Spike Lee was in my Twitter feed today, saying, "I was NO WAY this HOT when we did Do the Right Thing." Once again my beloved New York is, as Auntie Mame said, "hot as a crotch."
But there is nothing like a heat wave to fill the Siren with love for her fellow New Yorkers. There they are, the grimly embarrassed men daring you to stare at the enormous sweat stains on their chest; the women in varying stages of undress, their hair scraped back in styles you could christen "I Give Up"; the toddlers in their sun hats and smudged sunscreen, clutching their bottles as though wondering how Mommy let things get this out of hand.
The Siren feels for them all, as she unfurls her parasol and hopes the heat doesn't turn the skin under her freckles bright red. We're trying, aren't we? We're trying so hard not to exert ourselves too much by, say, starting a riot. We're just working to avoid the greatest New York City sin of 'em all: becoming a bore on a single topic.
The movies offer several bards of the New York heat wave. Three who really get it, as indeed they get everything about the city, are the aforementioned Mr. Lee, Martin Scorsese and the late, very much lamented Sidney Lumet. When Lumet died the Siren didn't post a tribute, but this weather prompts her to rectify that, in her own small way. The magnificent Dog Day Afternoon has been in her mind for a few days--those people in the stifling bank, willing themselves not to move as they seem to listen to the drip of their own sweat. Even more so, though, the Siren has been thinking about 12 Angry Men, from 1957.
Nowadays it's a well-loved movie, despite its near-incomprehensible box-office failure. The way it was made is well-known too, from the television origins to the two-week rehearsal process (a Lumet trademark) to the way it was shot one angle at a time, to save on camera set-ups. One particularly brilliant moment is the establishing shot of the jury room, which Henry Fonda (in Mike Steen's Hollywood Speaks) said took all day to set up and ran about two minutes on screen. And the Siren dearly loves an even earlier glimpse of the defendant, played by an uncredited John Savoca, who seems to have disappeared afterward. You could argue that the shot tips the movie's hand; the sad-eyed, clearly terrified Savoca draws your sympathy from the beginning. The Siren cannot look at the kid without wanting to drape an arm around his shoulders, give him a motherly squeeze and hand him a sandwich and a Coca-Cola Icee. But it also raises the stakes, putting the audience on board with Henry Fonda's desire to at least give the boy the courtesy of a full deliberation.
But afterward Lumet's methods were different, Fonda told Steen:
Say, the camera would be on two actors for a scene. After that scene was gotten, Sidney would say, 'Now take their coats off, loosen the ties and put some sweat on them, and we'll shoot scene ninety-two,' which is forty pages further, but requiring the same setup or camera and light position.
Let's look at that title, 12 Angry Men. Well, why are they angry? The script gives you reasons for many--Ed Begley is a bigot, Lee J. Cobb has transferred his anger at his own son to the defendant--but on the simplest, most fundamental level they are angry because there's a heat wave on and they are stuck in this deliberations room with a water fountain and ineffective fan and no AC, and Henry Fonda won't let them vote guilty and get the hell out of there. He's fighting not only their preconceptions, but their physical discomfort. At first, the other jurors want nothing more than to go home and, like the Coo-Coo Pigeon Sisters in The Odd Couple, sit in front of the icebox in the altogether. In fact, if you think about it, Fonda is the least angry man there. Mostly he's just rational. But 11 Angry Men and One Rational Guy in a White Suit would have been hard to fit on the marquee, I suppose.
Cold makes New Yorkers bundle up and scurry along and lets us indulge our natural tendency to stay out of each other's way. Heat takes away the physical barriers and leaves us contemplating each other unadorned, and that's by no means always a good thing. Scan the jury room and you will see a full range of the way New Yorkers cope with heat. Some lash out, like Cobb and Begley. Some try to ignore it, like E.G. Marshall. Some crack jokes or work their tails off just trying to be agreeable. Not all of them have pure motivations for their final votes. But in the end, you also see New Yorkers rising to overcome yet another of this city's indignities, its frankly terrible climate, and as Lee would say, do the right thing.
There's a heat-related plot point that the Siren always relished on a personal level. She's written before about her years in a non-air-conditioned apartment in Harlem. It was right over the elevated part of a subway line. So a key revelation--that witnesses who claimed to have heard something during the murder couldn't have possibly, because the noise of a passing elevated train would have muffled it--was spotted immediately by the Siren and her two roommates when we watched this one long-ago sweltering summer. The noise made by the subway in our apartment when the windows were open was, in fact, so deafening that we watched a lot of foreign movies. You could read the subtitles.
One last thing. The Siren notes that yesterday's temperature of 104 in Central Park broke the New York record, of 101 degrees, previously set for that date in….