Lumet’s feature debut is his greatest work, and is perhaps the most engaging black-and-white film ever made.
Dir. Sidney Lumet
1957 | USA | Drama | 96 mins | 1.66:1 | English
PG (passed clean)
Cast: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam
Plot: A dissenting juror in a murder trial slowly manages to convince the others that the case is not as obviously clear as it seemed in court.
Awards: Won Golden Bear & OCIC Award (Berlin). Nom. for 3 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, & Best Adapted Screenplay.
Subject Matter: Moderate/Legal
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed on Criterion Blu-ray – first published 16 Oct 2012)
12 Angry Men was one of the first few films that I caught on DVD when I got serious about reviewing films. As far as black-and-white films are concerned, I haven’t seen a more entertaining one. Legend has it that I was so impressed by Sidney Lumet’s film that I replayed the entire film again right after my first viewing.
It is firmly rooted in my top ten favourite films of all time. That’s right, if you think black-and-white films are dull and boring, 12 Angry Men will change your perceptions in an instant.
I love Lumet’s debut feature for a number of reasons, in particular its characters and dialogue. There are twelve characters to focus on, and there are only about 90 minutes. How do you tell such an engaging story with so many characters in such a short span of time, and as you will see, have almost the entire film shot in the confines of a sweltering and claustrophobic room?
“I don’t believe I have to be loyal to one side or the other. I’m simply asking questions.”
Lumet’s economical filmmaking style, derived from his experience in television, brings most of the elements that define the classical Hollywood picture into a coherent, unified whole, always ensuring all characters are developed to their fullest extent, even the seemingly minor ones.
The pleasure is in seeing the performances and how the entire narrative can be completely shaped by dialogue. Henry Fonda, who plays an articulate member of the jury, decides that groupthink can be fatal, and finds himself trying to defend the accused (a boy who is alleged to have murdered his father) when all eleven others are adamant that the accused is guilty.
Criminal evidence, eyewitness testimonies, and the simplicity of logic all point towards a guilty verdict. But Fonda’s character insists on questioning the facts, as he refuses to be the ‘last man’ to determine the fate of a young boy. “I think that testimony that can put a boy into the electric chair should be that accurate,” he argues.
“I beg pardon…”
“I beg pardon? What are you so polite about?”
“For the same reason you are not: it’s the way I was brought up.”
12 Angry Men, despite being great entertainment for the whole family, is also implicitly critical of the jury system. Should the fate of one person be determined by a random bunch of people, who are more likely to reach a quick consensus because of the unsavoury process itself, rather than being guided by the ideality of notions such as truth, justice, and the fair trial?
12 Angry Men is a rare motion picture that is easily likable by the mainstream audience (if only they make the effort to find a copy which is quite readily accessible here in Singapore), as well as appealing to the serious cinephile. It is simply one of the best films of all time. To not love this film with all your mighty heart is a great tragedy.