12 Angry Hams: Cheaper by the Dozen

Original poster.

Original poster. Except for Fonda’s, I find all the portraits hilarious. Look at all of that steamology . . . ! Several of the portraits aren’t even close: Robert Webber looks like Chris Noth.

“12 Angry Men” (United Artists, 1957) . . . wow. I really must buy a copy of that picture — it probably costs about six cents. YouTube has several copies of the full movie, but it’s better to have a good DVD and see it properly. Every time — and I mean every time — it’s on TCM I get hooked. It’s compulsively watchable. I’m not sure why I keep putting off buying a copy. Perhaps I’m afraid that if I have it in the apartment, I’ll never do anything else.

Recently, a friend told me that he is trying to understand the difference between great acting and hamming, and more particularly, between great hamming and lousy acting. He was totally confused when I commented in the piece I did about “Murder on the Orient Express” that Sidney Lumet was famously a great director of actors. But how could that be, he asked, when Lumet directed all those bad performances in “12 Angry Men” . . . ? Bad performances?!  They’re great for that rotten material! Good acting would kill that picture. What that lousy dialogue needs is some serious baloney bending — and a director who knows how to get those massive egos and eccentrics to work together for the greater (ahem) good. A lousy ham, I told him, pulls his broad, terrible stunts without regard to the story at hand; a great ham like Lee Cobb nearly always has the right idea — then he takes it to excess, especially if the script (or, in the case of “4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” André Previn’s huge orchestral underscoring) will support it. As great as George Scott was in the Showtime remake, he was really too smart for that bum material. Takes a moron like Cobb — all angst, passion and no brains — to sweat the material into the lather it needs to be.

Rogues gallery. Clockwise from top: Balsam (standing),

Rogues’ gallery. Clockwise from top: Juror #1 Balsam (standing), #2 Fiedler, #3 Cobb, #4 Marshall, #5 Klugman, #6 Binns, #7 Warden, #8 Fonda, #9 Sweeney, #10 Begley, #11 Voskovec, #12 Webber

Cobb was most at home playing over-the-top characters. When he has to keep a lid on his volcanic temper, he can be funny, but he doesn’t come into his money notes until he starts tearing a passion to tatters. “12 Angry Men” gives him that opportunity and he takes full advantage. Mind you, I doubt that Cobb ever looked at a script as a whole in order to determine where his character fitted into the story and what sort of performance would best serve the picture.  I make no doubt that most of his biggest moments were entirely self-serving. Nevertheless, with a director like Lumet to guide him into those big steamed up explosions, Cobb was able to serve both his ego and the screenwriter. Can you imagine “12 Angry Men” without the Cobber? Where would that corn be without that Cobb? Any decent likeable guy can play Juror Eight (Fonda’s role) but Juror Three demands a big, noisy ham like Cobb. George Scott, as I mentioned earlier, was really too good for the part: Scott made him human, which rather queers the pitch, since everyone in the show is cartoonish . . . they’re completely artificial; only a few of them are sufficiently lifelike even to pass for stereotypes. These guys don’t have characteristics: they don’t have character — what they have is tics.

Juror One (Martin Balsam): The Thinskinned Nonentity
Juror Two (John Fiedler): The Petulant Pipsqueak
Juror Three (Lee Cobb): The Bawling Devil
Juror Four (E.G. Marshall): The Wall Street WASP
Juror Five (Jack Klugman): The Timid Prole
Juror Six (Ed Binns): The Blue Collar Dope
Juror Seven (Jack Warden): The Bumptious Sales Jerk
Juror Eight (Henry Fonda): The Pasty-Faced Peace-Creep
Juror Nine (Joe Sweeney): The Sagacious Coot
Juror Ten (Ed Begley): The Honked-Off Racist
Juror Eleven (George Voskovec): The Mannerly Mensch
Juror Twelve (Robert Webber): The Madison Avenue Pinhead

Ed Binns makes the least impression — he’s hardly there. E.G. Marshall, though quiet and buttoned-down, finds a way to be just exasperating enough to be memorable. Balsam, the Klugger and Voskovec are the most human (though Voskovec’s Mannerly Mensch is most definitely a stereotype). Lee Cobb owns the picture — he’s the best reason to see it. When he starts blowing the tubes, he’s riotously funny, but after you’ve seen the picture a few times, you may find his warm-up even funnier than his fireworks.

Lee Cobb as Juror Three: 'Excitable?! You bet I'm excitable!'

Lee Cobb as Juror Three: ‘Excitable?! You bet I’m excitable!’

Begley — with that harsh staccato voice of his, that great big nose, flyaway hair and those roadkill eyebrows — seems like an alien being, which makes his racist tirades hilarious: what’s this fucking Martian got against Puerto Ricans, anyway? (Sidney Lumet’s staging of Juror Ten’s final harangue is so idiotic, I burst into laughter whenever it crosses my mind.) Fiedler’s light-bulb head and helium voice make him, too, seem not of this planet — I like him best when he blows his puny little stack. Robert Webber has a few funny moments — I particularly like his fantastically incompetent sketch of a box of cereal. (He shows it to Voskovec and says, ” ‘Rice Pops: the breakfast with the built-in bounce!’ I wrote that line!” Voskovec, ever the gentleman, replies dubiously: “Very catchy.”) Another Webber moment I like: he’s on the verge of changing his vote; Lumet gives him a big close-up . . . and he looks exactly like Jerry Lewis in the last hour of his telethon.

'Rice Pops: The breakfast with the built-in bounce!'

‘Rice Pops: The breakfast with the built-in bounce!’

Warden drives too hard at being obnoxious, and succeeds in being obnoxious without being as amusing as he ought to be.

Fonda is the most maddening. This is not to say he isn’t good: he is very good — that’s what makes him so maddening. Juror Eight is intended to be the hero every pointy-headed liberal aspires to be, but he’s paternalistic, condescending, arrogant and utterly humorless. Worst of all, he’s a bully. He beats brows as persistently as Three and Ten do, but Eight presumably has right on his side and, unlike Three and Ten, his motives are not vicious: his rectitude, we’re supposed to understand, gives him the right to badger, insult and embarrass Three, the final holdout, till he brings him to the verge of apoplexy, whereupon Three chokes out the words, “Not guilddy . . . nodd . . . guilddy!” in floods of tears and (it seems to me) against his will and better judgment. Reginald Rose’s screenplay makes it clear that Eight’s moral authority makes his methods acceptable, even commendable: I suppose it does, but I can’t help remembering Portia’s refusal, in “The Merchant of Venice,” “To do a great right, do a little wrong.” She argues “It must not be . . . /’Twill be recorded for a precedent,/And many an error by the same example/Will rush into the state. It cannot be.” I feel I should point out that I’m well aware my opinion is entirely contrarian; unlike Eight, however, I have no wish to badger, hector, coerce or even persuade anyone to change his opinion — but like Three, “I’m enDIEDdled to my oBINion!”

I also want to make it clear that I love “12 Angry Men”: I just don’t make the mistake of taking any of it seriously. To take it seriously is to miss what makes the picture so madly entertaining. If you begin to take it seriously, all sorts of unavoidable questions arise. For instance, about that “switch knife” that Eight picks up at a pawnshop and brings into the jury room. (Imagine what might have happened if Three had done the same thing!) Eight breaks the law by purchasing it, which he gladly (and rather smugly) concedes, and breaks the law again by coming into the courthouse carrying a concealed weapon. The law has no bearing on him, since he’s in the right and is therefore willing to break the law in order to uphold it. (The mind reels at the arrogance.) Then he says nothing at all about it till he leads the discussion to a fever pitch about the supposed uniqueness of the blade that was found in the victim’s chest . . . and then he produces his illegal, concealed weapon when he knows it will have the maximum effect. In other words, he knew in advance what he was going to do, yet pretends to be a cautious, bemused innocent who wants to be convinced by the others — and all the while his mind is already made up, because he knows he’s in the right. He lies to the other jurors about this because it won’t help the argument he intends to make. Again, since he has right on his side, we’re supposed to accept his disingenuousness, because, after all, the guys he has to persuade are a bunch of boobs: Eight’s roundabout way of arguing his case suggests that he has already determined that his fellow jurors are too contemptible to be persuaded by reason — a few parlor tricks, therefore, are necessary to pry open the shutters of their ignorance that he may shine his moral lantern into the cavernous night of their consciences. (We learn that he’s an architect: I’ll bet his buildings are hideous.)

Henry Fonda as Juror Eight: 'That's right: I broke the law!'

Henry Fonda as Juror Eight: ‘That’s right: I broke the law!’

And Joe Sweeney . . . is the weirdest. At the beginning, he’s in the bathroom for what seems like an eternity. I sure don’t like to think what took him so long . . . I sat on a jury once, and every time I had to use the jurors’ bathroom, I thought of creepy old Joe Sweeney’s long sojourn in the can and couldn’t stop snickering. Every single one of Sweeney’s line readings is berserk. He, too, is an alien presence — not from Mars, but from some planet where the inhabitants are all oddballs.

So that puts the count at six or seven angry cartoon characters, two or three choleric stereotypes and three pissed off aliens . . . And not a man in sight.

Joe Sweeney as Juror Nine: Attend the tale of Sweeney Odd.

Joe Sweeney as Juror Nine: Attend the tale of Sweeney Odd.

There’s not much music in the picture, but what there is is terrible. The score is by Kenyon Hopkins. “12 Angry Men” was originally produced for television as an episode of Westinghouse’s “Studio One.” I’ve never seen that version (horrible Bob Cummings — neither decent nor likeable — played Eight: the only two to repeat their roles were Sweeney and Voskovec). In the movie, the music comes in exactly where you’d expect to have commercial breaks — for Rice Pops, I hope: the breakfast with the built-in bounce.

The drama of Justice (and particularly American jurisprudence) in action is not the engine that drives this picture. It’s the ham acting that makes it work. For it’s the hamming that transforms the crummy dialogue and the preposterous twists and turns of the creaky plot into virtues. Sidney Lumet conducted an arduous two-week rehearsal period and then shot the picture in twenty-one days, an astonishing speed. His pacing of the action is brilliant: he knows exactly how long to let Cobb simmer and when to bring him to the boil; he knows how long he can let the action become static and becalmed and when to start the actors moving about. He keeps things moving along smartly, but he keeps the sense of heat and languor constant so that there’s no sense that anything is rushed. He intensifies the claustrophobia as the story proceeds, but wisely avoids it until the picture is well underway (he did this by changing to a different type of camera lens halfway through). There are three hundred and sixty-five takes — one for each day of the year. Even the misstep I mentioned earlier — the overtly theatrical blocking of Ten’s last harangue after which he falls silent for the rest of the picture — is so artificial and kooky that it is in its own way right: it fits in with the stupendous hamming we’ve been watching. When people talk about “12 Angry Men” as an example of realism and an excellent meditation on Justice, I shake my head in bewilderment. To me, it is clearly a love letter to mid-20th century ham acting. That’s what makes it such crazy fun. No revival has ever been nearly as entertaining because they always approach the material with reverence, as if it were great art. It isn’t. It’s trash, and it needs ham acting to get the creaky machinery moving.

For the record, the winner of the “12 Angry Men” tontine was Five — the Klugger — who died on Christmas Eve, 2012. I find this very surprising. Poor old Jack Klugman! I never thought he’d last so long. Back when Tony Randall ran the National Actors Theatre, to bolster poor audience attendance, he hired his old friend to appear with him in a revival of “Three Men on a Horse.” (The median age of the cast was so advanced that wags around town referred to the production as “Three Men on a Hearse” — unkind, but not unjust. In John Simon’s review, he wrote that Randall had suddenly become so haggard that, were he to lie down on an ash heap, he would disappear.) For the 1993 season, T. Randall’s productions were staged at one of the smallest houses on Broadway, the Lyceum Theatre, and Randall made a big to-do about how no artificial amplification was ever used in his productions: the actors all had to project as they did in the Good Old Days. Unfortunately, the Klugger, who barely survived his second bout of throat cancer in 1989 (the first was in the mid-70s), had, in the process, lost of one his vocal cords to the surgeon’s knife. His character, Patsy, didn’t appear in the first half hour of the show, during which time the audience got used to hearing natural, unamplified voices. Then on he came, looking like a very, very ancient Shemp, and received a huge, extremely poignant ovation — audiences loved the guy. (So did I.) When the applause subsided, he spoke his first line . . . and out came this horrifying squawk — a cross between a police dispatcher and a death-rattle — and it emanated not from his mouth, but from the solitary loud speaker behind the lattice-work in the center of the proscenium arch. The inhuman gasping croak was not only disembodied, but stationary as well. No matter where he went on stage, that metallic rasp came crackling out from high above the actors’ aged heads. It was ghastly, heartrending. In the middle of this empty-headed, featherweight romp, there was the constant presence of this devastating memento mori. I couldn’t stop laughing. I suppose I should add that my laughter was most definitely not at Klugman’s distress, but rather at the awe-inspiring ways Life finds to be cruel. For an actor to lose his voice and then soldier on in spite of everything is, in itself, wonderfully inspiring: it’s a testament to man’s ability to rise above the gravest calamities. But when this fabulous bravery manifests itself, as Klugman’s did, in a seedy, on-the-cheap revival of a third-rate farce, the irony becomes really so diabolical that laughter is not only appropriate, but quite unavoidable.

3 thoughts on “12 Angry Hams: Cheaper by the Dozen

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