Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men is a testament to the power of great dialogue. Virtually the entire movie is confined to a jury room in a New York courthouse. All the action revolves around twelve men deciding the fate of a boy accused of murdering his father.
The sheer punch of the words and the almost visible passion propelling the jurors makes 12 Angry Men more moving than many big-scale productions could hope to be. At first it seems like an open and shut case. The boy comes from a crime-infested slum and the testimony of eyewitnesses and other evidence seems irrefutably stacked against him. For different reasons that will come to be revealed, eleven of the twelve jurors initially agree that he is guilty. Only the soft-spoken Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) dissents. This kindly Messianic figure is, in his quiet way, just as passionate for justice as the other jurors under the spell of mob mentality. Slowly, he makes a case for why there just isn’t enough evidence to convict the young man and makes a powerful statement about our legal system in the process.
Such statements would, of course, become a staple of Sidney Lumet. Few directors have been this daring (both in concept and execution) in their first film and successful as a result. 12 Angry Men looks like the work of a veteran filmmaker, and becomes all the more amazing when we consider it was the start of a long and diverse career.
The opening of the film (featuring some of the few scenes outside of the jury room) contrasts the later tone. All but one of the jurors, first seen chatting amongst themselves about trivial things, are far removed from the poor boy whose fate they are to determine.
The ethnicity of the boy is never specified, although the film hints strongly at Hispanic or Southeastern European. Inevitably, discrimination will rear its head in before a verdict is reached. We don’t get to know all of the jurors equally, but they all contribute to the escalating tension to some degree. The atmosphere also does its part in subtle little bits. The lock on the door to the jury room is defective, creating a feeling of entrapment, elevating emotions. Nevertheless, none of the men (with the exception of Fonda) seem particularly interested at first. Some are mildly thrilled by the sensationalism of the case, while most just want to get it over with.
Tension fuels slowly at first, but intensifies with Juror 8’s resiliency. Fonda spells out the message of the film on his first monologue, but the suspense of the film is in how he builds his case. This movie is like My Dinner with Andre in that the narration is so richly emotive and vivid, that the film doesn’t need to show us the action in order for us to “see” it. What really engages us, anyway, is the debate. A seemingly simple case becomes so riddled with questions that it seems impossible to prove with certainty that the boy is guilty.
More fascinating still are the emerging facts about the jurors themselves and how their judgment was clouded. An especially interesting disclosure comes from Juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb). Superficially, Cobb is playing the brusque bully he is accustomed to, but his backstory gradually sets in. The film never flat-out states what happened between Juror 3 and his estranged son, but makes it clear that the relationship was turbulent enough to create painful resentment in his heart. Did he abuse his son? Perhaps. The film leaves that as a possibility. Does his son now hate him? It seems so. He has disappeared without contacting his father for two years. This is why Juror 3 is crusading to convict the boy on trial. It’s a vindication. Knowing this, Cobb’s last fit is the most poignant moment in the film. There is enough potency here for a whole other film.
Lumet keeps 12 Angry Men faithful to its origins as a teleplay. Each of the actors has a moment in the spotlight. The more we hear Fonda’s character talk, the more we realize that he is a manipulator. From the start he had this case figured out. He bought a knife identical to the one used in the murder and brought it to trial, proving anyone could obtain such a weapon. He has studied the minds of each juror and knows how to persuade them. His hushed power of persuasion will save the boy’s life.
Lumet uses few gimmicks here. In one, the old juror (Joseph Sweeney) is shot through a fishbowl lens and the camera often travels with the actors as it did in Hitchcock’s Rope. But overall, 12 Angry Men is done without crescendos. It’s a true and natural film. Due in large part to its lack of artificiality, 12 Angry Men is a most perfect celluloid expression. In its simplicity, it’s a treasure of American cinema, and topically it is an all-American film. 12 Angry Men is not just a technical triumph, however, but also the first gold card in Lumet’s oeuvre.