Daily Archives: Friday, May 24, 2024

  • Twelve Angry Men     Sidney Lumet (USA; 1957)  

    Twelve Angry Men     Sidney Lumet (USA; 1957)   Henry Fonda’ Lee J Cobb

    viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 2nd May 2024; ticket £7.00

    we’re on count down

    Strange thing about Lumet’s title is that there are not twelve angry men in the film’s script. The jury is twelve men but only three of its members might be called angry. Taken as a whole the jury as individuals may be formed by some of the prejudices of their class race ethnicity and sex, but in the film only a minority are driven by their own particular narrow perceptions of society.

    Films as social products can mark significant shifts in the political and economic mood of a country, working as signifiers of the values working through the social matrix. America is no exception to this. Films made there are sometimes intentionally produced as ideological statements, and Twelve Angry Men falls into this category, but most of the production output sees Hollywood simply on auto-pilot replicating reaffirming and sustaining core America values.

    ‘Twelve Angry Men’ feels like its made as a riposte to Ayn Rand’s script of ‘The Fountainhead’ (1949). Rand’s script developed from her novel of the same name was made with the contractual obligation that none of her dialogue could be altered or cut in the production of the film without her permission. ‘The Fountainhead’ directed by King Vidor and starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, was a densely packed philosophical affirmation of individualism, advocating the primacy of the individual over the collective – think Thatcher’s: “There is no such thing as Society.”

    Rand’s protagonist was Howard Roark an architect with a personal artistic vision governing his work that stood in opposition to the establishment, comprising the mindless crowd that follow conventional ideas of the herd. Rand’s script depicts the struggle between individualism and collectivism, drawing a conscious parallel between communism and freedom in the rapidly escalating cold war between the West and the Soviet Union. Anti communism was at the root of Rand’s belief system and her work is the expression of her detestation of its societal ethos. The characteristic mood of ‘The Fountainhead’ is anger. It’s an angry film in which Roark, prefers labouring jobs to working on commissions in which he’d have to compromise his individuality and vision either to placate clients or to work with colleagues. The cumulative effect on Roark is frustration at his powerlessness and a contempt towards those forces that conspire against him. Certainly Rand’s political writing has been revisited and reworked by the current generation of right wing populists to direct feelings of anger frustration and hate against the notional deep state of collective governance.

    ‘The Fountainhead’ centres about an apocalyptic event. Roark, working through the auspices of another architect, finally gets a commission for a huge housing project. But to Roark’s fury during construction the client decides to change some of his design. Demented by rage and anger Roark burns down the newly built edifice razing it to the ground. Having handed himself in, he represents himself at court. In his closing speech he justifies his act on the philosophical grounds that the rights of the individual are primary values that justify violence and destruction when not recognised and betrayed. His long and sometimes tedious speechifying is pure Rand, intoxicated with her own libertarian rhetoric.

    The court finds Roark not guilty of all charges: the individual is exonerated and recognised as having a special status in society that raises them above the constraints that apply to the crowd. The verdict suggests that it is better to destroy and/or be destroyed than to compromise individuality. A particularly hard core message at a time when the the Soviet Union was developing Atomic weaponry and the Cold War was intensifying. “Better dead than red..” a message that a nuclear war with the USSR was worth fighting to maintain American values.

    ‘Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’ with its fundamentalist justification of rabid individualism worked within the political atmosphere in which the Committee of Un-American Activities was hunting out and perusing vendettas against alleged communists and socialists. Lumet’s ‘Twelve Angry Men’ is surely a riposte to Rand’s ideology at a time in the mid ‘50’s when there was a significant pull back from the paranoid atmosphere of the 1940’s. It can be no accident that the main protagonist Davis, played by Henry Fonda, is like Roark, an architect. Davis is certainly a strong individual; he is prepared to stand out against the initial pressure of the whole group to find the accused boy guilty. But Davis as an individual sees that there is in the collective a depth of knowledge insight and wisdom that can be brought to bare on issues that is greater than the resources possessed by any one individual. It is the remit of society to understand how to harness this collective energy – a process that Lumet expresses through the agency of his architect, Davis. Through dialogue and discourse the jury starts to question and examine its understanding of the evidence arriving at a verdict opposed to the one suggested by their initial prejudices.

    ‘The Fountainhead’ and ‘Twelve Angry Men’ are myths pitched to spin out redemptive ideological themes. ‘The Fountainhead’ ends with a mythic image: Roark, at the top of his new building, completed without compromise, stands with his arms raised in triumph. Like an Olympian God, he is master of all he surveys, beholden to no man, free of the crowd, a winner on his own terms. ‘Twelve Angry Men’ ends low key with a series of exterior shots of Davis and another jury member leaving the Court House. The shots are prosaic, ordinary, as befits the fact that nothing out of the ordinary has happened. A group of men have met on jury service. They have done their collective civic duty as instructed, following the directions of the judge in weighing up the evidence, they have found a man: ‘Not Guilty’ of first degree murder. As perhaps in Ancient Greece the collective wisdom of the polis has been consulted and decisions reached through debate. There is nothing to remark: the mythic model of justice has prevailed.

    Both films are of course as much fairy tales as myths. The neo-Nietzchian new man becomes monster and the prejudices of juries often decide trials.

    As myths both movies have a deep grounding in the psychodrama of the times. The films with their opposing belief systems evidence the schizo culture of the USA where the conflicting pulls of individualism and collectivism have played out since the nineteenth century with more or less vehemence. In this US election year of 2024, Trump versus Biden, Roark versus Davis, the gravitational counter force of these two myths threatens to pull the country apart.

    adrin neatrour   adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk