Tagged: Henry Fonda

The Law Is A Ass

Bob Ingersoll: The Law Is A Ass #371


Let’s make it 12 Angry Men and one really pissed-off judge.

When I was practicing law in Cleveland, there was a judge who hated that movie. Really hated it. Once a prosecutor mentioned the 1957 movie during jury selection.. The judge actually interrupted the prosecutor, scolded him for mentioning the movie then exploded because the prosecutor said it was an example of how juries should deliberate.

“That’s a horrible movie!” the judge said. His rant could be heard back in chambers. On another floor. That was just his warm up. He next went into a tirade to make sure the jury knew why the movie was horrible and why no jury should do what the eighth angry man in 12 Angry Men did.

What did the Juror # 8 do that so infuriated said judge? Well, I’ll tell you. But before I tell you, I have to tell you that in order to tell you, I have to tell you important plot details about the 12 Angry Men. If you’ve never seen the movie but plan to and don’t want me to tell you telling plot details then…


… stop reading. It’s really that simple. Now cue the Bob’ll Tell Overture, because here we go.

In this flick. In this flick. In this classic flick. (Boy that got old fast!) twelve jurors were deliberating their verdict in a murder trial. The defendant was an 18-year-old from the slums of New York City on trial for stabbing his father. Eleven jurors thought the defendant was guilty. Juror # 8, didn’t agree. What followed was 90 minutes of discussion among one dozen displeased deliberaters.

One of the key pieces of evidence was the murder weapon, a switchblade knife with a carved handle just like the knife the defendant carried. Eleven jurors said the murder weapon was the defendant’s knife, so he had to be guilty. Juror # 8 argued someone else could have owned a duplicate knife and used it to kill the victim. The guilty votes argued the intricate carvings on the knife’s handle were unique. The knife was one of a kind. There wasn’t another one like it anywhere else in the city. So the murder weapon had to be the defendant’s knife.

That’s when Juror # 8 (Henry Fonda)did the thing which made that Cleveland judge so mad. (No not sire Jane Fonda.) Juror # 8 pulled a knife out of his pocket and showed it to the other jurors. Not just any knife; a knife that was identical to the murder weapon.

The previous night, Juror # 8 wandered the slums where the defendant lived. He found a knife identical to the defendant’s in a store and bought it to prove there was more than one knife that looked like the defendant’s. So it was possible the murder weapon was someone else’s knife.

I’ll give Juror # 8 credit, buying that knife before the trial was even over proved he had foresight. I can’t give Juror # 8 credit for anything else, however, because what he did was conduct his own research into the case.

Last week, as you recall, we left Will, Dr. Smith, and the Robot

Sorry, wrong recap.

Last week, I discussed why it’s improper for a juror to have personal knowledge about a case. In much the same way, it’s also improper for jurors to conduct their own research into the case or find their own evidence separate from the evidence that was introduced at trial.

Why is it improper? Juries are supposed to consider only the evidence introduced at trial. Evidence someone has testified about and then been cross-examined about. Evidence that opposing counsel has had an opportunity to challenge. When juries produce their own evidence the lawyers don’t get any chance to challenge it.

Say the defense attorney had introduced that identical knife at trial, the prosecutor could have looked for other evidence to prove the murder weapon was the defendant’s knife. Maybe the duplicate knife was part of a shipment that came in after the murder, so, up to that point, the defendant’s knife was the only knife like it in the city. We’ll never know what evidence the prosecutor might have introduced, because he never had that opportunity. The jury found new evidence after the trial part of the trial was over.

Another problem with jurors conducting their own research into a case, their research might find evidence which was inadmissible. What if the police interviewed Bill who said, “My cousin told me he saw the defendant running away from the murder scene right after it happened,” but the police never found the cousin. Bill’s statement would be inadmissible hearsay. If one of the jurors did his own investigating and also talked to Bill then told the rest of the jurors what Bill said, the jury might have believed the cousin’s statement and based a guilty verdict on the hearsay statement.

Hearsay is inadmissible, because the parties can’t cross-examine the actual declarant, who didn’t testify. Maybe the cousin hated the defendant and was lying to frame him. Had the cousin testified, the defendant could have shown this and the jury would have discounted his statement. As no one can cross-examine a hearsay declarant for possible bias, hearsay isn’t admissible. But if the jury’s private research finds this inadmissible hearsay and considers it, it’s considering evidence the judge wouldn’t have allowed at trial.

12 Angry Men extolled the virtues of jurors conducting their own research and collecting their own evidence, which is why a judge in Cleveland had a problem with it. Meanwhile, the public defender in Cleveland, me, had a different problem with the movie. It portrays defense attorneys in a bad light. You didn’t even see the defense attorney and it still portrayed him in a bad light.

The prosecutor’s case relied heavily on the fact that the knife was unique. But a duplicate knife was so easy to locate Juror # 8 found one in only one day. Why didn’t defense counsel do this?

How difficult would it have been for defense counsel to check a few stores and find a duplicate knife? Based on how long it took Juror # 8, not very difficult at all. Even if the defense attorney didn’t have any staff or investigators, he could have done it himself. All he had to do was skip I Love Lucy one night and check into things.

Maybe he didn’t know Desi Arnaz had the foresight to shoot I Love Lucy on film not video tape so that it would last for decades and be syndicated forever. Maybe he didn’t know he’d have another chance, or ten, to see that episode in reruns. (If it was the Vitameatavegamin episode, more like one hundred chances.) Even if he thought it was his only chance to see the episode, would skipping I Love Lucy to do his job properly have been too much to ask of the defense attorney?

If the defense attorney had done his job properly, he could have introduced this evidence during the trial and made his client’s acquittal easier. Not to mention making life easier for some poor unsuspecting prosecuting attorney in Cleveland forty years later who wouldn’t have incurred a judge’s renown and redoutable robe-ed wrath.

John Ostrander: A Return To Those Thrilling Days…

Once Upon A Time In The West

I came late to the western. Oh, I saw many of them when I was a kid growing up in the 50s and early 60s but they were Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry and others of that ilk. Saturday morning horse fodder. Later the westerns got more sophisticated with Gunsmoke, The Rifleman (a personal fave), Wanted: Dead or Alive, Have Gun Will Travel, Rawhide and more but I wound up cowboyed out for a long time.

My late wife Kim Yale was a big Westerns fan and it was she who got me hooked on them. She taught me the difference between the different directors – primarily John Ford, Budd Boetticher, Anthony Mann and Howard Hawks – and the brilliance of some of the films, chief among them The Searchers, Winchester 73, Shane, Red River and others.

And then came the guy who broke the western mold: Sergio Leone. He may be best known for the Dollars trilogy – A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. They also made a star of Clint Eastwood. The other night was I came upon my DVD of Once Upon A Time In The West and sat down to watch it again.

There are some who believe Once Upon A Time is Leone’s best film, his masterpiece. There are some who find it to be overly long, confusing, and his most stylistically excessive film. I’ve seen it described as epic and operatic. Some others find it slow and mannered. In Europe, where the film was released in its original length of 166 minutes, it was an economic success. In America, where distributor Paramount cut the film to 145 minutes, it was a flop.

For me, Once Upon A Time in the West may be my favorite “spaghetti” western and one of my fave of all westerns. It has a superb cast with some actors cast way against type. Jason Robards Jr plays Cheyenne, a bandit and very tough guy. The real revelation in the movie, however, is Henry Fonda who plays Frank, a really evil sadistic killer. Fonda’s startling electric blue eyes are cold and hard. The first time we meet him, he shoots and kills a boy of about 10 with a slight sadistic smile as he does so. It’s incredibly chilling. Fonda was known for playing good guys and heroic types, with the exception of Fort Apache where he plays an arrogant son of a bitch. But even there, it’s nothing compared to the character of Frank who is just one of the coldest and evilest villains I’ve seen in film.

My Mary has suggested that Robards’ Cheyenne is a Coyote type character, a trickster in Native American folklore. I think that’s accurate. He brings a slight bit of humor to the film. There’s a gag involving a gun in a boot that’s one of my favorite moments in this or any film.

A character known only as Harmonica is played by Charles Bronson. I find Bronson most effective when he has only a handful of lines as he does here (as well as in Hard Times). There’s a scarcity of dialogue in the film as it is and Bronson has the least of all but he makes the most of them. He’s perfect as the man seeking vengeance. I read somewhere that Clint Eastwood was originally offered the part but turned it down. That’s probably just as well; I can’t see him doing it better than Bronson.

Rounding out our foursome for this film is Claudia Cardinale. I don’t know if she was ever more beautiful than she was in this film. Her part, Jill McBain, is pivotal to the story. She’s a survivor, one with her own secrets and backstory and the story flows around her and her choices.

As far as I’m concerned there’s another major character in the film: Ennio Morricone and his score. Morricone provided the music to Leone’s other Westerns and here he creates his best one. Cheyenne, Harmonca, Frank and Jill all have their own specific themes. The music was actually written from the screenplay before it was filmed and was played during the filming. Leone let the music dictate the tempo of the scenes. Days after I watched it, the music is still echoing in my mind.

It’s the music and the very deliberate pacing and editing of the movie that gives the film its operatic feel. I don’t know if Leone could have gotten away with it today when everything is intense and quick cuts. He didn’t completely get away with it back then since the movie’s length panicked the Paramount executives who ordered cuts. I’m not sure that the generation today would sit for it; obviously, not everyone in my generation stood for it.

Once Upon A Time In the West demands that you meet it on its own terms, that you surrender to its pace and style. It is at the same time a very cynical and realistic look at the Old West while also being the telling of a myth, as the “Once Upon A Time. . .” of the title suggests. For me, the film is a masterpiece, Sergio Leone’s finest film, and one I will continue to watch again and again.