a man's guilt or innocence in 12 Angry Men.
As far as directorial debuts are concerned few are as good as Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men. Hell, few films period are as good as 12 Angry Men. Though the action is limited to one small, hot room, the film is smart, taut, and exciting from start to finish. The word strong doesn’t even begin to describe the screenplay (penned by Reginald Rose, who also wrote the play upon which the film is based). Then there are the 12 excellent performances from a cast that includes Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb. Throw all this together, and you’ve got a nearly perfect film.
On one scorching summer day, a New York jury is charged with determining the guilt or innocence of a young man of the slums who has been charged with murder. When these 12 men begin discussing the case, it seems like a forgone conclusion—in the face of damning evidence, the boy will be convicted and sentenced to death. But one man, Juror #8 (Fonda), insists on at least hashing things out a little more. With a life on the line, they owe it to the boy to discuss the evidence one more time. In doing so, Juror #8 creates some uncertainty in some of his fellow jurors’ minds. Juror #3 (Cobb) is not convinced, however. He lashes out at the dissenters and their overly creative imaginations. Thus begins a battle of the wills between 8 and 3 over the hearts and minds of the rest of the jury and the fate of this young man.
12 Angry Men feels as important today as I assume it did in 1957. At a time when leadership is hard to come by and standing out from the crowd is difficult, Juror #8 doesn’t need to do much to earn our sympathy and respect. Of course, it helps when he’s whip-smart and our antagonist—Juror #3—is a stubborn and ignorant individual. These two aren’t the most three-dimensional lead characters you’ll find, but they succeed at what’s most important—making us feel connected.
The rest of the cast certainly helps take some of the load of Fonda and Cobb’s shoulders. Again, these characters aren’t groundbreaking, but they have enough individuality that their stories and backgrounds, however brief they might be discussed, help move the film along at a brisk pace. Ed Begley’s Juror #10 and Jack Warden’s Juror #7 are especially compelling, but each and every character has an important role to play in the ultimate arc of this story.
This might be Sidney Lumet’s first time in the director’s chair, but his work is still exemplary. Besides managing to tease out 12 perfect performances from his cast, he instills a sense of claustrophobia in the jury room that only intensifies as the film progresses. Once a few of the juror’s begin to change their votes, the tension between the two camps becomes palpable, making the film all that much more fun to watch.
This film holds a soft spot in my heart for being one of the films that actually got me into the hobby of watching movies. I’ll never forget watching it in 10th-grade English class and being totally engrossed in what was going on. That’s 12 Angry Men is often regarded as Lumet’s best film. Its themes are universal, it works on multiple levels, and it features some of the finest writing and acting of its time.