Because I get Turner Classic Movies (TCM), and have a Digital Video Recorder (DVR), I have an unusually long list of movies I’ve seen a million times, and will see a million more. All different genres — I never get tired of them.
I doesn’t matter that I know the ending, or can look at any one frame of film, and recognize the whole movie.
I just watched two: 12 Angry Men, starring and produced by Henry Fonda, directed by Sidney Lumet (Tootsie, Dog Day Afternoon, Network), with all-time great male character actors: Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Ed Begley, Jack Klugman, Martin Balsam, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, and a few guys I’ve seen a million times whose names I never learned.
Then I watched Jezebel, which turned Bette Davis from an Academy Award-winning leading lady to a superstar. It was directed by William Wyler, and co-starred Henry Fonda, George Brent, Margaret Lindsay, Faye Bainter, and Donald Crisp. Fonda was a great star; the rest were all-time great character actors..
If I can figure out why these two films are evergreens for me, maybe I can figure out why I can watch other films I love an infinite number of times.
Twelve Angry Men
Fonda starts out alone against 11 jurors eager to send a minority kid to the gas chamber for killing his father. Fonda begins finding details the defense attorney failed to stress, and persuades the jurors one by one that there is reasonable doubt. Each juror moves from guilty to not guilty in his own way for his own reason consistent with that character.
And the jury moves as a group. Fonda picks up one vote, then another, then another, then it’s 6-6. At 8-4, the newest not guilty vote flip flops, back to guilty, then back again.
The last three to switch to not guilty are individual dramas. Ed Begley’s character is a genocidal racist who thinks all those slum kids should be executed before they make trouble.
When E.G. Marshall, who is still voting guilty, listens to a racist tirade and tells him to shut up, Begley realizes his prejudices, not the facts, are behind his steadfast guilty vote.
Marshall plays an honest, conservative man who believes the evidence. When there is reasonable doubt about everything else, he still believes the eyewitness, who saw the murder through her bedroom window after she retired.
When a juror remembers she did not wear glasses on the witness stand, and had marks on her nose that could only be made by glasses, Marshall votes not guilty. Nobody wears glasses in bed, he says.
The last holdout, Lee J. Cobb, is a loud-mouth authoritarian bully, who yells throughout, intimidates jurors, and is sarcastic. We know he beat up his son for refusing to fight, and had not seen his son for two years. With all the evidence in doubt, and no one else voting guilty, Cobb is reduced to “It’s my opinion and I got a right.”
Then, he loses it. “You’re letting him slip through our fingers, you bleeding hearts. Some story about how he grew up in the slums. What’s the matter with you people?”
His monologue switches from the young defendant, to ungrateful kids in general, to his own ungrateful, sissy kid. He pulls out his son’s picture, which he always keeps in his wallet, and tears it to pieces. Then, he breaks down, cries and deflates, and votes not guilty, making the jury unanimous.
All my favorite movies are great stories, and have great supporting actors. I can’t imagine My Cousin Vinnie without Fred Gwynne as the judge, or The Godfarther Part I without all those great, recognizable character actors, or Woody Allen, John Ford, and Clint Eastwood without their favorite supporting actors and off-camera craftspeople..
Jezebel: A Great Hollywood Bitch
In Jezebel Davis is one of the screen’s greatest spoiled, willful young bitches, a Southern belle in1856.
The big scene is wordless, between Fonda and Davis, when she insists on scandalizing the whole town by wearing a red dress to the Olympus Ball. Unmarried women are supposed to wear only white to that event.
When everyone at the ball recoils from her, Davis realizes she went too far and asks Fonda to take her home. He refuses to teach her a lesson about being willful and flaunting convention. They speak volumes as they silently waltz around the empty dance floor.
Davis loses Fonda that night. He moves to New York, marries a Yankee, and brings her back to visit. Davis does everything to win him back, but he loves his wife, not her. When Fonda collapses with yellow fever, he must go to the leper island with all the other victims.
Davis’s Character Changes
Davis’s character turns upside down. She convinces Fonda’s wife to stay behind, and let Davis go with him to nurse him on the island.
“It’s hell, not a hospital. You’ll have to fight for every bit of food. I can fight better than you. I can get ‘darkies’ to do what I say. It will give me one last chance to do something unselfish for the first time in my life, and prove myself worthy of the love I feel for him.”
What a character, what a character change. It’s completely believable.
For me, the best cinematography stays in the background and serves the story, often in unconscious ways, without calling attention to itself.
12 Angry Men is black and white, and all the action takes place in a tight, crowded jury room. But Lumet’s camera angles create so much tension from beginning to end, and the rain storm that starts outside halfway through also serves the story and adds unconscious tension.
Film historian Robert Osborne of TCM said, whenever they show Jezebel, people ask him why they don’t show the color version. There never was a color version, but the black-and-white cinematography was so good that people were convinced Davis’s scandalous red dress was really red on the screen.
Here, in random order, is a partial list of some of my other favorite evergreen movies:
Dog Day Afternoon, Godfather I and II, with Al Pacino, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More by Martin Scorsese, My Cousin Vinnie, with Joe Pesci, Fred Gwynne, and Marissa Tomei, Citizen Kane, The Third Man, and Touch of Evil by Orson Welles, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Manhattan by Woody Allen. Nobody does Manhattan better.
Easy Rider with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, Cool Hand Luke, Hud, and Hombre, with Paul Newman, Three Faces of Eve, Rachel Rachel, and Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams with Joanne Woodward, and director John Ford’s three Cavalry movies with John Wayne – Rio Grande, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, and Fort Apache.
Mystic Pizza with Julia Roberts, Fried Green Tomatoes with Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy, and anything with Spencer Tracy, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Lee Remick, Bette Davis, Cary Grant, and Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Marilyn Monroe.
Much as I love Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Roaring Twenties, The Caine Mutiny), I’ve never been able to sit through any of the steamy films he made with Lauren Bacall, the love of his life — no matter how often I try. So many movie mavens (experts) watch these a million times and never get bored. I can’t explain my reaction.
I can’t watch the movies Katherine Hepburn made in the 1930’s, but won’t miss any she made starting with The Philadelphia Story. That includes all nine with Spencer Tracy, On Golden Pond, The African Queen, and The Lion in Winter.
Anything you’d like to add?