12 Angry Men (1957)

Director: Sidney Lumet
Writers: Reginald Rose (story), Reginald Rose (screenplay)
Stars: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam

Before nineteen fifty-seven, Sidney Lumet was an up and coming television series director with a number of different shows to his name. Talented the man obviously was even at that early stage of his career. Meanwhile (in fifty-six) Fonda has seen the TV play by Reginald Rose of the same name and had contacted him to see if the script could be adapted to a feature-length version for the silver screen. Subsequently they became co-producers and financed the film themselves, one of the greatest films ever made and put onto celluloid.

When filming began (which unbelievably only took nineteen days and three hundred and fifty thousand dollars or around three million today), Lumet would show the world just what an accomplished director he not only was, but would go on to be throughout the rest of his career. He truly belongs in the list of great American directors of all time, if not also the world. His vision, skill with the camera and obtaining the very best from his actors is second to none. 12 Angry Men shows all of his mastery and more (and was Oscar nominated for it) as he draws you deeper and closer into a story with a surprising amount of complex layers.

As just stated, while seemingly a rather simple story, 12 Angry Men does have numerous layers of complexity and social issues. These include bigotry, racial tensions, social standing, prejudices, personalities and morality. All of these issues can be seen within our twelve jurors throughout the course of the film while deciding the innocence of guilt of a boy on trial for murdering his father. At its most basic structure, this is a courtroom drama with a simple tale that is woven into an intricate, compelling and gritty drama piece. A wonderful show of how the judicial system should work.

The fate of a young ethnic boy lies in the hands of a jury, mostly made up of middle-aged white men. The entire film (with the exception of a very brief setup and epilogue) takes place within one small, claustrophobic room on a very hot day. We see nor hear any of the trial, witnesses or prosecution and only have a brief charge from the judge. Everything we learn about the boy, the case and all other matters we learn from our twelve jurors. As they file into this room we then quickly start to see which character is which personality and for what they stand and believe in. From this moment on you will be completely gripped.

Guilty until proven innocent and beyond all reasonable doubt are two important phrases here and form the basis of the script and the conflict among our jurors. In life, far too many are quick to judge, along with also being judge, jury and executioner at times. Likewise some of our jurors share the same thoughts. One man alone stands true to his beliefs and morality that the boy cannot be convicted unless there the crime can be proven ‘beyond all doubt’, an act the prosecution or accuser has to prove, not the defense. Something some people (along with our jury) sometimes struggle to grasp with the preconceptions.

This one man who beholds the rights of the constitution is juror number eight (Ford) who is the initial voice of reason within the group. Unlike many other reviews I will not spoil who is which character and what personal and prejudicial traits they have so you can ejoy finding out for yourself. I will however praise every single cast member, each one is wonderfully portrayed by seasoned and professional television actors. We have the meek, the controlling, the bully, the racist, educated, reserved, indecisive and the impatient as well as other character traits. All are shown brilliantly but special mention must go to Lee J. Cobb for his acting. Perfectly cast and intense in his performance that his character will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.

Likewise with the acting, the script is simply superb. Tight, accurate and full of little twists and nuances, this is perhaps one of the best scripts you will ever hear spoken. Denzil Washington take note, this is how you write a dialogue heavy screenplay. No car crashes, explosions, fights, foul language, action scenes, just a taught expose of truths and half-truths spoken with conviction and heart from all those involved. You won’t find many more films as utterly compulsive as this one. A real lesson to be learnt for any budding screen writer.

As is the direction and cinematography which are both second to none and while simple in concept, are executed to precise perfection. it is often said that the simplest things are life are the hardest to master. Lumet and Kaufman master them with ease and give the film its extra edge that it needed. Kaufman who had previously worked on “On the Waterfront” is amazing and shows off his skill along with Lumet. In using techniques to make the room look smaller and to close in on the actors, make the room appear to be closing in on those twelve jurors the increasing tension between the men is really heightened at key moments.

Lumet also used different lenses and differing camera angles and heights to change or raise the mood as was needed. Many do not notice (a testament to his skill and the absorbing acting) but Lumet changes the height of the camera during the distinct thirds the film is broken into, slowly but surely ramping up the intensity and claustrophobia on us, the viewer while we see the same increase on the twelve jurors. Masterfully done. A film that has an intelligent plot (with a couple of little inconsistencies), believable characters and one of the few to be accurately labelled as a ‘classic’ in every way imaginable. About as perfect as you will ever get.


The Sage’s Rating:

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