12 Angry Men (1957)
“They have twelve scraps of paper… Twelve chances to kill!”
Director: Sidney Lumet
Cast: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam
Synopsis: 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.
It’s funny how time changes your perception of films. It must be thirty-plus years since I last watched 12 Angry Men, and in those years I’ve always thought of Lumet’s jury drama as a near-perfect piece of ensemble film-making. Today, I still believe it’s a classic, but the flaws in both procedure and character development are a little more visible than they were thirty years ago. Having said that, there’s not many people could write and film a compelling film about a dozen men sat around a table talking.
The jury here has to decide the fate of a street punk accused of stabbing his father to death. The evidence of his guilt seems compelling: a woman witnessed the murder and a neighbour claims to have seen the boy fleeing the scene. The suspect has no real alibi to speak of, and his lawyer is apparently on work experience. Eleven of the disparate group of male jurors immediately vote guilty, but one — Henry Fonda — votes not guilty, thus kicking off ninety minutes of sometimes overwrought debate.
Given the fact that practically the entire film takes place in one room, director Sidney Lumet does well to prevent things from becoming stale. His camera often gets in tight on the tense, sweating faces of the jurors as they verbally slug it out. You can feel both the stifling, claustrophobic heat in the room — a hot summer’s day, with no air conditioning and a broken fan — and the pressure felt by each of the jurors as they struggle with the facts of what initially seemed a clear-cut case. For the viewer, the time flies by, even though the only action is the slowly spreading sweat stains beneath each man’s arms.
The story is, if course, more than just 12 men deliberating; it’s a study of man as a group, the way they interact, the differences between them, their weaknesses and strengths. To this end, each seems a little too neat and precise, a bit too compartmentalised. Here you have Mr. Prejudice, there is Mr Flippant. Lazy, hesitant, diffident, bigoted, they’re all there, and at times it feels as if writer Reginald Rose is ticking off each of the sins as he changes each juror’s point of view. Nevertheless, the arguments are mostly logical, even if much of what is said and done would not have been permitted in a jury room even back in the 50s.
And of course that cast is something else. It’s like a who’s who of late-fifties American character actors, and each player fits his role perfectly. Even the lesser known names such as Edward Binns hold their own. Ironically, perhaps the least convincing performance comes from one of the better-known actors: Lee Cobb, as the Public Avenger, chews the scenery every chance he gets, and at times he’s a little too overwrought to be believable. Fonda is Fonda, which is good enough, but it’s Jack Warden as the guy with tickets to the ball game who gave the most convincing performance for me, even though it wasn’t the showiest.
Despite its flaws, 12 Angry Men still stands up as superior, quality entertainment. If you consider yourself a film buff — or even just a movie nut — you really should add this one to your ‘watched list.’
(Reviewed 28th July 2012)