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12 Angry Men (1957)

26 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It takes a lot of effort to successfully make a film like this—a talented cast, smart dialogue, solid directing, and effective commentary. With “12 Angry Men,” the 1957 film adapted from Reginald Rose’s teleplay of the same name, this film about a jury confined to one room while determining the verdict of a murder trial would’ve been to make into an uninteresting hour-and-a-half-long experience. But instead, it’s a riveting, insightful, wonderfully-written-and-acted drama that serves as both a murder mystery and as a commentary on the American justice system and is effective as both.

The film is set in a jury discussion room in real time and mostly stays there, with the exceptions of a brief prologue and an equally brief epilogue. In the prologue, the jury has already sat through the trial and are hearing the final words of the judge before going about deciding the verdict of a young man (who is clearly a minority, but his race is never determined) who is accused of murdering his father. Then the jury moves into the room to determine the boy’s guilt or innocence. 11 of the 12 men vote “guilty,” meaning there is one holdout. Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) has reasonable doubt about the boy’s liability and challenges the others to prove him wrong. They bring up the facts, he states his case, and soon enough, another person, elderly Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney), holds out and changes his vote as well. This leads to further investigation on the case, with new possible answers and outcomes that help the examination cause change in others’ votes. For example, how are they sure of what the testifying witnesses saw or heard? Why couldn’t the kid clear up his alibi? What about the stab wound coming from the switchblade used as the murder weapon? New elements continue to pile on, adding to the possibility that they misinterpreted the facts. The two strongest jury members voting “guilty” are arrogant Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb), whose past overshadows his view of the present, and Juror #10 (Ed Begley), an ignorant bigot whose hatred blinds him.

The film works as a “murder mystery,” going by witnesses’ testimonies and physical evidence. But there are no clear answers or even indications as to whether or not the boy is actually guilty. But that’s not what the film is about. Instead, the film is about how if this jury is not absolutely sure that he is guilty, if there is any reasonable doubt, they must acquit him. They must acknowledge all possibilities or they’ll send a wrongfully accused defendant to death row. The film isn’t about the crime as much as analysis of the crime, and it successfully delivers much insight into what goes on in the jury room.

The way new possibilities continue to pile on one after another is handled effectively, with fascinating detail causing audiences to think about what verdict they would choose if they were in that room, listening to all of this. What also makes it work is the excellent dialogue spoken by the characters—how they all react to certain circumstances, what they have to say, etc. That’s really what gives the film its strength: the dialogue and the acting. Each of the 12 actors do great jobs portraying the “12 angry men” in the title and they each do their best to give their characters different personalities (twelve key characters is hard to keep track of, since only about half of them are allowed to leave impacts). Henry Fonda was the only big star at the time to highlight the film, and he does a brilliant job playing the conflicted voice of reason, Juror #8 (whose name isn’t revealed until the very end, along with Juror #9’s). Equally brilliant (at least, those who stand out to me) are Ed Begley as Juror #10, whose bigotry is enough to have everyone in the room turn against him at a crucial point; Joseph Sweeney as wise Juror #9; Jack Warden as the wisecracking salesman who serves as Juror #7 and is willing to stay with the winning side in order to make it to an evening baseball game; Lee J. Cobb as the aggressive Juror #3 (whose final verdict is the most heartbreaking moment in the film, in which he ultimately breaks down and cries); and John Fiedler as meek Juror #2, who is dominated by the others at first but more confident by the end. Those were the ones that stood out to me, but the other actors (Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, George Voskovec, and Robert Webber) do fine work as well. It’s a wonder why neither of these 12 performances were given Oscar consideration.

Of course, the direction can’t be ignored. Sidney Lumet, who used social commentary in each of his films no matter what the subject to get multiple points across, knew how to keep the tension going while allowing the actors to actually live the situation they’re in and let everything come naturally. The tension is raised not just with heat (as the film takes place on the hottest day of the summer, as indicated) with assistance from use of shots (mostly close-ups) to deliver a sense of claustrophobia.

“12 Angry Men” may have been released in the mid-1950s, but the issues being addressed in this film are still important today in 2015. What’s to separate facts from possibility? What is truly “fact?” Could a “guilty” verdict be allowed with reasonable doubt? Is there ever reasonable doubt? What are the true priorities of a juror? And most importantly, is a jury just willing to get on with their lives if it means ruining the life of another just because of what they heard and not because of what they know? Those are the questions addressed in “12 Angry Men,” an outstanding film that stands the test of time.

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Old Yeller (1957)

20 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Walt Disney’s “Old Yeller” is not merely a movie about the friendship between a boy and his dog. While that is a basic element in the movie, there’s more to it than that. It’s a movie in which a boy takes charge and becomes a man, even if it means to endure upsetting hardships.

“Old Yeller” takes place shortly after the Civil War, centered around the Coates family on a small Texas farm. While the man of the house, Jim (Fess Parker), sets off on a cattle drive for the summer in hopes of bringing back money to support the family, his oldest son Travis (Tommy Kirk) is left to take charge, in exchange for a riding horse—“You act a man’s part, and I’ll bring you a man’s horse,” his father promises. (Although he argues what the boy needs worse is a good dog.) Travis helps his mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire) on the farm and looks after his rambunctious little brother Arliss (Kevin Corcoran), who does nothing except play in the outdoors.

A stray “yeller” (yellow) dog causes some trouble on the farm. While Travis takes a disliking towards “Old Yeller,” Katie and Arliss welcome the canine into the family. But soon enough, Yeller proves to be brave and special to have around after protecting Arliss from a bear, and standing up to whatever other animal that becomes a nuisance. Travis grows to become closer to the dog than he would have imagined.

“Old Yeller” is somewhat episodic—it features the setup in which the father tells his oldest son to take responsibility; the central story in which the family gets the dog and learns that he can be very useful and extremely loyal; and the heart wrenching final act in which everything pays off. This is an effective coming-of-age story centered around this young boy who becomes a man by taking responsibility and having to deal with great loss. It’s no secret that by the time Papa comes home, Old Yeller will have died and Travis will have to learn to move on. He gets some encouraging words from his father—it’s a very strong moment when the father tells Travis, “You can’t afford to waste the good part frettin’ about the bad. That makes it all bad.”

The scene in which Old Yeller must die is one of the most heartbreaking dog-death I’ve seen in a movie of this sort, if not the most heartbreaking. Travis already had to deal with shooting two animals that were sick with rabies—the family cow and an attacking wolf. But Yeller has been infected by the sickness by fighting off the wolf, and Katie knows that eventually Yeller will become mad and endanger the family. Travis can’t face shooting him, and so he keeps him locked up in a wooden shed to wait about a month. Eventually, he sees the awful truth. The dog that was his best friend is now gone and Travis has to perform the unpleasant task of ending his suffering. The reason this is so tragic is because Travis, now learning to become a man, has to face the ultimate responsibility, and also because we as an audience have grown to love Yeller and appreciate his and Travis’ friendship. How can you not whimper when Travis hesitates to go through with it, before ultimately doing it?

Though, for me, it started in the scene in which Travis looks into the shed and sees a completely different Yeller. I know it was supposed to happen, but I was almost as shocked and dismayed as Travis was.

But “Old Yeller” isn’t entirely a downer. The scenes featuring the family and the dog are adventurous, good-natured fun, as Yeller stands up to a stampeding mother cow and aids Travis in marking wild hogs. And there is time for humor, particularly with the occasional visits by two neighbors, Bud Searcy (Jeff York) and his daughter Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn). Searcy is the most unreliable man to ever come across. He’s a lazy bum who does nothing but eat and talk. What’s funny about him is how he says he’s left to take charge of the womenfolk and the “young’ens,” even though he constantly has Elizabeth do everything for him. For example, Katie asks Travis to pick corn for dinner, and Searcy assures her that it’s a two-man job. Pause. “Elizabeth, go along with Travis.” Hilariously lazy.

The cast members deliver first-rate performances (with one exception, but I’ll get to that). Dorothy McGuire is completely convincing and brings warmth to her role as the mother. Fess Parker has a small role, showing up at the beginning and the end, but he makes the most of it and delivers the aforementioned (memorable) speech. Jeff York is a delight, Beverly Washburn is fine as Elizabeth, and Chuck Connors has a nice brief role as a friendly passerby who gives Travis some helpful advice. But the biggest roles go to Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, and of course Spike the dog. Well first, let’s get the dog out of the way (please don’t read that the wrong way). Specially trained to perform the task of stealing scenes as the title character, Spike is completely charming. Tommy Kirk is perfectly believable as Travis, managing to create the transformation from boy to man flawlessly. But the “one exception” I mentioned earlier is Kevin Corcoran as the kid brother Arliss. I don’t say this because he isn’t convincing as a rowdy, excitable little boy, but because he is incredibly annoying. His constant screaming and yelling of every single one of his lines makes him immediately unlikable. I never really liked this little brat in most of the Disney movies he appeared in since then.

But even with Corcoran’s obnoxious performance, you can’t fault the true gem that “Old Yeller” is. It’s a neat frontier-fun movie as well as a very touching coming-of-age story. It’s sincere, good-natured, and delivers some convincing, emotionally-involving drama. It’s far from simple as some think it is. It’s a well-put-together family film with good acting and memorable scenes.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

10 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The 1957 science-fiction film “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” written by Richard Matheson (based on his novel), takes the idea of an ordinary person exploring an alien planet, and brings it closer to home. This is a story in which a man is continuing to shrink with each passing day until he is so small that his own home becomes a whole new, treacherous world for him. It’s a clever idea, executed wonderfully (and effectively) in “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” with a great sense of danger and adventure, as well as some nicely-done special effects.

It begins as Scott Carey (Grant Williams) and his wife Louise (Randy Stuart) are on vacation at sea when Scott is enveloped in a radioactive mist. Since then, his clothes don’t fit, he’s losing weight, and worst of all, he’s losing height. Every day, he keeps getting smaller. Several weeks later, he is the size of a small boy as he becomes famous (and known as the Incredible Shrinking Man), while the doctors are searching for a cure.

The first half is mainly about how Scott and Louise deal with this strange phenomenon surrounding Scott, and it’s exceedingly well-done. You really feel the pain that each of them are going through, with Scott being regarded as a freak and Louise feeling helpless to him. It’s acted with a great deal of conviction, given the material—the best example is when the camera is focused on the back of an armchair while Louise and Scott’s brother Charlie (Paul Langton) are talking; the revealing shot of the diminutive Scott, sitting in the armchair, is most effective not because of the effect, but because of the blank expression of Grant Williams’ face. The melancholic situation becomes even clearer.

Then, we reach the second half of “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” which transforms the film into an adventure story. Scott is now small enough to live in a dollhouse and Louise walking about the house becomes too much for him to handle. Then, when Louise leaves the house for a little while, something unexpected happens. The family housecat comes into the house and attacks Scott, chasing him about the house until he reaches the cellar, where he is accidentally and ultimately trapped. Louise comes back to believe that the cat has eaten Scott and so no one is going to come down to the cellar looking for him, leaving Scott to endure the new world he has brought himself into.

The film is advertised with the tagline, “A Fascinating Adventure Into the Unknown!” I would have to agree. Scott is inside the cellar, he can’t climb the stairs, he calls for help but no one can hear him, and the floor expands like a vast wasteland. He gets water from a leaking boiler (drops are the sizes of golf balls), he now lives in a matchbox, he has to get food from a mouse trap and high atop a cabinet that towers over him, and he is menaced by a tarantula loose in the cellar. It’s a treacherous new world that is of course Scott’s from a different scale.

The giant sets are (forgive the pun) largely convincing and really make you believe that there is a tiny man in a giant world. And the suspense of the second half, as Scott braves this unknown land, really comes through. The adventure keeps building and building as it goes along, with Scott scaling the walls, crossing a Grand Canyon-type of pit, and eventually doing battle with the spider.

Throughout the movie, we get a close look at Scott’s psyche, so that we understand his plight and sympathize with him. Much of this element is further improved in the final few minutes, as Scott is coming to terms with the idea that he will shrink into nothing…or will he? The film ends with an inner monologue (one of the best acting monologues, in my opinion), in which Scott now accepts his fate and looks forward to an adventure in an even smaller realm and beyond. He believes that no matter how small he will get, he will never become nothing and will still matter in the universe, thus ending his fears of future shrinking. This is not, nor has it ever been, a standard miniature-adventure story. There’s a psychological element to it that makes it special—exploring power and acceptance. That ending is just fantastic. I’m pleasantly surprised that the writers really had it in them to do this instead of taking the easy way out.