12 Angry Men (1957)

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 07/14/03 23:33:53

"12 Men, One Room, All Talk, No Action...Who's In?"
5 stars (Awesome)

You've got to admit, as concepts go it's not exactly a grabber. Whereas when you could sum 'Phone Booth' up as 'one man gets pinned down in a phone booth by a sniper' that at least promises some action. '12 Angry Men' on the other hand could be summed up as '12 men debate the merits of a murder case' and doesn't sound particularly enthralling. Surprising then it's one of the finest thrillers Hollywood has ever offered.

It's a cheat to say that the action is confined to the one debating room. There are glimpses of the courtroom, the outside and the bathroom adjacent to the debating room. But everything else is in the summation. It's all chit-chat and no action.

Specifically, a young deliquent stands accused of murdering his father. It seems an open and shut case, with eyewitnesses, lack of believeable alibi and concrete evidence stacking up heavily against the boy. But when the 12 jurors (Henry Fonda, Ed Begley, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam, Joseph Sweeney, Jack Warden among others) retire to deliberate it's not as straightforward as it seems. An initial verdict of 11 to 1 is returned in favour of guilty. Only juror 8, Fonda, is doubtful of the boys guilt and like a dog with a bone he's reluctant to let it go without a fight. Slowly others become swayed over to his argument while others like Cobb become increasingly irate and keen to see the boy fry in the chair.

What's first notable about '12 Angry Men' is that until the very end we never learn any characters names. They're simply identified by their juror number. But Roses's script masterfully distinguishes them from each other through subtle shades of characterisation. Fonda isn't entirely convinced the boy is innocent but neither is he convinced he's guilty, and this element of doubt is what is nagging away at him.

Others such as juror 10, Begley are irate at the idea of the boy going free, for reasons that later become clear. Juror 1 Balsam is the reluctant foreman having to take authority and keep the argument calm whereas he'd much rather take a backseat to the case and simply cast his vote. This depth of characterisation runs throughout the cast and they all elevate themselves superbly to the task. No-one is coloured black or white here, they're all seen in shades of grey with their own motives and reasons for belief in the case. It's even more notable considering that the majority of the cast were just known for their tv work and it was for the majority, their biggest film role at the time. The real characters behind the argument are slowly revealed whether it be through subtle hints in the conversation between the men at times of calm or whether it is through the bluster or conviction of their arguments.
One moment where one juror is revealed as nothing more than just a yelling racist bully and slowly turns the rest of the group against him, before being told to sit down and shut up by someone previously on his side is a masterful moment.

So with a great script and terrific on-screen presence it would take a lot for Sidney Lumet to screw it up. And he doesn't thankfully. It's almost a thankless task for a director to take on a film set for 99% of its time in one room, but he approaches it with a steady hand and intelligence. He realises the tight premise of the movie and doesn't over-egg the film with unneccesary stylistic tricks. The only one he does use is one that you'll never realise, as he actually shrinks the set by moving the walls closer in as the arguments progress and the tension rises. It's imperceptible, but coupled with the idea of the day getting hotter and the men getting sweatier as the debate rages, it soaks the film in an almost tangible heat. He also demonstrates great editing choices. A hack would simply cut away between characters like there's no tomorrow, but Lumet knows precisely how to frame every angle of the room, how to manouvere around it and when he jumps into extreme close-ups of the jurors, it's a superb moment of skill. And at a lean hour and a half it's much more exciting and involving than flabby knock-offs like 'A Time To Kill' or 'A Few Good Men'.

Ultimately though, '12 Angry Men' paints itself into a corner. It knows it's got to persuade 11 certain men of the boys innocence and that for them to be so certain it's got to seem a watertight case. So when Fonda starts to blow holes in the case, it does seem unlikely, particularly when he starts showing investigative skills Humphrey Bogart would have been proud of. This sudden burst of sleuthing also spreads to other jurors, late in the day, where miniscule details are gleefully seized upon like no-one else has thought of them. But if in cold analysis the details don't bear too close scrutiny, the passion with which they're argued and the skill that Lumet and Rose weave around the details to focus on personal prejudice instead, it's certainly forgiveable. What could have been hokey and come across as a sham, instead comes across as sometimes unlikely but always inspired.

It would also be easy to dismiss '12 Angry Men' as a liberals wet-dream. We could all hope that when a jury retires to consider its verdict, they argue with as much intelligence and clarity as Fonda does here. We could all hope that the prejudice of others such as Cobb are kept out, but it's sadly unlikely. Instead we're left with what could be seen as wish-fulfillment, but also as an exemplary study in characterisation, Hollywood at its best, and the sheer excitement of some of the best talents at the time coming together,

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