hero” — especially not a typical Paul Newman hero (see “Cool Hand Luke” or “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid“) — but has heroic qualities. He is just in his cause to fight for the case, but initially it’s not for the right reasons. He’s not totally wrong or totally right.
Ultimately, both Juror #8 and Frank Galvin “win out” in the end, as the juror convinces the others that the case is not strong enough to convict, and Galvin wins his malpractice case and redeems himself.
These stories — and many more — that Lumet told through film show that, often, there is no side that is totally right and one that is totally wrong, because people are hardly ever totally right or totally wrong.
Rest in peace, Sidney. Your examinations into human nature will be missed.