12 Angry Men

  • Title:  12 Angry Men
  • Director:  Sidney Lumet
  • Date:  1957
  • Studio(s):  United Artists / MGM
  • Stars:  Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, Jack Warden, Jack Klugman, E.G. Marshall, Martin Balsam (et al)
  • Genre:  Drama, Classic
  • Format:  Black & White, Forced Widescreen
  • DVD Formats: R1, NTSC

This is a movie I picked up literally a few years ago from a bargain bin (that is, I paid probably $5.00 or $10.00 for it), I’d seen the film before and remembered it to be good – and it had Jack Klugman in it so I figured, why not. Unfortunately, the film has been sitting on my “to be watched” shelf since.

It’s a good film — not as slow as I feared and beautifully directed.

12 Angry Men is about a jury for a murder trial. Part of what is interesting about the film is what it doesn’t show you. You don’t see the police case. You don’t see the trial. The film starts with the judge, sounding almost bored, giving his instructions to the jury in a capital case, and dismissing the alternate jurors. But the vast majority of the film takes place in the jury room. At first, the jurors seem to think they have an open and shut case, a vote is called and 11 of the 12 vote guilty. The rest of the film concerns first one man, then others, raising questions about the trial — a trial which at the start of the film is assumed to be open-and-shut, but through the discussion of the jurors we learn was for the most part built on circumstantial evidence and two (probably) unreliable witnesses. Gradually, each juror realizes that he has a different nagging doubt about the case. But for the most part, three jurors remain convinced of the man’s guilt. And, gradually the film turns from the majority thinking the man is guilty and trying to convince the few or the one that thinks he’s innocent (or at least that there is room for doubt) to the majority thinking he’s innocent (or being tired of swimming against the current in the case of one or two jurors) and trying to convince the remaining ones who think he’s guilty.

The film spends nearly its entire length in the jury room – apart from the opening scene with the judge.  It’s a hot day, so hot, eventually a storm breaks and the windows need to be shut. The heat adds to the tensions between the jurors. (It’s also one of two major anachronisms about the film. First, the jurors are all white men, though one is an immigrant who’s obviously earned his citizenship. Second, the jury room has no air conditioning. Obviously, if the film was to take place now those two facts would change.) But, for a film from 1957, you can overlook those details. And the sense of heat – the men wiping their faces with handkerchiefs and the sweat stains on their shirts – adds to the sense of tension and the sense of passing time, without the need to resort to shots of a clock. In fact, a clock is never used in the film — though the time is mentioned a few times (usually in the future tense, as in, “Should we order dinner?” / “Let’s wait until 7 o’clock”).

Also, for a film which is about people talking to each other (or at each other, often with raised voices) — it really doesn’t get boring. One becomes interested in the jurors, whom we really only know by number or the actor playing them, — not as people but as representing ideas. And they aren’t all perfect – Klugman plays a man who rose from the streets; another juror’s main reason for voting guilty is prejudice — and even he seems to admit it. The jurors, by the end, know they aren’t perfect, and neither are the eyewitnesses in the case or the lawyers. And for the audience – you haven’t seen the lawyers, the cops, the witnesses, or anything else – all you have to go on is what the jurors say and how they discuss what happened, with their own POVs and prejudices. There’s even a tiny hint at the end that the guy who started everyone talking perhaps thought the accused was guilty – but thought he deserved a fair shake, that five minutes of no discussion wasn’t fair — and in the end, that is the point, the point of “Reasonable Doubt”, of not making assumptions, and actually looking at the evidence from all the possible angles.

Second, the direction, by Sidney Lumet, is masterful. The use of light on the actors’ faces is brilliant, and a prime example of just what can be done with black and white film, especially when used by those who know how. But there are also some truly masterful scenes — such as when one of the jurors is ranting about the man being guilty – but his rant degenerates into pure, nasty, evil prejudice against the man being “one of those people – you know what they’re like” and more such drivel. One by one, each of the other men gets up, walks from the table, and turns his back on the man. Eventually, the rant stops and everyone gets back to business. But the shot is awe-inspiring and beautiful — just the way turning their backs shuts the guy up.

But again, there are many beautiful shots – from the play of light or shadow across an actor’s face to Klugman leaning into the knuckles of his hand and smiling during part of the discussion.

Overall, 12 Angry Men, is an excellent film, with an excellent cast, and it deserves to be seen. I was a little upset that my DVD was in Forced Widescreen, rather than Standard/Normal, 4:3 ratio of what, no doubt was the original presentation of the film – and would have made the cramped jury room seem even more cramped and claustrophobic.

Recommendation:  See it — at least once.
Rating:  3-4 out of 5 stars
Next Film:  2010:  The Year We Make Contact