Every week, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
12 Angry Men (1957)
Courtroom dramas are usually shot in court and revolve around defendants or their lawyers. Sidney Lumet, for his first big screen attempt, took a chance on a script based on a TV play by Reginald Rose that deals with another courtroom entity, the jurors. His 12 Angry Men are exactly what the title suggests and they have to bear each other in a locked room for ninety-six engaging, cleverly staged minutes.
The case is simple but critical. A kid of unidentified but implied ethnic background is accused of stubbing his father to death, before walking away in the night. The twelve jurors have to reach a unanimous verdict; the kid can be found guilty based on the evidence or not-guilty based on reasonable doubt. If found guilty, he gets a mandatory death sentence, more specifically the electric chair. Those men are locked inside a room on an extremely hot day with a fan that isn’t working and lots of reasons to be somewhere else.
Juror #1 (Martin Balsam) calls for a preliminary vote. All are in favor of guilty but one. Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) thinks that 5 are not enough to decide for someone to get the chair treatment. Everybody jumps at him before taking turns in presenting their reasons for voting against the defendant. They all seem like they have good points but #8 is strongly in doubt and wants to re-examine them. Amidst general dissent, he calls for a secret vote without his participation and if the outcome remains the same he will follow. Otherwise they’ll talk things through. Juror #9 decides to back #8 up, for having the guts to take a stand. A dramatic debate begins, where the case is not always the main focus and one by one, the 12 men—all from diverse backgrounds—will find out a lot about each other and themselves…
Obviously this is a drama, the success of which is mainly based on the performances and the interaction between the twelve actors who play the jurors. It’s a play turned feature film and is shot entirely in a single room. Lumet does everything he can to put the cinematic language in good use, with close-ups, camera movements and—as he later analyzed—three different shooting angles. In his debut, he has to handle twelve characters of almost the same importance since they all weigh in the outcome, split screen time between them according to the script and highlight the turning points of the plot. He pulls it off with subtlety, making it feel most of the time as if there is no director, like we ‘re watching the whole scene through an open window.
The real star of the film is, of course, Reginald Rose’s script, an adaptation of his own play. The twelve men are revealed to us one by one through small monologues, momentary expressions or sudden reactions. We don’t hear their names, only their numbers—from their sitting order—and some professions. What we learn about them is their prejudices, and the amount of their intent to show concern for another human being. Each represents one of the many stereotypes people apply to when they refuse to think for themselves and take real responsibility for their actions. Each is very recognizable to us today because, besides a few references to baseball teams and a certain building or movie, nothing highlights the time or the social conditions surrounding the incident. Hence, making the characters timeless and easy for a guy from another age and country, like me, to place it in a current context.
“Nice bunch of guys, huh?”, says #6 (Edward Binns) to #8 (Henry Fonda) in the lavatory. “They’re about the same as anyone else”, the latter responds emphasizing the non-personified account of these 12 Angry Men. Angry for a lot of reasons, but not one of them having anything to do with the accused and their job in that room. Gradually though, the battle comes down to the two key jurors, #8 (Henry Fonda) and #3 (Lee J. Cobb), the first and the last one to admit doubt over the kid’s guilt, the man who doubts himself and the one who doubts everybody else but himself. Until that last moment of truth (or, more accurately, the acknowledgment of not being certain of what the truth is) a thorough debate reveals a pretty clear image of the preceding trial and even motivates us to participate in our head. Nor too didactic neither too self-explanatory it comes out as easy to follow but difficult to predict, allowing a certain suspense to build up.
Henry Fonda, fourteen years after his character in The Ox-Bow Incident couldn’t save the accused from lynching, goes against another type of lynch mob, more conventional and structural, but not that much different in its intrinsic faults. He leads the pack brilliantly while he’s supported by the opposing emotional force of Lee J. Cobb, his performance being equally engaging. All ten of the other character actors are also in top form—this is a heavily rehearsed movie and it shows—taking full advantage of the screen-time they get while making every interaction worth watching.
12 Angry Men is one of the great pieces of cinema that Sidney Lumet has given us over the years and a timeless study in the complex way we apply our interpretations of truth and justice. Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov took a chance on the same premise last year in 12, putting Rose’s ideas in the Russian-Chechen conflict context. He reminded the world of Lumet’s gem while succesfully proving its everlasting ability to make a strong point.