Sunday, February 04, 2007

Great Cinematic Speeches: Twelve Angry Men

In my first Great Cinematic Speeches post I wrote about the story that Robert Shaw's character Quint tells in the movie Jaws (often known as the "Indianapolis speech"). Today I am reminded of yet another cinematic soliloquy that I think is absolutely brilliant. I never intended for this to be a recurring feature. My original plan was to simply highlight one of my favorite on-screen speeches and then throw the door open for others to name some of theirs. That never really worked out, but I feel compelled nevertheless to mention another one. I don't know that I am prepared to say it is "one of the greatest cinematic speeches EVER," but it is certainly one of my favorites and it is the delivered by Lee J. Cobb's character in the finale scene of Sidney Lumet's Twelve Angry Men.

*NOTE: If you haven't seen this film yet then I suggest that you do not read on (nor view the film clip) as there are SPOILERS. I do, however, recommend that you view the film as soon as possible as it is an excellent movie. If you have seen it and are an "insulted cinephile" that I could possibly think you hadn't, I am sorry. One of the things they always taught us in writing class was not to assume TOO much about your readers. I figured, "better safe than sorry."

There are several characteristics that make this speech great. First of all, it doesn't feel like a speech. It's really more of a rant. All of the things that Cobb says are most likely scripted (though it's not exactly Shakespeare) but it has such an energy and spontaneity that it looks absolutely real. The "arguments" he gives for why he knows the boy is guilty are at best haphazard and random. At worst, they're completely incomprehensible. It's as if he's simply throwing out anything and everything that pops into his head without taking time to organize his thoughts or, at times, even finish them (The moment when he says "The knife falling through the hole is in his pocket," and then immediately changes the subject to "You can't prove he didn't get to the door," has always been one of my favorite parts). What becomes painfully clear throughout the course of the speech (and through the entire movie as a matter of fact) is that Cobb's verdict is not based on any actual reason or logic but rather on his own personal anger, prejudice and pain.

Another thing I noticed recently upon viewing it again was this it was done entirely in one take. There are a few cut-aways to the other faces in the room but when they cut back to Cobb it is clear that it's the same shot. Thus, rather than this being a performance that was "created in the editing room," this is a real soliloquy delivered by a fine actor. That probably makes this one of the more "theatrical" of cinema speeches and, in fact, the whole style and tone of Twelve Angry Men is very much like that of a stageplay.

Finally, the last gesture that Cobb makes at the end gives the scene, I think, real poignancy. I know I'm not telling anybody who has seen the movie anything they don't already know, but when Cobb sees the smiling face of his son looking at him from the photo in his wallet, it becomes painfully clear that he was not really executing the boy who was on his trial but his own son. As he explains earlier in the film, he and his son had a fight and he hadn't spoken to him for years. Voting guilty and sending the defendant to the chair was his way of "getting back" at his son, making him pay for the hurt that he had been caused by his son (hurt that he had really brought upon himself). When he couldn't take it out on the defendant or on the other jurors anymore, he tore up the photo (he needed to violently express himself somehow) and afterward, of course, realized what he was doing all along. That's why he sobs "Not guilty." He knew, in the end, that the others were right and he couldn't bear to make this poor boy pay for the mistakes he had made with his own child. I am always very moved by this moment in the speech and I am not ashamed to admit that if I am watching the film in its entirety, when we get to this scene, I tend to cry.

Anyway, I invite others, once again, to mention other great cinematic speeches that they might happen to like.