This film lives up to its reputation.
This was the great Sidney Lumet’s first theatrical film, and for a project limited mostly to only a claustrophobic and hot room, it boasts a lot of talent; Henry Fonda, Martin Balsam, Lee J Cobb, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, EG Marshall.
For a black and white picture Lumet and his crew are effective at showing tiny details like sweat on brows and shirt stains, a broken ceiling fan, and the mental exhaustion of limited breathing space as twelve citizens debate over the guilt or innocence of a young man on trial for killing his father by stabbing. Lumet’s camera (just like when I watched “The Verdict”) is constantly traveling, even if it’s in a tiny confined space. He zooms in when he needs to and he changes angles to get the most of 12 different perspectives. Lumet keeps it interesting by changing up his use of lens. As the afternoon proceeds into early evening, the camera navigates more closely to the table they sit at. The men are uncomfortable, frustrated with each other, more impatient and more concerned with their consciences about sending a man to death. The actors do well with translating these factors, but Lumet sends the message home.
What I found most interesting is the different variations of how each juror eventually comes to changing his mind. Almost all of them arrive at that point in a new or different way. Credit goes to screenwriter Reginald Rose for that. Additional credit for the different variations of how the jurors repeatedly cast a vote; raising hands, notes, anonymously, not anonymously and so on. Rose changes it up each time to keep the viewers’ attention.
Rose’s script will only tell you so much. The attorneys don’t appear in the film, deliberations are done, we only get a close up of the defendant but there’s not enough material for a viewer to cast judgment. The film opens with the judge giving a boring routine instruction as to how the jury should proceed. He might as well be telling them how to complete an SAT exam.
Yet what we are treated to are the faults and overcomings of the human spirit. Ed Begley is a juror who gives a brilliant monologue that stereotypes the defendant’s ethnic background, though we never know what race or ethnicity he is. As he continues to rant, every other juror steps away from the table. Begley seems to get more ashamed of his thought process as he carries on, but he doesn’t stop until he’s ordered to by another juror. Amazing!!! In 1957, when Jim Crow and McCarthyism were on the horizon or rampant, this film was not having it. It’s the best scene in the film.
Henry Fonda is great as the one who only asks for sensibility. He adds weight to the case they are deliberating over that the others are sadly failing to recognize. A man’s life is in their hands.
I’d argue that the facts of the case and evidence presented carry very little complexity to what a real murder trial might offer. I’d also argue that what serves as a fulcrum to sway each vote is maybe a little too convenient (presuming the time it takes for one witness to walk or whether a witness wore glasses), but that doesn’t matter. What’s most important is whether each of these men can live up to the demand of recognizing reasonable doubt; the necessary requirement for a trial by jury. In that sense, “12 Angry Men” succeeds.