While we at Cinedelphia are all avid film buffs, there are many films that are held in high regard that we haven’t seen. As we cross them off our collective List of Shame, we’ll share our thoughts here!
It may sound like hyperbole, but I think saying that 12 Angry Men was at the top of my personal List of Shame is a fair assertion. Having received a bachelor’s degree in political science 5 years ago makes me feel like I really ought to have seen 12 Angry Men well before now. Not that I have been avoiding it, but I just never seemed to be in the right mood. Of course, now I can’t think of a time where I wouldn’t want to sit down and watch this amazing film.
Adapted from the teleplay by Reginald Rose, the Sidney Lumet film is actually the third version of this story brought to the screen. In this iteration, Henry Fonda artfully plays the dissenting juror, the only one to speak up for the possibility that the case’s defendant is not guilty. It’s such a simple concept, 12 men in a locked room, not able to leave until they reach a consensus. And yet it provides all of the drama a film could ever need, coupled with a time capsule of the American justice system pre-Civil Rights movement.The film basically runs in real time, the camera never leaving the sweltering room, an audience help captive by the same men who must make up their minds.
We see the turmoil of these men as they are challenged on beliefs they assumed were concrete. One by one they reassess their opinion, already shaded by their own experiences, background, and their biases. We see them sweat, and watching it on a warm summer’s day, I am pretty sure I began to sweat too. Like the oft-cited My Dinner with André, the entire film is a conversation between the characters, and between the filmmakers and the audience. But while André settles in for a voyeuristic view, 12 Angry Men makes you feel like you are in the room, sweating with them.
However, it is important to note that the film doesn’t want us to make up our own mind about the case in question.This isn’t a courtoom drama per se, because we have zero direct knowledge of the testimony, the lawyer’s arguments, the look of the defendant, or the evidence (except the knife). We only have the impressions, memories, and thoughts of these 12 men. The screenplay does a fantastic job of laying out pieces of the puzzle, but that is secondary to deciphering the men in the room with us.
Each impassioned rejoinder is a two way lens, altering our perception of the man uttering it, exposing the way he views the world. Henry Fonda is perfect in this role, playing the skeptical man, pushing just hard enough. He claims to not have a specific agenda, but the claim seems thin at best. Or perhaps he is shocked by the otherwise unanimous opinion of the first vote. Either way, his character does a masterful job of bringing the others to his side. After all, a guilty charge is “beyond a reasonable doubt” and Fonda’s character reminds us truly how tough that standard is when confronting the other jurors. The reliability of “eyewitness testimony” is a core tenet of the film, but not the central question being asked. “We’re talking about somebody’s life here. We can’t decide in five minutes. Supposing we’re wrong?”
The two intertwining ideas at the core of this film are: how does our background and beliefs alter the way we perceive facts, and what motivates people in the decision-making process. What could motivate someone to misremember something they witnessed? 12 Angry Men doesn’t seek to answer these questions, but asserts them, driving us to peel back the layers of the characters in the hopes of understanding them better.
And everything is backed by the filmmaking itself. For that I defer to Roger Ebert and Mr. Lumet:
The visual strategy of the movie is discussed by Lumet in Making Movies, one of the most intelligent and informative books ever written about the cinema. In planning the movie, he says, a “lens plot” occurred to him: To make the room seem smaller as the story continued, he gradually changed to lenses of longer focal lengths, so that the backgrounds seemed to close in on the characters.
“In addition,” he writes, “I shot the first third of the movie above eye level, shot the second third at eye level and the last third from below eye level. In that way, toward the end the ceiling began to appear. Not only were the walls closing in, the ceiling was as well. The sense of increasing claustrophobia did a lot to raise the tension of the last part of the movie.” In the film’s last shot, he observes, he used a wide-angle lens “to let us finally breathe.”
The movie plays like a textbook for directors interested in how lens choices affect mood. By gradually lowering his camera, Lumet illustrates another principle of composition: A higher camera tends to dominate, a lower camera tends to be dominated. As the film begins we look down on the characters, and the angle suggests they can be comprehended and mastered. By the end, they loom over us, and we feel overwhelmed by the force of their passion. Lumet uses closeups rarely, but effectively: One man in particular–Juror No. 9 (Joseph Sweeney, the oldest man on the jury)–is often seen in full-frame, because he has a way of cutting to the crucial point and stating the obvious after it has eluded the others.
It’s absolutely brilliant. These are the subtle tricks and turns a director uses to get the audience to feel things without noticing. We are so captivated by what is unfolding before us, so a part of the story, that it was easy to miss my first time viewing the film. I don’t have a background in filmmaking, but I recognize that lens choice can have a profound impact on the viewing experience, unique to visual mediums. Like the stage construction in theater, or panel composition in a comic book, these are flourishes that exist within the structure of the art to reinforce and conduce feelings endemic to the work unfolding before us.
12 Angry Men is essential viewing for anyone, and I highly recommend Criterion’s recent release (pictured above) as something that should be in the home of every film fan. After just one viewing, I can say that 12 Angry Men is already one of my favorite films of all time, and one I will revisit over and over.