12 Angry Men
Overview: Things get heated as a jury deliberates. United Artists; 1957; Not Rated; 96 Minutes
Mild Irritation: The poster for 12 Angry Men, with that iconic image of the wavy knife sticking into the ground, seems rather desperate. It promises a much more thrilling film, one that “explodes like 12 sticks of dynamite!” “Life Is In Their Hands — Death Is On Their Minds!” screams the tagline, and even the title teases a passionate fury which the movie never really delivers. Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men is about as small-scale as movies get, taking place almost entirely in a single room and consisting mostly of men discussing nuances in a case of which the audience has no other knowledge That’s not to say that it isn’t dramatic, of course. The brilliance is in how dramatic Lumet makes it. This film offers a master-class in cinematography, and I mean that literally. The way Lumet and cinematographer Boris Kaufman use the camera to communicate the atmosphere of the room is Filmmaking 101, and anyone with an interest in film would do well to pay attention to it. Lumet and Kaufman communicate the tension and claustrophobia of the room by moving the camera closer and closer to the actors’ faces as the film goes on, and changing lenses to shorten the depth of field. By the end, when the characters are at each others’ throats, the camera forces us into the same uncomfortable position by having their faces fill the entire screen. It’s an incredibly simple trick, but it’s just as effective. Over the course of the film, the jurors become more and more disheveled, attempting to find relief from the room’s brutal heat. They begin the film looking civilized, but as their personal biases start to show themselves, they descend to a more primal state.
Name and Number: The twist is that the film and its characters always existed in that animalistic arena. They just spent a while hiding it underneath social constructs and norms. The film is really a parable about humanity’s distaste for empathy and preference for personal feelings over reason. The performances of the titular jury members are simplistic and uncomplicated, and they need to be. These characters are nothing more than the baggage they bring into the room. What it comes down to is that most of these men don’t care at all about the fate of the boy they might be killing, exposing the irony of that “Death Is On Their Minds” tagline. This intentional distancing is emphasized by the fact that none of these men know each others’ names, and the boy on trial is never referred to by name and is credited as “The Accused.” This erasure of humanity is meant to facilitate an unbiased verdict, but the film reveals the fallacy in that thinking. If a jury doesn’t consider the humanity of the person on trial, how can their decision be truly fair? Initially, it is only Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) who cares enough about the boy’s fate to consider the case carefully. Most of the rest of the men don’t come around until they find a personal connection to the case.
Really Really Real: Despite its frills-free, no-nonsense approach to storytelling, 12 Angry Men functions perfectly as a rebuke to the more literal-minded forms of film analysis that are popular on the internet. The events of this film could never happen in “real life.” Juror #8’s pursuit of evidence outside the courtroom and the plethora of assumptions and leaps of logic made by the jury would make for a clear mistrial. But guess what? It doesn’t matter. This film doesn’t have to resemble reality, and no film is obligated to do so. We tell stories to communicate meaning. If the communication of that message requires bending or breaking the “rules,” then so be it. This isn’t a film about twelve guys in a courthouse. It’s a film about justice, prejudice, reason, and empathy.
Wrap-Up: 12 Angry Men’s compelling performances and dynamic direction help to turn this relatively low-key drama into a powerful parable about human nature and a teachable example of excellent filmmaking.