This excellent post on Rosemary’s Baby reminded me of some thoughts I’ve had about another peripheral character in an outstanding film. In this case, the character does not actually make an appearance, but nonetheless plays an important role. I’m thinking about the defense attorney in Twelve Angry Men.
A spoiler alert on a fifty year old movie is pointless, but proceed at your own risk. Recall that Twelve Angry Men concerns a jury deciding the fate of a young defendant accused of murdering his father. The first vote in the jury room goes 11-1, with only Henry Fonda dissenting. Fonda’s only reason for dissenting is that insufficient time has been given for deliberation. Slowly but surely, the jury reconsiders apparently damning evidence and finds that it doesn’t hold together. The film ends, of course, with an acquittal.
Among the most damning pieces of evidence considered by the jury is the attitude of the defense attorney, who was apparently unable to demonstrate even the faintest enthusiasm on behalf of his client. One juror remarked that the defendant must be guilty, as even his own attorney didn’t believe him. The defense attorney failed to impeach even the weakest of the prosecution witnesses. Fonda opined that the lawyer had little reason to be enthusiastic; the case carried no money or prestige, thus the attorney had no incentive to work hard for his client.
So. . .
Whenever I watch the movie, I like to think about what the defense attorney is doing. I imagine that he expects a quick conviction, after which he’ll make a brief reassuring comment to his client before going home, getting drunk, and forgetting about the whole experience. I wonder if he thinks the defendant is guilty, or just doesn’t care; I suspect it is the former. The jury deliberates for longer than he expects, and, as the second hour begins, he may begin to wonder what’s taking them so long. At about two hours, they announce the return of the verdict, and his fears are allayed; no jury, given this evidence, given the race of his client, would return a not guilty verdict so quickly. He feels safe, because his own inept half-assed performance won’t matter, and a guilty man will receive the punishment he deserves.
Then, the jury returns a not guilty. The prosecutor is surprised, no doubt, but also probably understands that several elements of his case are weak. The defense attorney, unable and, really, unwilling to find the holes in the prosecutor’s case, is shocked. He looks to his client, to the prosecutor, and to the jury in an effort to confirm the unbelievable verdict. The defendant is concerned; he feels he should be happy, but his lawyer looks almost sick.
Eventually hands are shaken, and the defense attorney leaves the courthouse. Where does he go? I think he heads to the closest bar, and starts hitting the scotch. How does he explain what just happened? Does he appreciate that his own ineptitude almost sent a young man to prison for thirty years? Does he believe that the jury made a mistake, and that a guilty man has gone free? Or does he manage to convince himself that his defense was actually brilliant, and that the defendant owes him his life?
My guess is a little #1, followed up by a lot of #3 as the empty glasses accumulate. But what happens then? Does he use the experience to become a better attorney? In bitterness, does he quit the law altogether? Or does he simply become a bitter, angry, pathetic alcoholic?
I think he becomes Frank Galvin.