Sidney Lumet was one of my favorite directors, so this week I have been prepping for an appropriate tribute to the actor, who passed just last weekend. This film is an absolute classic that I reviewed in August 2008. Look for more archive reviews of Lumet’s films throughout the rest of the week and the weekend.
A 96-minute film with all but three minutes taking place in the same room: that’s daring. It’s hard to believe, but director Sidney Lumet finds a way to make “12 Angry Men” move at an attention-holding pace while being hardly dull at all. Now that’s filmmaking. Lumet’s camera techniques and the phenomenal performances from the actors he captures makes “12 Angry Men” a terrifically interesting court drama that is so elemental but so profound.
In the opening minutes, a 12-man jury breaks into deliberation over a case where a teenager has been charged with killing his father. If found unanimously guilty, the boy will be executed. After a preliminary vote, every man votes guilty except for one juror played by Henry Fonda, who is afraid of being too quick to reach a verdict.
The story basically paints a picture of 12 strangers. If you follow closely, you can learn a lot about these people, but the point is that you learn a lot about them and what makes them tick as they argue and reason. The first thing achieving that requires is great acting. This film is loaded with classic actors of the ’40s and ’50s. It’s hard to really single out one performance as the best, though certainly Lee J. Cobb as Juror #3 is the most dramatic and he very much helps give the story an adrenaline boost when his character acts out.
But the most excellent aspect of this film, what pushes it above a lot of other drama, is Lumet’s directing choices in what is his first feature film. Filming in one room, it can be easy to put little thought into camera angles and movement, but Lumet considers everything very carefully and no single shot in the film feels arbitrary. The camera moves with incredible purpose, zooming in at perfect speeds and picking angles that best reveal the characters. Also, his attention to the idea of the heat in the room, the impatience, the confinement, all comes across in his directing. His angles start above the actors in the beginning and thus more impersonal, but the camera lowers more and more as the film goes on. You’re so interested in the story at this point that you don’t even notice, but you feel it. Lumet makes you feel much like a 13th juror and you begin to form your own opinion, bouncing back and forth (that is if Lumet and writer Reginald Rose did their job right, which they do.)
The film is—and this really isn’t a spoiler—without a climactic payoff for those that need a little something more or a resolution or mystery solved. You’re supposed to find it satisfying in the way that it reveals a bit about who we are and how we arrive at the moral conclusions we make. You’re supposed to learn so much about these characters that by the end you’re shocked that you never even learned their names. The film is like a social experiment on screen and it’s very realistic and yet still very interesting. It’s an absolute marvel for being stationary, dialogue-heavy film.
12 Angry Men
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Written by Reginald Rose
Starring Henry Fond, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden