12 Angry Men is mandatory viewing for legal people. This was the first film to show the legal process solely from the perspective of the jury. It pertains to a murder case, ostensibly open and shut. The jury are set to deliberate on the fate of the young man accused of murdering his father. Eleven of the twelve jurors are convinced of his guilt, it falls to the twelfth, Juror 8, to convince them there is room for reasonable doubt.
Martin Balsam … Juror 1
John Fiedler … Juror 2
Lee J. Cobb … Juror 3
E.G. Marshall … Juror 4
Jack Klugman … Juror 5
Edward Binns … Juror 6
Jack Warden … Juror 7
Henry Fonda … Juror 8
Joseph Sweeney … Juror 9
Ed Begley … Juror 10
George Voskovec … Juror 11
Robert Webber … Juror 12
I should think that director Sydney Lumet took inspiration from Rear Window, released three years prior, in deciding whether to go ahead with an insular single room set film, quite uncommon at the time. I don’t imagine the heroic Tommy Wiseau would have been born for some decades when this film was released in 1957. In concept, this is not the most exciting prospect. I had a hard time selling this one to Matthew. This is a drama set in one room about the deliberations of a jury. What makes it so special?
On paper this courtroom drama had little to get excited about – a one room setting, a dozen old-timers spouting off, a first-time director, a non-event. But on film, 12 Angry Men is transformed into a superlative brew of acting prowess and dynamite direction, and could stand as a screenwriting masterclass in the development of character and plot without resorting to the big stunts, grandiose locations or special effects. Empire
The tension begins with Fonda, the runaway star of this picture, putting his hand up to signify his not guilty plea. He is then predictably seized upon by the rest of the group, Cobb in particular (Juror 3), whose vocal dissent and energy are mesmerising to watch. His performance is the direct opposite of Fonda’s, who is the picture of calm, quietly but effectively dissecting each piece of evidence the other jurors took as read. Fonda’s character is an architect by trade but seems to have the nose of a detective. This is the only criticism that can be made of an otherwise flawless, consistent and engaging drama.
The overarching theme for me seems to be male fragility under pressure. There is an added urgency to proceedings, as it were, by it being at once the hottest and seemingly wettest day of the year. The jurors are incrementally sweating and more uncomfortable throughout the film as a result of the storm happening outside the window. There is no relief inside the juror’s room aside from one wall mounted fan which is discovered rather late in the film. Lumet demonstrates his genius once again by including this. The added element lends itself to increasingly hostile jurors, some of whom simply wilt under the pressure of the heat and cave to Fonda’s arguments.
Overall, it should be noted that there are no special effect, no novel camera work and no changes of room (aside from one bathroom break) in this film. Yet it remains a watershed moment in cinematic history on account of its compelling characters and robust, flawless script. This is rightly one of the greatest films ever made and a personal favourite of mine.