film

Old School Review: Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” (1957)

Written by Reginald Rose and directed by Sidney Lumet, “12 Angry Men” is a courtroom drama focusing on a debate over the verdict between the 12 jurors. It is also the first feature by director Sidney Lumet. This film was one that I’d been seeking for awhile now, and when the Criterion Collection had a sale on their physical media recently, it had to be part of the purchase. I’ve seen a few of Sidney Lumet’s films (“Dog Day Afternoon”, “Serpico”, & “The Verdict”) but I knew this one was heralded as excellent. The premise is simple enough, Twelve male jurors congregate in deliberation to decide the fate of a young Puerto Rican teenager. At first vote 11 of the 12 jurors vote guilty, with 1 juror, #8 (Played by Henry Fonda) voting not guilty. There must be a unanimous decision by the jury for the death penalty, and thus juror #8 stakes his claim and begins to open up the discussion.

As the film begins with the end of the court case we only get information about the details of the matter through the jurors’ dialogue. Sidney Lumet fully utilizes every trick imaginable in a one location film. The long take in the beginning of the film as each jury member enters the room is elaborate and the perfect opening to the film. We get a little bit of information on each character that will inform us as to who they are and how they operate as individuals. The film cleverly addresses why Henry Fonda’s character would have reasonable doubt about the case, and it addresses each character’s opposition and why they think he might be guilty, or not, as Fonda slowly starts to convince them one by one. After the first few rounds of voting, Fonda baits a few of the jurors into proving his point for there being reasonable doubt. It’s pure genius honestly. The way Lumet uses the camera, pushing and pulling on faces and actions, using visuals to aide the representation of changing power dynamics in each scene- it’s just brilliant.

This is a movie about the performances though, and they are some of the best in all of film history. Lee J. Cobb in particular as juror #3 was electrifying in his performance. As the film advances we get more background information about this broken man and how his past relationship with his son has heavily influenced how he maneuvers through the debate. If there was to be an argument for the antagonist of the film, juror #3 is the best case for such a label in the context of the story. Though Ed Begley as juror #10 is a close second, his personal prejudice against people of color and those unfortunate enough to live in the slums becomes clearer as his points of debate diverge from the rest of the jury’s reasoning and motives. In a stark and beautiful scene late in the film, juror #10 is quietly, and physically, shunned by the entirety of the room as his blatant racism becomes too much for the others to ignore or accept. The profound nature of the script lies in how each character’s turn to “Not Guilty” lies in the characterization that relates to their own lives. The best example of this may have been juror #4 (E.G. Marshall), the cold and calculating character defined by logic alone. He had the pillars of his argument shattered by Fonda when he used his argument of memory recall against him. The final point that convinced him to change his vote was reliant on the witness that claimed to see the murder, at night, from across the street- hadn’t been wearing her glasses. Juror #4 also wore glasses, and realized this flaw in his argument, and accepted this change.

I could go on and on about the performances in this film and Sidney Lumet’s mesmerizing use of the camera- but you’ll just have to trust me on this one, it’s a damn fine movie. I highly urge anyone and everyone to give this one a watch, I tend not to use the word Masterpiece when talking about films in general- but this one deserves the credit that word delivers.

Final Score: 12 Angry Men (duh)

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