The Films of Sidney Lumet: '12 Angry Men'

Photo: Maunet
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.

1957's 12 Angry Men was Sidney Lumet's first foray into feature film directing, and what a way to begin. Heralded as an american classic, it's also a seminal film from the 1950s and maybe even Lumet's most universally praised and recognized work. It's also a film driven exclusively by the dialogue of twelve men in one small setting; aside from a few moments outside of the courthouse in the beginning and end of the film, the overwhelming majority takes place within a single jury room.

In 12 Angry Men, the path to justice is dissected, exposing all of its challenges and inhibitions. It also gradually showcases each jury member's personal prejudices, preconceptions and unwitting biases. Lumet's subtle camerawork slowly induces a sense of claustrophobia, creating a type of energy that comes from tension, body language and personality conflict. It's as talky as you would expect a film of it's nature to be, but it's superbly written, with great performances and equally great camerawork to keep the mood tense and the suspense potent.

More after the jump...

Photo: Film Squish
12 Angry Men is a transcendeent courtroom drama in the sense that it begins with the judge instructing the twelve jurors how to proceed in their deliberations. The closing arguments have already been made, and all that's left is for the jurors to determine guilt. We, as the audience, are presented the case and testimonies only by way of each juror's recollection of them, and it's here that we're exposed to the details of the crime and each juror's prejudices and preconceptions; this narrative technique allows the details of the crime to unfold for viewers so that they can also take part in the deliberation process. It also serves as an exposé on the way that socially inheritied biases and prejudices can shape a person's decision making. The film never tries to truly insist upon the guilt or innocence of the defendant, as it more explicitly focuses on the issues of reasonable doubt, subjectivity vs. objectivity, and the propensity for human error. The film will always remain relevant because these are the same types of sociological issues that shape debates on politics, religion, etc.

Photo: Reel Life Wisdom
Ultimately, what 12 Angry Men is trying to illustrate is that the american justice system is flawed because the human thought process is, too. It's as simple as that but it's also exhausting and challenging and something that could be deliberated for days on end without reaching a simple verdict or consensus. It takes no shortcuts in presenting these issues and because of that, it will always remain as one of the most powerful, thought-provoking and resonating courtroom dramas of all time. Lumet would later go on to explore similar themes and narrative settings (think Serpico, Prince of the City, Murder on the Orient Express, etc.) but he never nailed it quite as good as he did here.

  • As shooting of the film went on, director Sidney Lumet gradually changed to lenses of longer focal lengths, so that the backgrounds seemed to close in on the characters, creating a greater feeling of claustrophobia.
  • Henry Fonda disliked watching himself on film, so he did not watch the whole film in the projection room. But before he walked out he said quietly to Sidney Lumet, "Sidney, it's magnificent."
  • After a short but rigorous rehearsal schedule, the film was shot in less than three weeks for a budget of just $350,000.

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