12 Angry Men
Does 12 Angry Men really need an introduction? The short answer would be no, but Sidney Lumet’s first feature has gone down in history as not only one of the greatest directorial debuts of all-time but also as one of the most important one location movies ever created. But critics should not place all the credit on Lumet’s shoulders. The real mastermind behind this devilishly clever film was screenwriter and producer, Reginald Rose. Rose worked predominantly in television beforehand, crafting teleplays with a realistic edge and a political bite. So the change from serials which ran on cable TV to a small budget film was a sensible option for both Rose and Lumet (Lumet was an accomplished television director before becoming one of the most respected filmmakers of his generation). And in making this leap, the first cinematic outing for 12 Angry Men was born.
Almost set entirely in a single room of a New York courthouse during “the hottest day of the year”, the film tells the story of (obviously) twelve jurors. All these men must get to a unanimous decision over the fate of an adolescent charged with murdering his Father. At first glance, nearly everyone believes that the teenager is guilty of the crime and are left convinced that he will receive the death penalty. The only one who disagrees with this vote is Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) and battles it out to prove the boy’s innocence in a war of words and body language until each juror has fallen on his side.
Rose leaves each man here unnamed, however, they are clearly defined by their professions, traits, and characterisation. Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb) is a businessman who passionately advocates a guilty verdict. He is short-tempered, pig-headed and proves himself as the biggest thorn in Fonda’s side. Juror #4 (E. G. Marshall) is a shrewd and calculating stock broker but opposes Cobb’s outbursts. Instead, he uses cold, hard facts and pure logic to get the young man a guilty vote. And Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney) is a retiree who is wise, patient and is the first to turn on Fonda’s side, he acts as the secret weapon of the not guilty verdict later on. The conflict comes from this personality war, where there is no black-or-white “good” vs. “evil” argument found – not everyone who votes guilty is a villain, and not everyone who votes not guilty is a saint, it’s left morally grey throughout. But gradually this conflict gets tenser as each juror must bring up another line of questioning, evidence or even an assumption just to get a thought across before another shoots it down.
As this happens, Lumet and cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, uses the camera to enhance the heightened claustrophobia found within this one room. Near the beginning, the camera is above eye level, shot with a wide-angle lens to show the great distance between each person. But as the plot slowly unravels, the room seems to slowly close in on everyone and the camera gets gradually lowered below eye level so that each man’s passion for what they are doing overwhelms the audience. The best scene of visual storytelling that the leaves the greatest of impact is when Juror #10 (Ed Begley) explodes with rage and begins a racist rant against the young man on trial. But as he continues, each juror stands up and turns his back on him to show how everyone else feels divided in the light of prejudice and racism. This causes Begley to fumble and sits down in quiet humiliation.
12 Angry Men uses the simplest of tools to great effect. From the passionate performances of both Fonda and Cobb to Kaufman’s delicate camera tricks, the film proves itself as the textbook example of how filmmakers can achieve creativity on a shoestring budget. It also proves another point that simply put, filmmaking is a collective effort. Throughout his career, Lumet rejected the auteur theory, the approach that a director is the primary creative source for his/her entire body of work. Without Boris Kaufman, 12 Angry Men wouldn’t have the multitude of shots to make an average looking room look engaging. Without Reginald Rose, each juror’s characterisation would be whittled down into a fight between “good” vs. “evil”, or worse, it would be underplayed. There is a reason 12 Angry Men made it into the Top 5 of the IMDb 250, and collaboration between the entire cast and crew is that very reason.