The quiet brilliance of Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” is found both in its simplicity yet also in its intricacy. There is nothing ostentatious about the film; the appeal lies in a tight script, compelling performances and some seriously clever cinematic techniques.
The film is, in its most basic form, a gripping courtroom drama as twelve jurors discuss whether a young defendant in a criminal trial is guilty of brutally murdering his father. Only one juror, Juror No.8 (Henry Fonda) thinks there is any question of his guilt, and insists that they talk out the facts before they send him to the electric chair. One by one, the men change their verdict from guilty to not guilty, convinced that there is a reasonable doubt as to whether he committed the crime. Gradually, the tension in the film escalates and amplifies to the point of explosion over its relatively short run time; alliances are forged and broken, individual prejudices and personal vendettas are exposed. The courtroom elements of the story are fun and suspenseful as Juror No. 8 reenacts scenes from witness testimony or produces an knife identical to the supposedly unique weapon used by the murderer, and it’s deeply satisfying when the more bombastic of the jurors are put in their place by reason.
Beyond this though, the film is a showcase in different personality types, exemplified in each of the different jurors and the conflicts that arise in situations of pressure and high stress when they’re forced to work together. There is palpable tension in the room; the actors all seem on edge and exhausted, apparently the director made them run their lines for hours on end on set without filming to generate a real sense of bitter frustration. Juror No. 3 and Juror No. 7 are loud and confident, happy to dominate the other jurors, like Juror No. 2 and Juror No. 5 who are somewhat meeker and not used to confrontation.
There are a number of moments where the quieter jurors are emboldened to speak up against the other bullying figures, particularly when Juror No. 9, an elderly gentleman, firmly and calmly explains why he changed his vote and that he wouldn’t be swayed by who could yell the loudest. One of the more powerful scenes is one in which Juror 10, who up to that point had been aggressive and patronising in his interactions, finally erupts in a racist tirade about the defendant, “I’ve lived among them all my life… You can’t believe a word they say… I mean, they’re born liars…” As he flounders and gets more and more desperate to get the jurors back on his side, one by one the men stand up from their chairs and turn their backs on him. The effect is incredible; in less than twenty seconds the man has gone from one of the more dominant and influential people in the room to being reduced to a state of complete emasculation. And it’s delicious.
One of the incredible things about “12 Angry Men” is that the film takes a single setting (with a couple of momentary exceptions) and through clever staging and sophisticated camerawork, the claustrophobia and increasing intensity of the situation is amplified to match the performances. The director himself described how he “shot the first third of the movie above eye level, shot the second third at eye level and the last third from below eye level. In that way, toward the end the ceiling began to appear. Not only were the walls closing in, the ceiling was as well. The sense of increasing claustrophobia did a lot to raise the tension of the last part of the movie.” He then used a wide-angle lens for the final shot “to let us finally breathe.” It’s this attention to detail and finesse that sets this film apart. One little moment which I thought was clever was where Juror No. 4, a measured and rational figure in the ongoing discussion, asserts earlier in the film that he never sweats (despite the story being set on the most sweltering day of the year), yet when he realises that one of the key witnesses couldn’t possibly have seen who had committed the murder because she wasn’t wearing her eye-glasses, a solitary bead of sweat rolls down his forehead. It’s the sort of thing where if you blink you’d miss it, and perhaps it’s not indispensable to the story, but it’s a nice touch.
12 Angry Men” is a sensational piece of film; so multi-faceted and insightful but rounded by an organic simplicity which makes for some very slick entertainment. Beyond anything else however, the film highlights that the presumption of innocence is not something to be taken lightly, nor is the power of the lone voice in a crowded room.
By Jock Lehman