This 1957 black-and-white gem, director Sidney Lumet’s cinematic debut (he had worked for some years in television), has lost none of its riveting intensity in the half century since it first appeared on screen. The movie features, along with Henry Fonda, some of the finest character actors of the day (and any other day, for that matter): Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Ed Begley, Jack Klugman, E.G. Marshall. In 12 Angry Men, these actors offer as fine an ensemble performance as can be seen in the movies.
On just about the hottest day of the year, twelve men—all of them white—retire to the jury room to deliberate the fate of a young Hispanic man who has been accused in the stabbing death of his father in their New York City slum apartment. Shortly after the jurors assemble to deliberate the fate of the defendant a “preliminary” vote is taken; the result is 11 votes for guilty and one (from Juror #8, played by Fonda) for not guilty. Juror #8 does not claim that the boy is innocent; he simply believes that “It’s not easy to send a boy off to die without talking about it first.” His vote provokes derision, indignation, and disbelief from his fellow jurors.
What unfolds over the next eighty minutes is an intriguing murder mystery, a character study—times twelve—and a display of virtuoso film directing.
The so-called facts of the case are revealed by the jury members when they are asked to convince Juror #8 to change his mind. The prosecution’s argument rested upon the testimony of several witnesses, the uniqueness of the murder weapon, the boy’s criminal and arrest record, and the apparent flimsiness of his alibi. Juror #8 immediately begins to pick holes in the case and to raise doubts in the minds of some of the other jurors. The second vote is 10-2, and the dismantling of the case continues, to the increasing frustration of several of the jurors. More and more of them are beginning to be convinced, however, and join #8 in the questioning of the evidence.
When the final major piece of evidence is cast into serious doubt the vote stands at 11-1 in favour of acquittal. And in a powerfully dramatic ending the last holdout tearfully yields.
As the evidence of the prosecution is refuted piece by piece, the character of each juror is revealed. Those who appear the weakest—a very old man and a milquetoast banker——are the first to display their inner strength; they grow increasingly confident as others join their ranks. The loudest and most adamant in their insistence on the young man’s guilt reveal their racial prejudice and their personal bias, their protests growing increasingly strident as the vote swings against them. Each man is a unique individual and each actor gives an acting lesson in rendering his character.
The greatest of these, in my view, is Lee J. Cobb, Juror #3 and the last to change his vote. When asked to give his reasons for voting guilty, he says calmly, “Here’s what I think, and I have no personal feelings about this; I just want to talk about facts.” He lists, from notes he has taken, some of the major evidence in the case. But gradually, brilliantly, he shows us that indeed he does have very personal feelings about the case: he is angry and grieving over his estrangement with his own son and he wishes to punish him—and perhaps all young people—vicariously by sending teenager to the electric chair. His anger intensifies, along with his anguish, as he is increasingly isolated.
The film essentially takes place in a single location: the jury room. Director Lumet brilliantly sidesteps the danger of boring the audience by creating an immense variety of shots and by keeping the actors in motion throughout the film. In one 30-second sequence, in which the camera does not move, one man leaves the frame, another stands up, then another, another enters the frame, then another, and one man crosses the frame from left to right; throughout the scene the argument continues, with one man even speaking outside the frame.
Lumet continually increases the tension through camera work, by making the atmosphere “more and more confined.” He says, “As the picture progressed, I used longer and longer lenses; in other words, brought the walls in closer, brought the ceiling in closer, just to make it even more claustrophobic. And I also kept dropping the eye level: in the beginning I was above eye level, middle third of the movie at eye level, last third of the movie below eye level.” Extreme close-ups also contribute to the dramatic effect as do changes in the light, from natural daylight, to the dark of the storm, to the artificial electric light of the room itself.
In his book Making Movies, Lumet explains how he saves money on a shoot. In the jury room, he divided the four walls into Wall A, Wall B, etc. Because “whenever the camera has to change its angle more than 15 degrees, it’s necessary to relight…” a very time-consuming and therefore expensive process. So all the scenes in which the camera faced Wall A, for example, were shot before the lighting was moved to Wall B, and so forth. Using this process means that “the actors are shooting completely out of sequence.” In 12 Angry Men, “Lee Cobb arguing with Henry Fonda [they were on opposite sides of the table in the film] would obviously have shots of Fonda (against Wall C) and shots of Cobb (against Wall A). They were shot seven or eight days apart. It meant, of course, that I had to have a perfect emotional memory of the intensity reached by Lee Cobb seven days earlier. But that’s where rehearsals were invaluable. After two weeks of rehearsal I had a complete graph in my head of where I wanted each level of emotion in the movie to be. We finished in nineteen days (a day under schedule) and were $1,000 dollars under budget.” The budget for 12 Angry Men was $350,000, a miniscule amount even in 1957.
It is a testament to the skill of this first-time director and to the skill of the actors that 12 Angry Men, a miserable flop at the box office, turned out to be a timeless masterpiece.
12 Angry Men poster @ Wikipedia
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