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12 Angry Sweaty Men

November 29, 2013


When 12 Angry Men was re-made in 1997, it’s interesting to try and figure out exactly why it’s so much less striking and memorable than the classic Sydney Lumet version made 40 years earlier.

It can’t be the cast, since the 97 film stars Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott.   And the script is almost identical.  It’s still a Reginald Rose adaptation.  Nor can it be the choice of director, since William Friedkin’s CV includes The Exorcist and The French Connection (as well as quite striking successes as The Birthday Party and The Night They Raided Minsky’s“).

A small part of the problem is the title.  In the 1990s, an all-male jury looks somewhat awkward and unlikely.  But, when all is said and done, I blame the air conditioning.  In the 1990s, air conditioning is fitted as standard in all public buildings, or so it seems.  In Lumet’s 1950s, there is a sort of fan in the room, but it doesn’t really work and eventually breaks down altogether.  The jury room then becomes very uncomfortable indeed.  It’s a hot hot day and these men really start to work up a sweat.  The tension and frustration in the room is palpable.  You can almost smell these soggy jurors by the film’s conclusion.  Mandatory air conditioning takes a lot of the pressure out of the later film, and makes the story seem rather more cerebral, most detached – almost like a whodunnit.

Sidney Lumet, who died about a couple of years ago, was a great one for sweat.  Many of his best films are drenched in perspiration.  Apart from 12 Angry Men, one recalls Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict, as well as The Hill (1965) which is one of Sean Connery’s very best movies and which is neck and neck with Cool Hand Luke for the title of sweatiest movie of its generation.  Lumet later directed Connery in The Offence, which is the sort of grim British 1970s movie for people who find Get Carter too light and fluffy.  The Offence is marked by a remarkable performance by Ian Bannen as a suspected child murderer.  He is interrogated under bright lights.  He sweats.

Sweat is one of the best ways of advertising something that film can do in an interior setting.  Lumet’s best films are “theatrical” in the sense that they often involve a single dominant claustrophobic setting, but they are also intensely cinematic in that they can focus on the detail of a sweating face in a way that only a camera can capture.  The involuntary quality of sweat also makes it a great authenticator, a great validator of certain inescapable pressures.

Air conditioning you see – good for our sanity, bad for our movies.

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  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Today would have been Sidney Lumet’s 90th birthday. And it’s been warm lately. So I’m reblogging this.

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