MOVIE REVIEW | ***AFI WEEKEND*** #87. 12 Angry Men (1957)

“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.

  12-angry-men

“It’s always difficult to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth. I don’t really know what the truth is. I don’t suppose anybody will ever really know.”

Movies adapted from stage plays often face the same criticism, that they feel like stage plays. Out of necessity, plays tend to take place on a limited number of sets, and tend to be all about dialogue. While I like August Osage County a lot, one of the main bones of contention with its knockers was the long scene at the dinner table where almost every character got a monologue. On stage, that’s great, on screen, it can seem a little static and bland.

But when a play is built entirely on the claustrophobia of one restricting set, and the characters are there to argue with each other, all of a sudden limited sets and speechifying monologues make everything that more intense. Which is why 12 Angry Men might be one of the greatest ever stage to screen adaptations.

Opening in a courtroom at the end of a murder trial, the judge explains to the jury their responsibilities. If they find the defendant guilty, he will face a mandatory death penalty. As they file into the meeting room that will be home to almost all of this movie, a few broad character traits start to appear. There’s Juror #1 (Martin Balsam), the democratic and accommodating foreman, who tries to keep everyone happy.

There’s Juror #3 (Lee J Cobb), the tough, no nonsense blowhard. There’s Juror #5 (Jack Klugman), the lower class ghetto dweller who might have reasons to sympathise with the ethnically vilified defendant. There’s Juror #7 (Jack Warden), who wants a quick verdict so he can get to a big baseball game that night. But most importantly, in this room of 12 white guys, 11 of whom are ready to find the defendant immediately guilty, there’s Juror # 8 (Henry Fonda). The one man who feels like they should at least have a conversation and go over the case one more time before sending this young man to his death. So now, with a unanimous vote either way the only way for these men to finish the job, it’s up to Juror #8 to convince them all, one by one, that they can only find the defendant guilty if it’s beyond all reasonable doubt.

12 Angry Men is an obvious stage play, but it’s one that perfectly lends itself to the screen without needing to change its wordy stageyness. Or, maybe that’s just a testament to how great Sydney Lumet was in his first ever directing gig for the big screen. He keeps things real and simple, with no real Hollywood flash or gimmickry. Or at least, that’s what I though. Then I read this on the movie’s IMDB trivia page…

“At the beginning of the film, the cameras are all positioned above eye level and mounted with wide-angle lenses to give the appearance of greater distance between the subjects. As the film progresses the cameras slip down to eye level. By the end of the film, nearly all of it is shot below eye level, in close-up and with telephoto lenses to increase the encroaching sense of claustrophobia.”

It’s amazing that Lumet thought of this in his first movie. By definition, it’s flashy and gimmicky, but in execution, I never consciously noticed it, while definitely feeling the world closing in on me the way it was closing in on it characters. With this cast of amazing actors, some of them already more than bona fide, like Fonda and Cobb, it would have been easy for them to steamroll over the young Lumet. But somehow, this fist timer was able to wrangle his cast, take a story with seemingly no cinematic merit, and turn it into one of the best courtroom movies ever made, with almost none of it taking place in a courtroom.

12 Angry Men
Directed By – Sidney Lumet
Written By – Reginald Rose

Academy Awards
Best Picture (nominated, lost to The Bridge on the River Kwai)
Best Director (nominated, lost to The Bridge on the River Kwai)
Best Adapted Screenplay (nominated, lost to The Bridge on the River Kwai)

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