Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Fifteen

#15 — 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957)
In the annals of cinema, there are undoubtedly more impressive debut directorial efforts than Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, but there are few that so perfectly captured and forecasted the defining strengths that would make up an entire career, particularly one as long as prodigious as his. Adapted for the big screen from a work that was first presented as a television play and then produced for the stage, 12 Angry Men betrays its origins in live broadcasting and theater in its very conception. Save for a few stray minutes at the beginning and end, the entire film takes place in one room, the room where the jury in a murder trial have been sent to deliberate and then deliver a verdict. There are no florid flashbacks to the crime itself, nor pushy glimpses of the lives of the different jurors. It is just a dozen citizens in a room, doing their civic duty in a state of shared and escalating agitation. Within this setting, there are multiple hallmarks of Lumet’s justifiably famed and acclaimed storytelling: urban authority, the concrete impact of crime, the bruising neediness of masculine self-assertion, and an almost awestruck respect for the ways that language can strike like a iron hammer heated in glowing coals. The thesis of the life’s work of Lumet was there from the beginning, as plain as typewriter ink pounded onto a sterling white page.

The instigating plot point of 12 Angry Men has been borrowed and repurposed many times over. The outcome is all but settled with all the jurors, save one, voting guilty. The sole dissenting voice belongs to Juror #8, played by Henry Fonda, better equipped than any actor of his generation to serve as the automatically accepted moral compass within a drama. With rhetoric and logic, reasoning and confrontation (and one especially handy revelation of the sort of pocketknife he favors), the juror goes about convincing the others of the soundness of his own determination. The story can be read as either a condemnation of the quick, emotional rush to judgment built into the American justice system or a celebration of how the core principles of respecting evidence and insisting on the total elimination of reasonable does will always lead to the truth, as long as those engaged in the process take their chore seriously.

One of the great conceits of the screenplay (adapted by Reginald Rose from his original work) is that none of the men is given a name, each of them instead identified only by their juror number. Similarly, the details of the case are kept coldly uncomplicated. Like the procedurals that would dominate television decades later, the actual mechanics of the process are what’s important. Each of the jurors reveals something of themselves gradually during the process, including their predilections and prejudices, but it isn’t really about them, about who they are. It is about the job they are charged with, and the arduous process of completing it. Lumet rightly focuses on that, while simultaneously offering a master class on making a film locked into a single setting (one as drab as a courthouse deliberation room, no less) is a visually engaging and interesting piece without restoring to trick shots and other ostentatious tomfoolery. His camera is in motion, but not exactly restless. Every shot seems meticulously chosen, presumably always with a thought as to what aspect of the shifting dynamics in the room the framing can help convey. With 12 Angry Men, Lumet operate with a shrewd care that he would carry with him to the very end, to the benefit of all who value the art of film.