Tag: Sidney Lumet

The Pawnbroker (1965)

The Pawnbroker Header
Rod Steiger is superb in Lumet’s drama of grief, The Pawnbroker

Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: Rod Steiger (Sol Nazerman), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Marilyn Birchfield), Brock Peters (Rodriguez), Jaime Sanchez (Jesus Ortiz), Thelma Oliver (Ortiz’s girl), Eusebia Cosme (Mrs Ortiz), Marketa Kimbrell (Tessie), Baruch Lumet (Mendel), Linda Geiser (Ruth Nazerman)

Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) lost his entire family – including his wife and two children – in the Holocaust. Previously a University professor, he has now cut himself off from engaging with life by burying himself in a dingy pawnbroker’s shop in Harlem, where he treats his desperate customers like “scum”, offering them nickels for their goods. On the anniversary of his wife’s death, Sol confronts his own grief, tensions from local crime boss Rodriguez (Brock Peters), the offer of a friendly ear from new neighbour Marilyn (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and the unwanted friendship of his assistant Ortiz (Jaime Sanchez).

It’s probably not a spoiler to say that all of this does not end well. The Pawnbroker is almost unrelentingly grim and bleak. Shot in a harsh black-and-white – superbly lensed by Boris Kaufman – it mixes French New Wave realism with a punishingly cold New York aesthetic that catches every grain of dirt on the streets. The past is virtually a character in the film, the events of over twenty years ago having far more importance than many of the trivial events Sol encounters in the present.

The constant presence of the Holocaust, and the scars it has left, are kept in our mind by the film’s constant use of quick – almost subliminal – cuts from current day events to snippets of Sol’s past. Hands pressed against windows turn briefly into hands against barbed wire. A young lady flicks back and forth into Sol’s wife. The sounds of a train inevitably transform into a transport train. Lumet makes it clear to us that everything Sol sees and encounters in the modern world, no matter how small, is just a continual reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust that defined his life.

This isn’t something as ‘simple’ as survivor’s guilt. It’s clear that, while his body survived, Sol effectively died in the camps and what we are seeing is his walking corpse. He’s deliberately alienated himself from the world and his concern, with no real desire to live but also no will for self-destruction. Perhaps he sees his continued existence as a punishment for failing to save his family. This has developed into a loathing for the melting pot of Harlem, a stubborn, conscious refusal to feel any empathy for anyone living there. Instead, he works hard to loath them as much as he loathes himself. Trapped by guilt and grief, Sol slaps away any offers of friendship, pity or warmth.

The film’s greatest strength is Rod Steiger’s towering performance. Normally Steiger was an actor who never shied away from the possibility of over-playing. Here, he’s so buttoned down and spiritually dead, every single movement like he’s walking around in a physical and spiritual straitjacket. Sol scuttles around the cages of his pawnshop, like a guy who has never left the camps. His performance is a masterclass in precision, of carefully restrained movement, gruff speech and eyes that stare into a dread a thousand miles away. Every step Steiger takes is weighted down by an impossible burden of grief, anger, despair and self-loathing.

It also avoids completely easy sentiment. For all that we see the suffering slowly revealed of Sol’s past, Steiger isn’t afraid to show Sol as a difficult, arrogant, even unpleasant character. The defence mechanism of hostility and non-engagement of the world has only increased his prickly aggressiveness. But yet, he remains sympathetic as Steiger also conveys the deep pain Sol spends every single minute of his life suppressing and controlling to stop it overwhelming him.

If there is a fault with the film, it’s that it goes about its carefully bleak and hopeless journey through a few days in Sol’s life with slightly too much precision. The Pawnbroker sometimes mistakes grim, hard-hitting and misery for emotional investment. For all that the film is a difficult, searing watch – and the terrors of the flashbacks are ghastly – it’s somehow not quite as moving as it should be. Perhaps this is because the present-day plot never quite takes off and the other characters – with the exception of Peter’s chillingly ebullient but dangerously violent Rodriguez – don’t quite connect. Fitzgerald’s social worker Marilyn is a character we don’t quite get to know. Not quite enough time is spent with Sol’s in-laws (despite good performances from Marketa Kimbrell and Lumet’s father Baruch Lumet) for their story arc to move us in its own right.

Similarly, the Holocaust sequences – brief and interspersed as they are – sometimes overplay their hand, particularly the rather heavy-handed opening sequences showing the Nazerman family playing in the field minutes before the Germans arrive (accompanied by a thudding musical score – and Quincy Jones’ score sometimes tries to do much work for the viewer). It would be hard not to make The Pawnbroker at least a little bit moving, but Lumet’s film bludgeons us with misery so heavily, that there is no sense of the lightness or warmth of life that has been lost. Scenes of the Holocaust of course are hard to watch, but The Pawnbroker bashes us with them to make us feel things. It’s a film that’s tough and leaves you in no doubt of the horror, but doesn’t always make you feel for individual. You need a touch of what was lost to be truly moved: with no real sense of that, we can’t grieve with the characters.

But, The Pawnbroker is still a daring film that leaves a lasting impression. Lumet’s direction has a New Wave freshness and an immersive sense of the New York Streets. Steiger is fantastic in the lead role – his most restrained (and greatest) performance ever. The film broke new ground for sexuality – including making Rodriguez a non-camp, intimidating homosexual – and while the final beats of inevitable tragedy aren’t quite earned by the events we see, it’s still a grim and powerful look at the lasting damage the past causes the present and the crushing legacy of grief.

Fail Safe (1964)

Henry Fonda desperately tries to avert nuclear war in Fail Safe

Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: Henry Fonda (The President), Dan O’Herlihy (Brigadier General Warren Black), Walter Matthau (Professor Groeteschele), Frank Overton (General Bogan), Fritz Weaver (Colonel Cascio), Edward Binns (Colonel Jack Grady), Larry Hagman (Buck), William Hansen (Defence Secretary Swenson)

In 1964 the classic film on nuclear conflict was released and became a landmark in Hollywood history. Also released was Fail Safe. Dr Strangelove has dragged Fail Safe through history like a sort of phantom limb. It’s reputation – if you’ve heard about it at all – is “Dr Strangelove but with no jokes”. That’s hugely harsh on a well-made, tense and fascinating film that sees nuclear war as less the blackly comedic theatre of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction, the buzzword of the day), and more as a dark human tragedy where mistakes, suspicions and paranoia lead to disaster.

During a routine manoeuvre, a mechanical power surge at USAAF leads to a mistaken but correctly authenticated order being sent to a wing of bombers to drop their nukes on Moscow. Due to Russian jamming, USAAF has no idea this has happened until after the five minute recall window. After the five-minute window has passed, the pilots follow their training and ignore all subsequent orders no matter who gives them – even if it’s directly from the President (Henry Fonda) himself. Desperately the President works with the Soviet Union to stop the bombers (and prevent the inevitable full scale nuclear war they would provoke). Problem is national pride, mutual suspicion, subordinates who can’t stomach co-operation between enemies and those that an accidental first strike is the perfect way to start a nuclear war one side could win, keep getting in the way.

While Dr Strangelove saw the insanity of MAD – the willingness of the leaders of both sides to promote a type of war that could only lead to the destruction of all life on earth – as so darkly absurd it could only be a subject for jet-dark-satire, Fail Safe takes a more humane if equally chilling route. Shot mostly with a low-key documentary realism by Sidney Lumet, the action is restricted to no more than four main locations. Once the crisis starts we never go outside. We never even see the Russians, represented only by photos and their words given life by Presidential translator Larry Hagman. Bar from the odd piece of stock footage, we are in the bunkers with the characters. And we feel as powerless as they do, as events spin out of control.

The film could be seen as an attack on the replacement of humans from the system by machines. Sure, the strike is triggered by a faulty piece of equipment. But everything after that is the result of good old-fashioned human error. The US debate about shooting down the bombers that goes on for so long, the bombers get out of range. The Russian refusal to accept US help to shoot the bombers down, leading them to taking pot shots at radar ghosts. The attempted coups on both sides in the command room, as junior officers refuse to co-operate with the enemy. The mistrust between both sides that leads the Russians chasing a decoy attack run rather the real bombing plane, despite the pleading of the American General that it’s a decoy.

And above all, the crushing arrogant insanity of introducing a system like this in the first place. A system so regimented and drilled into its soldiers – removing any chance of independent logical thought – that the pilot of the bombers will even ignore his own wife pleading down the line that the first strike he believes he is retaliating against hasn’t even happened. A system where leading American advisors suggest that, because it’s so difficult to call back an attack like this, why not just launch everything else after it as well and claim victory. This system can destroy the world but has no leeway for human error and forbids any independent thought from anyone. Now that’s MAD.

It takes a while for the film to get going, laying its groundwork slowly. Much of the first half hour introduces the characters – such as the family life of anti-Nuclear but loyal soldier General Black (a very good Dan O’Herlihy) and the chilling pragmatism of war theorist Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) to whom nuclear war is just a matter of working out what the acceptable casualty rates are (he would agree with Stalin that one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic). We tour the USAAF base where level-headed General Brogan (an excellent Frank Overton) and his twitchy number two Colonel Cascio (a slightly too fidgety Fritz Weaver) demonstrate just how fool-proof their systems are to a couple of congressmen – just as those systems fail.

From there the film plays out almost in real time, as the planes fly the two-hour journey to drop their bombs. Two hours when everyone tries to desperately tell themselves that this disaster can be prevented (or in some cases, can be turned into victory). Lumet’s film captures wonderfully the claustrophobic intensity of this. The Russians – despite never being seen – are skilfully humanised with snatches of conversation and photographs. The pilots are brave, resourceful, brilliantly trained – making their rigid determination to destroy the world for no reason (because their training doesn’t allow them to consider any other alternative) all the more tragic.

It all culminates in an impossibly bleak ending, the President’s only alternative to all-out nuclear war is one of terrifying magnitude. The inevitable build to this sacrifice is also executed with a low-key intensity. Fonda is perfect in the lead role – his tortured gravitas and decency pushing him towards ever more distasteful and finally appallingly bleak decisions.

Lumet’s film isn’t perfect – an overly impressionistic opening of General Black’s recurring dream of a matador smacks of someone who has watched way too many Bunuel films – and its slow start probably takes five minutes too long. But with its chillingly cold glaze on the flaws in the nuclear deterrent and the people who operate it, it deserves to be remembered as something more than Dr Strangelove Without the Jokes.

Equus (1977)

Richard Burton struggles to diagnose Peter Firth in play adaptation Equus

Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: Richard Burton (Dr Martin Dysart), Peter Firth (Alan Strang), Colin Blakely (Frank Strang), Joan Plowright (Dora Strang), Harry Andrews (Harry Dalton), Eileen Atkins (Hesther Saloman), Jenny Agutter (Jill Mason

In a parallel universe somewhere, there is a film version of Equus that doesn’t have a single horse in it. It’s probably a better version than this. Peter Shaffer’s stage play was a sensation in the 1970s in the West End and on Broadway – but Lumet’s film robs it of the mystique that made it work, by introducing a (literally) brutal realism. This helps reduce the play into being a quite self-important piece of cod-psychology, with ideas that increasingly seem more simplistic the longer the play lasts.

Dr Martin Dysart (Richard Burton) is a depressed and discontented child psychologist, who is struggling with a general sense of ennui, not sure what is life is for and stuck in a loveless, functional marriage. These feelings grow in him, as he begins to work on the case of Alan Strang (Peter Firth), a troubled young man who blinded an entire staple of horses in a seemingly random act of brutality. What were the deep-rooted psychological problems that caused Alan to carry out this senseless attack? And, by curing it, will Dysart remove from Alan anything that makes him unique?

Shaffer’s stage play used a combination of impressionistic moments, and mime artists, to create the impression of the horses that dominate the imagination (and desires) of Strang. Moments of horse riding (or eventual blinding) were presented symbolically. Meanwhile, Dysart functions as a quasi-narrator, delivering long speeches to the audience on the case, it’s causes and (increasingly) his own feelings of inadequacy and emptiness. It’s a tightrope, that manages to prevent the at-times portentous dialogue and student psychology from seeing either too self-important or slight. Lumet loses this mesmeric suggestiveness, doubling down on its pomposity. It makes for a bit of a mess.

I can totally see why, on film, it was felt necessary to go for real horses. However, it just plain doesn’t quite work. Watching a nude Peter Firth hug, stroke and eventually ride a horse until he reaches an orgasm mid-canter, might have had a sort of magic acted out on stage with dumb-show, puppets and actors as horses. On film, it’s tiresome and suddenly way too much. That’s as nothing compared to the decision to stage the blinding of the horses at the film’s end by showing us in graphic detail a sickle plunging into the eyes of alarmingly real-looking horses, blood pouring across Firth’s face. As that’s (pretty much) the last impression left on the audience for the film, rather than swept up in symbolism you’ll feel grossed out by the graphic violence. It’s not good for the play.

In fact, overlong and too full of speeches and not enough scenes, you watch this and start to wonder if Equus was much cop in any case. Certainly, the way it’s staged here doesn’t work. When Shaffer worked with Milos Forman on Amadeus that play was radically re-worked, extended and remodelled into an actual film that shared lines and DNA with the play, but was a very different beast. Equus is basically pretty close to an exact filming of the stage script, except on location. The show-stopping speeches by Dysart – brilliantly delivered by Burton as they are – come across heavy-handed, portentous and (in the end) off-putting and alienating.

That’s to mention nothing about the plays take on sex and psychology which feels very tired. Needless to say, Strang’s problem is rooted in his relationship with his parents (they fuck you up, you know). His mother (played with wound-up tension by Joan Plowright) is a holier-than-thou type who thinks sex is something a little dirty, while his father (an equally buttoned-up Colin Blakely) is a deeply repressed man who thinks sex is something to be ashamed off. Bound that up with the parents clashes about religion and you wind up with a boy who sublimates his sexual feeling into a confused horse worship, laced with religious overtones.

Which all sounded more daring then than perhaps it does now. Now this sort of sexual confusion (various theories suggest that the young Colin felt his first ever sexual longings after sharing a ride on a horse with a young man and – ashamed of these homosexual yearnings – transferred the association with sex from the man to the horse) was familiar then – it’s pretty much the first thing we look for now. And the insights the play offers around this, don’t carry nearly enough impact or insight to make you feel you are learning something. Anger, frustration, impotence, fear and shame all rear their heads as expected.

Saying that, Peter Firth – who originated the role at both the National and on Broadway – is excellent as Strang. It’s a full-bloodied, committed performance – but also one that is packed with an acute empathy and insight, a sensitive empathy and vulnerability that makes Strang deeply sympathetic even when he is at his most odd.

Richard Burton – who lost his final Oscar bid with this film – is also very good as Dysart. The rich Burton voice is perfectly used for Dysart’s monologues (all filmed in one day, in consecutive order, by Lumet). Burton’s puffy, unhealthy face also matches up perfectly with the sadness and resignation in Dysart – qualities that Burton again brilliantly conveys, his eyes brimming with regrets and his voice catching behind it oceans of confusion, sorrows and self-accusation. It’s one of Burton’s greatest performances, the ideas and elaborate language being a gift for an actor like him who worked best when challenged with complex material.

Unfortunately, the play itself is bogged down in a grimy, unattractive literalism that grinds the life out of it and ends up making it look very slight (this isn’t helped by its huge length). While the acting is very good – Jenny Agutter is also excellent as a young woman whose attempted seduction of Strang triggers a breakdown – the direction is leaden and the play ends up feeling histrionic and simplistic rather than engrossing and insightful.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Al Pacino takes a bank hostage in Dog Day Afternoon

Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: Al Pacino (Sonny Wortzik), John Cazale (Sal Naturile), Charles Durning (Sgt Eugene Moretti), Chris Sarandon (Leon Sharmer), James Broderick (Agent Sheldon), Lance Henriksen (Agent Murphy), Penelope Allen (Sylvia), Sully Boyer (Mulvaney), Susan Peretz (Angie Wortzik), Carol Kane (Jenny)

Perhaps only in the 70s could a failed bank robber have been turned over-night into a counter-culture folk-hero. It’s the subject of Sidney Lumet’s thrilling, heist-gone-wrong movie, set on one sweltering day in New York when Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) tried to rob a bank to fund the sex-change operation of his boyfriend Leon (Chris Sarandon). He ends up taking the co-operative bank staff hostage while a media and public firestorm takes place outside the bank, mixed in amongst an army of trigger-happy cops. And it’s all based on a true story.

Sonny is far from your hardened criminal. He doesn’t want anyone to get hurt. He takes care of the hostages, who all become immensely fond of him and his less confident partner-in-crime Sal (John Cazale). When the police and media turn up, Sonny is outraged at the trigger-happy police presence and quickly wins the support of the crowd with his honesty, bluntness and quick wit. With the police incapable of controlling the situation, soon he is actively playing to the crowd, taking phone calls from the press in the bank. He becomes a counter-culture icon, sticking it to the man (his famous chant of “Attica!”, refers to the famous prison riots, where prisoners rioted to secure their rights).

It’s the key topic that fascinates Sidney Lumet, in this brilliantly frentic, edgy and dynamic film, that captures the tension in New York, where it felt like the careful balance between law and order could disintegrate any time. Lumet’s improvisational feel with the crowds, the edgy, raw performances – particularly from Pacino and Durning, both of whom are sensational – and the sense that anything could happen at any time. Dog Day Afternoon is about a city on the edge, combined with the ability of the media to turn regular people into stars. There was little faith in the authorities, and even a little bit of nose thumbing in their direction could sway the crowds.

At the centre of all this is Sonny, a fascinatingly flawed person, partly absorbed with being the centre of attention, part desperately trying to work out what his best move is among an increasingly narrowing number of options. Al Pacino nearly didn’t take the role, after suffering a near nervous collapse from the pressure of Godfather Part II – but, after committing to the film, he gave one of his most extraordinary performances of an era he and a small group of actors dominated.

Sonny feels increasingly trapped in his predicament. The robbery of the bank is hilariously cack-handed from the start – one of the robbers bails in minutes and has to be begged not to go home in the get-away car – and it becomes clear that for Sonny this is all a last desperate throw of the dice. Both of his relationships – with his first wife and his second marriage to Leon – are relationships on the brink of disaster, destabilised by Sonny’s desperate need for prove of love and affection. He’s a man uncertain in his own skin, smart enough to know the world isn’t fair, but not smart enough to know what to do with it. Fundamentally decent, but forced into illegal actions. Pacino delivers this with the expected fireworks, but when we see Sonny away from the public gaze, he’s a sad, broken-down, isolated man who genuinely doesn’t know where his life is going.

Dog Day Afternoon was radical at the time for how it deals with homosexuality. Neither Sonny nor Leon are presented – as might have been expected at the time – as limp-wristed or fey, but just regular guys who happen to want different things from life. Chris Sarandon (Oscar nominated) is strikingly tender, low-key and world-weary as a man resigned to what the world is throwing at him, from the emotional pressure of meeting Sonny’s needs for affection, to spending every day feeling trapped in his body and facing suspicious stares from all around him. Pacino presents Sonny as a masculine, dynamic figure whose sexuality is just part of his personality. It’s a film not afraid to acknowledge the love between men, and never considers this anything other than entirely normal – something extremely unlikely in 70s cinema. Indeed, you can see the mood of the time in the way the crowd changes once the motivations behind Sonny’s actions becomes clear. Hostility grows – through many gay rights activists quickly arrive to bolster the crowd. The films normalising of homosexuality, also serves as a critique for the assumptions and reduced options many identifying as gay had at the time.

Of course, this all makes the entire siege even more attractive to the media. The film is a neat satire of the way the press can turn events like this into entertainment. A pizza delivery guy, sent to feed the hostages, can barely contain his excitement, screaming “I’m a star!”. At least two hostages refuse offers to leave the siege – at least partly, it’s suggested, because there is nowhere better to be than at the centre of the show. Pacino’s electric playing to the crowd demonstrates how Sonny’s firecracker sense of the turmoil of the period – the violence of the authorities and the lack of justice for the regular guy – helps feed this. The media’s eagerness to sensationalise the events, do turn them from real life into entertainment – and the way so many characters and on-lookers yearn to be part of a real-life drama – is sharply critiqued, with truth and humanity sacrificed for prime-time ratings (ideas Lumet would explore even more deeply in his next film Network).

It’s also fascinating to watch the cack-handed police inexperience at handling sieges like this, from the lack of central control to the trigger-happy cops, to allowing public and the media to get within a few metres of the bank entrance. Charles Durning is superb as a frazzled police sergeant, out of his depth, unable to control his colleagues and totally lacking the calm and control needed for hostage negotiations. He’s replaced in the operation by FBI agent Sheldon – played with a chilling distance by James Broderick – who represents the other side of the law at the time: ruthless, cold and very ready to switch from negotiation to execution.

Sonny may look is in control of things, but it’s quickly clear no-one really is. Even Sonny feels this, Pacino delivering with a resigned calm a scene where Sonny asks one of the bank tellers to record his final will. Dog Day Afternoon is also a tragedy, with the real victim being Sal, Sonny’s partner in the robbery. He’s played with an almost childish innocence by John Cazale, as a not very-bright man completely out of his depth, whose idea of a foreign country to escape to is Wyoming (a hilarious piece of improvisation by Cazale). While Sonny is the public face of the situation – and someone law officials figure they can work with – Sal becomes a dangerous unknown quantity for them that they feel needs to be disposed with. An offer they openly make to Sonny, who furiously rejects it (but, tellingly perhaps, doesn’t tell Sal about).

Poor Sal sweetly chats with the staff. He quietly warns about the dangers of smoking. He sweats and timidly waits to be told what to do. He bravely tells Sonny that he is completely ready to shoot the hostages, while clearly having no idea about the emotional reality of doing this. He meekly follows instructions and is responds with panic to almost every situation. Cazale’s flawless performance turns him into the real victim here, completely unprepared in every way for the situation he is in (he whiningly complains about being called gay on the news, and is terrified at the idea of flying with the hostages to a foreign country, having never been in a plane before). It’s a wonderful personal tragedy that plays in the background of the film.

Lumet’s film has the dynamic vibe of a fly-on-the-wall documentary turned drama. Pacino is the perfect actor for this, his performance (Oscar-nominated) sensational, high-octane and demonstrative mixed with confused, vulnerable and eventually traumatised and guilt-ridden. The film brilliantly balances questions of politics, media and sexuality, offering seering critiques of attitudes around all three. Wrapped into a fire-cracker film, this is a brilliant piece of social commentary, personal tragedy and street theatre. Overlooked more than it deserved, it’s a masterpiece of 70s film making.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Albert Finney interrogates an all-star cast in Murder on the Orient Express

Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: Albert Finney (Hercule Poirot), Lauren Bacall (Linda Arden), Martin Balsam (Signor Bianchi), Ingrid Bergman (Greta Ohlsson), Jacqueline Bisset (Countess Helena Andrenyi), Jean-Pierre Cassel (Pierre Paul Michel), Sean Connery (Colonel John Arbuthnot), John Gielgud (Edward Beddoes), Wendy Hiller (Princess Natalia Dragomiroff), Anthony Perkins (Hector McQueen), Vanessa Redgrave (Mary Debenham), Rachel Roberts (Hildegarde Schmidt), Richard Widmark (Ratchett), Michael York (Count Rudolf Andrenyi), Colin Blakely (Cyrus Hardman), George Coulouris (Dr Constantine), Denis Quilley (Antonio Foscarelli)

If there was a film that set the template for our expectations for an Agatha Christie adaptation, it was probably this one. A big starry cast. Luscious period detail. An engrossing plot with clues and double meanings in every corner. A healthy mix of the OTT and the chilling. Marshalled by Sidney Lumet, almost certainly the best director to take on a Christie mystery ever, this film was a massive hit then and remains a hugely enjoyable, rewarding treat now, the sort of masterclass in quality film-making and bravura acting that is guaranteed to leave a smile on your face.

You surely must know the plot by now right? Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) returning from a successful case in the East hitches a ride on the Orient Express on the way home. During the journey he is asked by American businessman Ratchett (Richard Widmark) if he would take up the role of his bodyguard after threats against his life. Poirot turns him down – and sure enough the next morning Ratchett turns up dead in his compartment, with no less than a dozen knife wounds in his chest. With the train stranded in a snow drift, the killer must be one of the other twelve passengers in the carriage. And so the case begins…

Sidney Lumet’s superb, classy piece of murder mystery is a triumph of design and style. The train looks superb, the period detail is perfect, the costumes are luscious. But what Lumet brings to it all underneath all this Sunday afternoon splendour is a genuine sense of chilling menace. Helped a great deal by Richard Rodney Bennett’s haunting musical cues, this film never lets the viewer forget that the heartless destruction of an entire family is at the root of the crime itself, or that the desires for revenge we find in ourselves can take us to dark places. 

Lumet’s film opens with a brilliantly constructed series of newspaper stills, establishing the horrors of the Daisy Armstrong case that underpins the mystery, the kidnapping and murder of a young child (based on the Lindbergh kidnapping) that led to tragic consequences for an entire family. This chillingly sad and tragic back story is echoed throughout the film, and immediately establishes the stakes for all involved.

So we spend the film then trying to work out how all the suspects might fit it into this story. Lumet’s concept of bringing together an all-star cast was a brilliant idea, not only giving each of the suspects a quickly established personality (partly inspired by the actor’s body of work), but also assembling a group of such talented actors that they can sketch out a character within a few moments. Lumet’s first recruit for the cast was his old collaborator Sean Connery – and the agreement of Connery to take on a supporting role brought a host of actors to follow. It all adds to the fun, an enjoyable star-spotting exercise, and also an amusing game of watching sometime wildly competing acting styles.

Connery plays Arbuthnot with a stiff-upper lip English reserve, but then you also have a wonderfully arch (and very funny) John Gielgud, a dementedly twitchy Anthony Perkins (McQueen seems to have been adapted into a junior brother of Norman Bates), a show-boatingly larger-than-life Lauren Bacall (great fun), a Germanic stern Rachel Roberts and an inscrutable Vanessa Redgrave. That’s just a few of a terrific collection of actors, and arguably only Wendy Hiller’s overly imperious Princess Dragamiroff is a bit of a miss.

Lumet’s strength in depth allowed him to push his actors into demanding places – complex set-ups and, most especially, a series of long takes in his often confined performance spaces. The highlight – in fact it won her an Oscar – is Ingrid Bergman’s five-minute (practically only) scene where the camera slowly rotates around her across five minutes as she tells her story. Bergman’s shy, nervy, gentle and timid missionary comes across as achingly vulnerable. Bergman had been offered the larger role taken by Wendy Hillier, but wisely turned it down for this show-stopping moment.

The advantage of having such accomplished actors was most clear in the burden placed on Finney as Poirot. Watching it now – familiar as we are with decades of David Suchet’s definitive performance – it’s easy to see Finney’s performance as a little too much. Covered with make-up and a fat-suit, his shoulders hunched around his neck, his hair plastered down with grease and his accent frequently heading way out over the top, Finney certainly leaves very little in the dressing room. His Poirot is an amiable showman, a man willing to adjust his personality and approach from suspect to suspect, but in the end a man with a well-being arrogance and a deep sense of personal morality as well as a profound sense of humanity.

Finney was a surprising Oscar nominee for Best Actor, but he almost certainly owed this to his final speech, an almost thirty-minute tour-de-force. Lumet, operating in small confines, determined that the best way of getting the most dramatic energy from the speech was to use long takes, elegant camera moves, and the minimum of cutting – to let Poirot cast his spell over the audience as much as he does over the suspect. As such Finney – in a tiny, crowded, set – performed the complete monologue several times (each time apparently flawlessly) so that the camera could be positioned in each point in the confined set at a time. The result is seen in the final sequence, which uses dizzying long takes and careful camera moves to draw us brilliantly into the reveals that come thick and fast.

Finney’s performance is magnetic in its theatricality and commitment, and Lumet’s directing decisions throughout the sequence really help to make this sequence as effective as it is. Lumet’s peppers this sequence with a series of brief flashbacks to earlier in the film, which skilfully present snippets of the characters testimonies represented at different camera angles, which is both eerie and also throws a new light on the scenes we have already seen. For all that Finney is a bit much at times, you can’t help but enjoy this piece of showmanship.

The final resolution remains justly famous, and it largely owes a lot to this film. Agatha Christie even was favourable to the film (one of only two films of her work she liked, the other being Billy Wilder’s adaptation of Witness for the Prosecution) although (in words I presume heard by Kenneth Branagh) she bemoaned the smallness of Finney’s moustache. There have been several film and TV adaptations that have followed, but only David Suchet’s version has challenged it for the title of the best. With its gorgeous settings, imaginative direction and wonderful cast I never tire of watching it.

The Anderson Tapes (1971)

Sean Connery plans the perfect crime under the noses of the government in The Anderson Tapes

Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: Sean Connery (John “Duke” Anderson), Dyan Cannon (Ingrid Everleigh), Martin Balsam (Tommy Haskins), Ralph Meeker (Captain Delaney), Alan King (Pat Angelo), Christopher Walken (The Kid), Val Avery (“Socks” Parelli), Dick Anthony Williams (Edward Spencer), Garrett Morris (Everson), Stan Gottleib (“Pop”)

Everywhere we go now we kind of know that we are being watched. There are cameras everywhere. Satellite links build into our cars. Heck we all carry everywhere we go a portable tracking and recording device that can be listened into. So the idea of surveillance being ever present wouldn’t be a surprise to us. But in 1971, the idea that the government could be listening all the time, at any time was something that couldn’t cross anyone’s mind. 

It certainly doesn’t occur to John “Duke” Anderson (Sean Connery) just out of chokey after a ten year stretch. He’s back into a world he hardly understands, but it doesn’t take longer than five minutes in the swanky apartment block of his girlfriend Ingrid (Dyan Cannon) for him to case the joint and plan to do it over – all the apartments at once. Putting a crew together, Duke plans to clean out all the whole block of all its valuable property in one go, with financial backing from the Mafia (who owe him for unspecified reasons). Problem is, Duke’s entire plan is being recorded and monitored by different government agencies from top to bottom who – even if they aren’t speaking to each other – are in position to wreck his plans the instant anyone puts the clues together…

The Anderson Tapes is part crime thriller, part black comedy caper. It generally plays it pretty light – with flashes of violence or danger – and throws in some satire on the surveillance age. The tapes in question are different levels of surveillance at every location Duke seems to stop at. His time in the apartment is recorded by a PI following his girlfriend. The feds bugging his mafia contacts. Most of his criminal gang are being watched by the cops. All this recording creates a load of trees which block the view of the forest. Not one of these agencies thinks about joining up their thinking, meaning the actual robbery comes as a complete surprise to all of them. It’s a neat satirical mark on the incompetence of administrative led organisations – when the robbery is finally being reported by a ham radio operator, the news almost doesn’t get through because of a refusal by the 911 operator to transfer a call without an agreement on who will pay the charges for the call.

In all this surveillance Duke is like a romantic hangover from a by-gone time. As played by Sean Connery he’s a romantic figure, like some sort of working-class Raffles, living by the principles of a gentleman thief. He abhors violence, gets on well with all races and creeds, respects his victims and protects them (so long as they don’t get in his way) and runs operations designed to be clean, quick and painless. He justifies his thievery with talk of how most of the property he nicks is just sitting pointlessly in safes, that the insurance will pay out and that in a way he’s giving a bit of excitement to bored middle-class people. Connery is rather good in this role, channelling this rogueishness and expertly maintaining Lumet’s light tone.

Lumet’s direction is competent, professional and assured. Lumet did not hold the film in high regard – it was one he did “for the money” – but he expertly constructs the film, keeps it tight and brings more than enough intriguing directorial flourishes to it. The action frequently pauses in the criminals conversation for a jump cut to the feds listening to the recordings, having paused the recordings themselves (the paused action even uses voiceover from the feds asking for confirmation of who they are listening to). Later, Lumet uses a similar device in the robbery interjecting flash forwards to the people in the apartment bloc being interviewed on site by the police, commenting on events we have often just seen while the aftermath plays out behind them, that throws in plenty of narrative curve balls and misdirects as the action pans out.

The film is dated in places. Quincy Jones’ score often uses a jarring series of electronic beeps that are meant to echo the surveillance of the piece, but actually sounds impossibly dated and jarring. An opening monologue of Connery on the thrill of safe cracking uncomfortably sounds like he is comparing it to non-consensual sex, Martin Balsam’s gang member is an impossibly limp-wristed antiques expert (although he is immediately believable as someone who wouldn’t be questioned surveying apartments for architectural improvements while he is actually casing the joint). There are other moments – but the film gets by because it never leans too hard on any of these attitudes. Indeed the apartment concierge, is depicted as inflatteringly racist and homophobic, in stark contrast to the multi-ethnic, un-prejudiced gang carrying out the robbery.

The Anderson Tapes is an enjoyable, is very 1970s, piece of work that has more than enough to entertain you. It has a clever structure and makes some sound points on surveillance which probably make it more relevant today than it even was then. Connery is very good in the lead role and there is some excellent support (Christopher Walken is strikingly charismatic in one of his first roles). It’s not in the first rank of its director’s films, but it’s still a very fine caper thriller.

Network (1976)

Peter Finch rants and raves in media satire masterpiece Network

Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: Faye Dunaway (Diana Christensen), William Holden (Max Schumacher), Peter Finch (Howard Beale), Robert Duvall (Frank Hackett), Wesley Addy (Nelson Chaney), Ned Beatty (Arthur Jensen), Beatrice Straight (Louise Schumacher), Jordan Charney (Howard Hunter), William Prince (Edward Ruddy), Lane Smith (Robert McDonough), Marlene Warfiedl (Laureen Hobbs)

Is there any movie ever made that has been more prescient than Network? So spot-on was its vision of television becoming pushed to extremes by its obsession with ratings that when it was screened a few years ago for a group of teenagers in America, they allegedly didn’t realise it was meant to be a satire. I’m also pretty sure you would have to go a long way to find a better written movie – it’s no surprise that this has been converted into a successful play, it’s basically one already.

In the 1970s, UBS is a struggling TV network trying to find a niche among the giants. Its news show is losing its timeslot in the ratings – which is bad news for its respected anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch). Informed he will be fired due to falling ratings, Beale goes on air and casually announces he will blow his brains out live on air next week. When this sends the ratings rocketing, the network sends him back on air, encouraging him to speak his mind more rather than just report the facts. When Beale suffers a full blown breakdown, his anti-establishment rants touch a public nerve and Beale becomes a ratings smash – with the news show taken over by ambitious Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), Head of Entertainment, who turns it into a bizarre light entertainment show, with the increasingly unhinged Beale the main entertainment. It’s perfect for everyone – so long as the ratings hold…

Network could so easily have become a shrill, OTT satire. Writing down the plot summary there, it even reads like that – a big, stupid, pleased-with-itself film that hits its points hard and where every character is a grotesque caricature. But that’s not the case here. This is a brilliantly written film – Paddy Chayevsky is surely one of the greatest writers in film history – a fiercely intelligent piece of satire, which most importantly crafts its characters with empathy and understanding. Some of them may be larger than life, and some of them may do things that are just this side of heightened reality, but at heart they all feel real. The film is shot through with heart and a sense of realism that underpins the razor sharp satire.

And that satire is all around the world of television. So astonishingly prescient is the film about the rise of reality TV, ratings obsessed and lacking in real soul, that many of its jokes pass by almost unrecognised today. Respected news producer Max Schumacher’s throwaway line about an hour of network TV drama being made up of films of car chases (and crashes) from the police? Done to death already. The idea (again unthinkable in the 1970s) that a news anchor could litter the air with their own opinions on the news and current affairs – half the anchors in America now run their shows like editorial pieces. The concept that the public could be entertained by watching someone clearly not completely normal, throwing crazed statements at the camera – it could only be a fantasy right? A TV network completely in thrall to its corporate masters, following the line from the bosses? Yup surely that could never happen.

What Chayevsky does so well is turn these into masterpieces of rhetoric. Some of the greatest speeches ever written in film appear here, and they work because not only do they showcase some superb writing, but also every moment is crammed with ideas and real genuine feeling. Howard Beale may well be as mad as hell and not going to take it any more – but he articulates his reasons for feeling this with an acute emotional reality. Schumacher’s paens to the changing world of television, and his own lost place in it, are beautifully done. Diana’s ratings obsessed spewing of TV related facts and figures is sharply underpinned by our awareness all the time of the emotional reality of her near-inevitable emotional breakdown (surely only a few years at most down the line).

Given these lines, the acting is extraordinary (it won three of the acting Oscars in 1967). There isn’t a duff beat or performance in this film, and the delivery of the high-blown dialogue is simply outstanding, brilliantly directed by Lumet who was always a highly skilled director of actors. In fact, Lumet is often easy to overlook here, but his understanding of the material, and handling of its message and delivery, is a big reason for why it never becomes overbearing or trying. Away from the leads, he also gets superb performances from Duvall (chilling and on the verge of rage in every scene as the corporate suit who really calls the shots), Beatty (who had basically one speech, worked a day, and got an Oscar nomination) and Straight as Schumacher’s wife (who went one better than Beatty and won the Oscar for her one scene – the shortest Oscar-winning performance ever at just a few minutes).

Peter Finch won a posthumous Oscar for his role in this film – ill health restricted his “mad as hell” speech into only two takes (an extraordinary thought when you watch it). Beale is a gift of a part, an intelligent, compelling piece of showmanship – but Finch’s gift is to make the part feel real and human under the genius dialogue. The early scenes showcase Beale clearly struggling with depression, under the smiles, and already starting to crack. I love the way Lumet often frames Finch during these scenes – in group scenes he’s often to the edge of events, and he only slowly comes to the fore to gain a close up. Heck most of his first outburst on television is only seen by us on a viewing monitor in the control room (only the viewer seems to be listening by the way – the technicians are either gossiping or mechanically going through the motions of running the live broadcast, including countdowns to commercials).

Finch basically steals the movie, because you can’t shake from your mind his delivery of scenes like this one:

It’s even harder to believe that so many actors turned down the role – perhaps worried that it would seem like a pantomime role. One of those actors was William Holden – and thank goodness he did, because his grounded, bitter, crumpled, but still idealistic Max Schumacher is one of the film’s highlights. Holden gives one of his greatest performances – often overlooked under the flashy roles of Finch and Dunaway – making Schumacher the still centre of the film and, by its end, something approaching its powerless voice of conscience. 

Faye Dunaway (also Oscar-winning) makes a great deal of the demonic role of Diana Christianson, the representative of the next generation of TV producers, concerned only with ratings over morals. It’s probably the least “real” of the characters, but Dunaway finds the vulnerability and fragility carefully hidden under Diana’s chilly self-confidence and ruthlessness. 

It’s Diana who drives the film, overseeing the transformation of the news hour into a bizarre variety show (including a soothsayer, amongst a host of eccentric magazine feature slots) where Beale is bought on to rant about the emptiness of our world and the horrors of our soulless age like some sort of dancing bear, his inevitable fainting fits greeted by roars of applause. (“What are you?” asks the warm up man of the studio audience “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!” they delightedly cheer back).

The film runs a particularly dark streak alongside this with Diana’s plan to build a solid hour of entertainment every week from an embedded camera crew following the exploits of a gang of radical Marxist black-pantherist terrorists. The film gets a lot of slightly more obvious satirical material from this – the terrorists quickly lose their Marxist principles in hilarious fights around things like negotiating syndication rights – but its vision of television turning real-life horrors (repackaged) into entertainment for the masses is only a few degrees shy of where many channels have ended up today. 

That’s the whole film – sharply intelligent about where the world is heading, but balancing this with a genuine sense of humanity and emotional intelligence around its characters. If Chayevsky’s screenplay – or Lumet’s direction – hit us over the head with the points the film was trying to make, we’d quickly switch it off. Instead it makes its points with wit and a sense of reality that makes it both horrifying and entertaining. But then it would always have its place in film history with that dialogue and the acting it inspires from the cast. Most of the actors give their best ever work here, and the script is one of the finest around. As for the view of television – well, if we haven’t reached where Network was by now, it’s surely only a few minutes in the future.

The Deadly Affair (1966)

James Mason deals with marital and professional deception and betrayal in spy thriller The Deadly Affair (in every meaning of the word!)

Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: James Mason (Charles Dobbs), Maximilian Schell (Dieter Frey), Harriet Andersson (Ann Dobbs), Harry Andrews (Inspector Mendel), Simeone Signoret (Elsa Fennan), Kenneth Haigh (Bill Appleby), Roy Kinnear (Adam Scarr), Max Adrian (Adviser), Lynn Redgrave (Virgin), Robert Flemyng (Samuel Fennan), Corin Redgrave (David)

The Deadly Affair is a faithful adaptation of John Le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead, that first introduced to both Le Carré’s distinctive vision of espionage (a world where spying is a dirty, depressing business, miles away from Bond), and also his principal recurring hero George Smiley – although Smiley here is renamed Charles Dobbs (Paramount held the rights to several recurring Le Carré characters as it was making The Spy Who Came in From the Cold). The Deadly Affair often gets forgotten in the list of Le Carré films, which is unfair – this is a fine, gripping, character-led thriller.

Charles Dobbs (James Mason), a senior case officer in British intelligence, meets with Samuel Fennan (Robert Flemyng): a civil servant in the Ministry of Defence, who has been anonymously accused of being a Russian agent. Dobbs all but agrees to clear Fennan in a friendly meeting – only for Fennan to go home and commit suicide. Dobbs investigates, but quickly finds that the facts – and the story of Fennan’s wife Elsa (Simone Signoret) – don’t seem to tie up. Working with retired police inspector Mendel (Harry Andrews), Dobbs investigates further – against the wishes of his superiors. This also helps to distract Dobbs from his disastrous home life with his serially unfaithful wife Ann (Harriet Andersson) and her growing closeness to his old war friend Dieter Frey (Maximilian Schell).

The Deadly Affairhas an old-school, unflashy, Hollywood professionalism to it, very smoothly directed by Sidney Lumet. Lumet and photographer Frederick A. Young slightly exposed each shot of the film to give the colours a drained, murky quality, which works extraordinarily well for the grimy Le Carré feeling. Lumet uses a series of careful POV and shot-reverse-shots to involve the audience neatly in the action – we are nearly always seeing events from someone’s perspective, and this helps us empathise with the characters and action. He also uses London locations expertly – everywhere is carefully chosen and shot for maximum impact, creating a world of dingy backstreets that perfectly matches the feeling of the story.

It also helps that Lumet changes very little from what was already an excellent source novel. It’s an intricate “whodunnit” puzzle, twisty and challenging enough to keep the audience guessing. What the film does really well is introduce Dobbs’ wife Ann as a central character in the storyline, and to make marital betrayal and deception a complementary subplot, alongside Dobbs’ involvement in the world of professional bluff and counter-bluff: during the day he practises the very same deception that pains him so much at home. (Le Carré would effectively lift some of the ideas of this film adaptation and reproduce them in later books, most especially Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy.)

This marital disharmony becomes a key theme in the movie – two people who are totally reliant on each other but can’t seem to stop hurting each other. Ann is in many ways the hellish wife – serially unfaithful and largely unrepentant – but Dobbs is equally difficult, unnervingly patient and silently (but never vocally or perhaps even consciously) judgemental. They have a complex arrangement, but also a clear understanding of each other, and their conversations sound like careful, familiar routines. Like a scab, Dobbs keeps picking at this wound of his wife’s infidelity – early in the film he returns home after a late call out to find his wife naked in bed. She rises to greet him provocatively, and they kiss, but Dobbs seemingly can’t let go of his own sense of impotence. Later Ann demands Dobbs expresses some rage and jealousy – as if looking for him to show some sort of feeling.

It’s a neat sub-plot for a film that focuses on a series of major personal and professional betrayals – I counted no fewer than five over the course of the film but there are probably more depending on how you define it – and which shows how spying can become wrapped up in personal affairs. Despite Dobbs’ apparent pride at treating his work with a determined coolness, everything is so very personal in this film. Characters react often with emotions rather than cool rational thinking – with the exception of one character who uses the emotions of others very rationally to manipulate them. Even the final confrontation of the film has a sad loss of emotional control at the centre of it – and leads to actions bitterly regretted by the survivors.


James Mason is very good as Dobbs, buttoned-up but slightly run-down, a man who presents a face of calm control and wisdom to the world, but at home is an insecure, deeply pained, impotent mess. Determined and principled in the world of espionage, he is hopelessly in love with his wife, to the extent of practically allowing her free rein to do as she wishes. Despite being in nearly every scene, it’s also a very generous performance, quiet and unshowy, that often cedes the scene to his partners. Harriet Andersson (though clearly dubbed) manages to make Ann someone who feels sympathetic and understandable – even though she is a colossal pain.

Lumet also gets some wonderful performances from the rest of the cast, not least from Harry Andrews who I think steals the movie as a narcoleptic Inspector Mendel, obsessed with facts and possessed of a dry professionalism. The film also gives a gift of a role to Simeone Signoret, a woman with a troubled past and indeterminate motives, bubbling with guilt and resentment. She is given no less than three tour-de-force scenes (one played almost in complete silence) and plays each brilliantly. There are neat cameos as well from Max Adrian (as a campy popinjay running Dobbs’ department) and Lynn Redgrave as an eager stagehand for an amateur theatre company with some vital evidence. 

The film’s conclusion revolves around two masterfully done sequences: one during a performance of Edward II (by the real Royal Shakespeare Company – spot several familiar actors on stage), the second an emotional confrontation at a dock that erupts into violence. It’s a wonderful dwelling on betrayal and its impacts. It also works an absolute treat as a low-key counterpart to Bond at his Swinging Sixties height, while still packing a jazzy score from Quincy Jones (which at first seems completely incongruous but actually helps to establish the mood really well). Directed with professional assurance with a host of fine performances – it’s a little bit of an overlooked gem.

12 Angry Men (1957)

Henry Fonda must win over 12 good men and true in 12 Angry Men

Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: Henry Fonda (Juror #8), Lee J Cobb (Juror #3), Ed Begley (Juror #10), E.G. Marshall (Juror #4), Jack Warden (Juror #7), Martin Balsam (Juror #1), Jack Klugman (Juror #5), Joseph Sweeney (Juror #9), John Fiedler (Juror #2), Edward Binns (Juror #6), George Voskovec (Juror #11), Robert Webber (Juror #12)

A young man is on trial for murder. The jury retires to consider. On the first vote, only one man (Henry Fonda) questions his guilt. The other jurors are convinced they are right – can Fonda turn them around?

Who hasn’t done jury service and dreamed of being Henry Fonda? 12 Angry Men is perhaps the most compelling courtroom drama ever, for that very reason: hardly any of us are judges or lawyers, but we’ve all got a decent chance of doing jury service. What would we do in this situation? How thoughtful would we be about the evidence? And, of course, that little stab of ego – could we be charismatic and persuasive enough to sway a room of people? I think this is why this film sticks with people and has become such a persuasive part of our popular culture – we all wanna be Fonda.

12 Angry Men is a film that I feel touches perfection. I thought quite heavily about whether I could identify any flaws in it at all: the closest I got at was the shot Lumet throws in of the suspect (a sweet looking kid). I suspect this shot was required so that the 50s audience could be confident that Fonda was crusading for someone who at least looked innocent (although it always makes me think, since so many of the other jurors make snap decisions, why doesn’t at least one of them look at that cute kid and think “he ain’t no killer…”). Aside from that, I don’t think there is a single mis-step in the filming, acting or writing of the film – and how many times can you say that?

Lumet is a director who doesn’t get a lot of public recognition. He subordinates his skills to the requirements of the story, rather than an auteur who imposes his style. This works perfectly for this compelling slow-burn. Lumet’s expert filming quietly lets the actors and dialogue stand front-and-centre, while cleverly using his camera language and shot choices to amp up the tension.

At first, Lumet uses wider and high angle shots, allowing us to get a sense of the room and the characters. But the real effect of this plays out over the rest of the film, as Lumet slowly moves to tighter angles at POV height, until the final sequences are played out over a series of close-ups cutting from juror to juror, at low angles. What this achieves brilliantly is to make the film feel tighter and more claustrophobic – the room feels like it’s actually shrinking in on the jurors as they argue. You can get a sense of it in the videos below, both early and later in the film.

The film also works so brilliantly because it offers a brilliant insight (and critique even?) of the legal system. The one legal professional we see is a bored judge. All references to the unseen lawyers mention either their showmanship or inadequacy. Even the jury system is subtly called into question: several of the jurors are motived more by prejudice and personal experience than by any analysis of the evidence. Others are flawed in other ways; #12 switches sides indecisively three times while #7 is so impatient and bored with the whole process, he follows the direction of the least resistance. Without #8, a decision would have been made with no discussion at all. Even the very process of taking the vote is shown to root many of the jurors down to “sides” and creates an atmosphere of competition that becomes as important as seeing justice done. And in a system of trial by your peers, only #4 in any way identifies himself as sharing the background of the man on trial. Is this a perfect system?

These ideas, though, are skilfully interwoven in the background of a gripping legal thriller. 12 Angry Men is completely objective. We never see the witnesses whose performance is the cause of such analysis. We never see the scene of the crime. We don’t have any confirmation at all that either side is right. It’s a film about the importance of reasonable doubt – and the need to be absolutely certain before sending someone to the chair. Fonda feels that doubt – and persuades the other jurors of it – but we never know if he was right or not. We never know if any of the suppositions in the jury room are true – the important thing is how high the possibility is that they might be true – and how much that affects our willingness to convict.

The film is one brilliant set-piece after another, as each piece of evidence is interrogated. I honestly can’t decide which one I like the most. What makes it work is the variation of how each case is presented. The film is as comfortable with the drama of #8 flinging a replica of the “unique” murder weapon onto the table, as it is with a careful dialogue-led dissection of the eyesight of a key witness. Who can resist Fonda limping around an approximation of the next-door neighbour’s flat to see if he can cover a certain distance within a certain time. It helps that the dialogue is incredibly rich – it has to convey a lot of information, but also manages to sketch out each of the characters so swiftly and carefully that each of them feels real.

And we’ve come all this way and not even mentioned the performances. Again, each viewing gives me a chance to appreciate a new performance: my eye was caught on this viewing by Robert Webber’s seemingly cool and collected advertising man, who has far less certainty than he projects. Needless to say each actor is brilliant. Fonda (who also produced) is the very image of moral authority – as well as a generous collaborator on the movie. Is this his best performance? It’s got to up there – #8 is a humanitarian, but he’s never smug or self-serving, just a man who feels a strong sense of his own obligation.

If Fonda is the superego, Cobb’s #3 (the primary antagonist, if there is such a thing) is the ego – raging, elemental, decisive, unshaken in his beliefs. Cobb’s performance veers the closestto a little too stagy, but it’s a character that demands it. His bluster and swaggering are vital to the character in order to make his later emotional collapse work as well as it does – and #3’s final emotional disintegration really rings true. It’s a ferociously intense performance.

Each actor gets his chance to shine. Voskovec’s sensitive immigrant has a wonderful speech on the responsibility of passing judgement. The most barnstorming speech is Begley’s racist outburst late in the film. It’s beautifully done as this loud-mouthed bully explodes with frustration, then slowly and even rather sadly collapses as he talks on and on, each sentence making him weaker and weaker, more defensive and vulnerable. But it’s never a scene about just one man – the reactions are as well judged as everything else. And I can’t tell you how much I love #4’s “I have [listened to you]. Now sit down and don’t open your mouth again” one-line response which caps the scene.

In fact just mentioning #4 brings on my love of E.G. Marshall’s performance in this film. #4 should be one of the least engaging characters in the film – coldly analytical, professional, assured and clear minded. But he’s always human, never an antagonist, but a respected citizen – the only one of the jurors who is motivated by judgement rather than prejudice. I love his calmness, his cool lack of regard for #3 and #10’s loud-mouthed berating, his patient, studied explanation of his convictions. I adore his calm puncturing and counterview of each point Fonda puts forward, until he is finally won over – and its his winning over which makes the film work. If this thoughtful, intelligent man has doubts, shouldn’t we all?

But I repeat they are all great. Jack Warden’s #7 is totally convincing as (the film’s real villain?) a man indifferent to right and wrong when compared to his own needs. Balsam’s decent but ineffectual #1 is the perfect mediocrity in above his head. Sweeney’s wry, observant and shrewd #9 is a delight (Sweeney was the only member of the original TV play to be retained). Fiedler’s #2 grows in moral force throughout, belaying his quiet appearance. Klugman’s #5 is quietly defiant and conflicted. Binn’s #6 reveals himself as a mild, humble and honourable man.

I think I could watch 12 Angry Men every week of the year. It’s brilliantly filmed (how could I not mention the oppressive rain soundtrack that accompanies the latter part of the film) and wonderfully directed. The script is simply perfect, Reginald Rose expanding and enriching his original TV adaptation. The acting is nearly flawless from all concerned. It’s, quite simply, a great movie. I simply can’t imagine anyone not reflecting on this movie when heading into jury service. It subtly comments on the legal system, but never gets bogged down in this, telling a gripping and compelling story about things we never see. It’s pretty damn near close to perfection.