12 Angry Men is cinema stripped down to the bare essentials. It is a minimalist’s film. There are no special effects or CGI, nothing flashy or showy. Except for three short minutes, the entire movie was filmed in a small, hot and crowded jury room. This movie is intimate and simple, and completely carried by the dialogue and the performances of the actors reciting it. It excels as a form of pure storytelling, and it is a seriously impressive directorial debut for Sidney Lumet.
A seemingly open-and-shut murder case, in which a young man kills his father, is now put into the hands of the jury. The majority of the 12 men in the jury room believe this is a no-brainer, that they will pass a quick verdict of guilty and be home in time to catch the ball game. Their problem is that Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) votes not guilty — not necessarily because he believes the boy is innocent, but because he believes the boy at least deserves a discussion. It’s up to the rest of the jurors to convince him otherwise, or more accurately, for Juror #8 to change their minds.
This film is a character study, and as such, is built on the performances of each and every actor. This is crucial, as each juror is markedly different from the others in terms of wealth, age, and vocation. They have their own ideals, often learned at a very young age; they have accents and speak either in slang, or with perfect English; some are educated, and some are not. In fact, other than their sex, the only thing they all have in common is that they are stuck in a room together until they make a decision. All their differences listed above provide fuel for a multitude of varying opinions, and many interesting and sometimes offensive moral debates. There never is a dull moment in the conversation, and for a movie that takes place almost entirely in one room, that is really quite the feat.
12 Angry Men is based on the TV play of the same name, authored three years earlier in 1954 by Reginald Rose. At the time, it was a truly groundbreaking perspective on the legal system and how important and valuable the idea of a jury is in our democracy. We the people have the last say when we are in that jury room. We provide the justice and we should not take that privilege likely. The overall theme of not just assuming what is given to you, to question falsehoods provided as fact, is a favorite of mine and it is executed quite well here. The jurors very methodically go through each point of evidence and argue its merits, with each man bringing a unique point of view to the table. This could have been a boring discussion, but the differing personalities keep it refreshing and engaging throughout. It is a well written screenplay, and a well acted film. Henry Fonda is at his best as the kind and honest Juror #8, while Lee J. Cobb turns in my second favorite performance of his career (see On The Waterfront) as Juror #3, a man who has already made up his mind and isn’t going to change it no matter what these cowards think.
For a movie spent entirely in one room, 12 Angry Men is a surprisingly powerful thriller. There are “a-ha!” moments as well as moments that make you question your own prejudices. Sidney Lumet helps us feel the growing claustrophobia of being in that room by keeping most of the shots up close and personal. The rising tension is amplified by the fact that the room keeps getting hotter as the day gets longer, causing each man to sweat and lose their cool — literally and figuratively. Finally, when the day is done and the men are released, we view them from outside the courthouse, high above the steps. The men have been set free and a sense of ease sets in with not only them, but with the viewer. It was a masterful way to end the film, and it is one that I highly suggest seeing.
12 Angry Men landed at #61 out of 1352 movies on my Flickchart. That converts to a rating of 5 out of 5 stars or 95%. It is ranked #9 out of 58 movies I have seen from the 1950’s. It is ranked #3 out of 14 movies I have seen so far in this challenge.