Want to see a good movie but don’t know which ones to pick? Picking some best pictures that you never got around to seeing may be the way to go, which is what I have been doing. Curiously two of these best pictures had Henry Fonda in them and the first happened to be made in the year I was born.
12 Angry Men (1957)
This early film by director Sidney Lumet helped earn him a reputation that extended to many more movies and TV shows that he would direct over subsequent decades, such as Serpico (1973). 12 Angry Men is a film chock full of well-known actors as well as many established character actors of the time. It includes Henry Fonda, who specializes in playing even-tempered men, and he is perfect here for his role as Juror #8. Some even temper is much needed on this all male jury as it is asked to decide whether an 18-year-old man should be convicted and likely executed for killing his father. It’s understandable that these men would be angry, as they are locked up in a hot and stuffy jury room and Henry Fonda is the only one of them who thinks there is reasonable doubt that this man killed his father. One juror is pissed because he thinks he won’t make his ballgame tonight.
It turns out the men are not so much angry as hurt. Almost all of them bring their prejudices into the jury room, but none more so than Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb), who kicked his sixteen-year-old son out of the house and channels his anger on the young man he must render a verdict on. Each juror is a study of a complex man in microcosm, including Juror #5 (Jack Klugman, who recently passed away) who grew up in the tenements, to the seemingly imperturbable Juror #4 (E. G. Marshall) who seems incapable of sweating, to Juror #11 (George Voskovec), who has felt the pain of discrimination from being in the minority. Overseeing the zoo is the affable Juror #1 (Martin Balsam), who really looks like he wants to be somewhere else. Slowly Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) is able to convince others there is sufficient reasonable doubt in this case to acquit the accused, but in this case acquittal requires reaching each man as a person, not always easy to do with such a prejudiced group of men.
What makes this movie memorable is how well it is acted, something you did not see much of in 1957, as well as its raw honesty, an even rarer commodity in a time when movies were heavily sanitized for family viewing. It becomes an intimate study in human psychology and persuasion. The film is relatively short (1:37) and in black and white but hard to forget. Today it would probably not merit Best Picture but for its time it was raw, realistic and honest moviemaking. 3.3 on my four-point scale.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
I am not much for westerns, but how can one resist a movie claimed by many to be the best western ever made? This movie may live up to that claim, not just for its acting and finely drawn characters, but primarily because it feels faithful to the west as it actually was, not the one we imagine on reruns of Gunsmoke or Bonanza. The real west included lots of Hispanics and Indians. Working on the railroads meant there was lots of Irishmen and in town the Chinese were running the laundries. The railroad is central to this western because Brett McBain built a ranch called Sweetwater on what turns out to be the only watering station near the planned railroad route in this part of Arizona. This means that Sweetwater is an excellent investment.
The movie takes established characters and puts them in unconventional parts. Henry Fonda, almost always given good guy roles, plays the convincing bad guy Frank. And bad guy he certainly is. He is supposed to persuade McBain to leave Sweetwater so the railroad can get his property at a bargain basement price. Instead Frank kills him and his whole family. He missed his recently acquired wife from New Orleans who arrives just in time to see the whole family laid out for display in the front yard. Jill is played by Claudia Cardinale, and one thing Jill has learned from her bawdy New Orleans upbringing is not to be easily intimidated by evil men. It helps of course to have a good guy on your side, but you would not expect him to be Charles Bronson, whose harmonica precedes him and gives him his name. Harmonica is really out to avenge the death of his father by Frank’s hands when he was still a boy. As with 12 Angry Men, the cast is populated by popular actors of the time, including Jason Robards as Cheyenne and Jack Elam as the gunslinger Snaky.
What viewers get is not so much a shoot ’em up Western, although there is the requisite amount of gun violence but a tense character drama principally between Cheyenne, Frank and Harmonica, with Cheyenne’s relationship with Jill helping to break up the tension. You also get glorious music by Ennio Morricone. This western has style, grit and authenticity as well as memorable acting, but does move a bit slowly. It’s no particular surprise it was singled out for the best picture award with its combination of scenery, authenticity and first class acting. 3.4 out of four stars.
Schindler’s List (1993)
This was an easy movie to skip for two decades given its grim focus on the Holocaust. Despite this, it is also easy to see how it won best picture because of how horrifyingly accurately the Holocaust was rendered and because of Liam Neeson’s faithful portrayal of Oskar Schindler.
Schindler used his fortune made in part by manufacturing items with slave labor to rescue some small percentage of Jews from Nazi extermination. Neeson plays Schindler almost reflexively, and it’s a tough role to carry off, as it requires someone who is a steely businessman, comfortable schmoozing with the Nazi power structure and yet at his core a humane person. Working for slave wages sounds terrible, but it was better for the Jews than the alternative of living in concentration camps.
Schindler finds it necessary to have his business follow the concentration camps since he depends on the cheap labor to make a profit, but also because he feels loyal to his Jewish bookkeeper Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) who is forced to go to a concentration camp. It’s easy enough to see the crematories at work from his factories or find the white ash of incinerated Jews on the grounds of extermination camps. Working for Schindler buys, at least for a time, some reasonable odds at avoiding extermination. As much as he can he protects those who work for him, but he mostly depends on Stern to keep the business afloat.
No expense is spared to accurately depict Nazi Germany and the concentration camps where Jews and many other persecuted minorities were exterminated. The movie is uncomfortably intimate in its depiction of hell on earth. It’s amazing that director Steven Spielberg was able to coax the voluminous extras to perform in some of these scenes, such as women marching naked into mass shower stalls. Perhaps the most horrifying character is Amon Goeth, who runs the local concentration camp and shoots Jews for sport from his house while keeping a Jewish mistress he clearly cares for.
It is deeply disturbing to see such inhumanity toward man on such a scale. Yet there is not an off note in the entire movie, which is completely convincing. The hardest part is simply finishing the movie, which is worth the journey to your queasy stomach. It is hard to imagine how this movie could not have won Best Picture. 3.5 out of four stars.