It still amazes me how within so little, Sidney Lumet has managed to create something nearly as mind blowing as 12 Angry Men – because what Lumet was able to do in a single room many other filmmakers can’t seem to capture within an entire city. But among many more things that one can come to say about 12 Angry Men, the most obvious comes to mind: it’s one of the best American films of the 1950’s, let alone all time. Because there’s a great sense of tension that can be felt just from being inside of a room because of how tight it remains all throughout, for it only leaves a feeling of being drained, even the smaller actions feel so big. Among many reasons that 12 Angry Men is one of the best films of the 1950’s, let alone all time – they only begin to shine from there. But many of these reasons are already covered in many better ways, and maybe at most all I can ever do is repeat them.
We don’t even know the names of any of these twelve men as they enter the courtroom. One juror pleads “not guilty” as everyone else is voting “guilty,” and now this juror comes down to the point of interrogating the others regarding their own votes. You never see the defendant, but it’s a clever choice on Sidney Lumet’s end because the defendant is not important to what we perceive of the action, just like the names of any of our jurors. Yet we still feel humanity coming to terms within this feeling of entrapment that Sidney Lumet is crafting here especially with how the minds eventually come and contradict themselves one by one. It’s the fact that Sidney Lumet has turned something so minimal into such a high concept that only allows 12 Angry Men to remain so impressive even to this day – for it only goes to show how little is needed in order to create an engaging turn of events one by one.
Empathy is one of humanity’s greatest tools, as Sidney Lumet demonstrates with every frame of 12 Angry Men, and the point of view where we are watching the film escalate from. The film doesn’t take a singular point of view in order to remove any sort of feeling of bias towards any other perspective. Yet in Henry Fonda’s character we can still find ourselves recognizing an empathetic human being, because we know at hand that there is some sort of a bias being put into how this trial is working. There’s a gut feeling that Lumet presents that he’s the man who stands up for what we know is right. But because of how much Lumet leaves out of the picture, it’s inevitable that he tries to avoid evidence of distractions. You feel trapped with these people as they are trying to come to terms with how they really feel about the situation that they have in their own hands, you come to your own grasp so quickly just as Henry Fonda’s juror is showing himself to be.
But I love how much Sidney Lumet manages to fit from being placed within the room, for this claustrophobia has only raised the tension that comes out even from actions that would seem much smaller on a bigger scale. You know already that you’re stuck with men who are arguing about their own morals as they find themselves being challenged by other members of the jury, and it never is easy to see where the film is set to go next. Yet even as Lumet is challenging the morals of these men, the viewers also find themselves having their own chance to question how they see what lies ahead of them because of what defines their morale. The social commentary behind 12 Angry Men is truly something of another kind, especially upon Lumet’s observations of the American judicial system – for it still manages to ring today as if 12 Angry Men couldn’t ever find itself feeling any more timeless.
The sheer fact that 12 Angry Men is so tightly wound up on all ground is where such an effort only becomes one of the defining points of classic Hollywood. Every bit of dialogue is excellent, every performance is beyond outstanding, and the direction doesn’t feel a need to flash so actively in front of oneself in order to establish a magnetic visual style. It all seems so simple from an outsider’s perspective because of how little seems to be told within a short running time of 96 minutes, and yet there’s an impact that lands like a bomb – because the experience of sitting within a room as we watch the arguments unfold in such a manner only end up placing us as the viewers within the actions as stated above. What Sidney Lumet has created via minimalism not only brought out one of the most tightly assembled films of its time, let alone all time, but a high concept thriller whose suspense still feels unrivaled to this day.
12 Angry Men isn’t explicitly made as a thriller, and yet it feels like one because of how everything finds itself unraveling with every new twist and turn presented within the story structure. But at the same time, it all feels so contemplative especially when it comes to how it challenges one’s own morals and views of the American judicial system where racism has run prevalent through society. And then comes the fact that it doesn’t even need to show any sort of distractions, but perhaps that could be a sign that something is wrong with the jury after all. They don’t even know much about said character, and yet they call upon judgement because of what they are seeing on the outside. These are just “angry men” after all who haven’t even come to their senses just yet – something that has only allowed Lumet’s film to feel so timely and timeless. And it may be clichéd to say, but films of this sort of calibre are so rare to find within this day and age.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via MGM/UA.
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Screenplay by Reginald Rose from his teleplay
Produced by Reginald Rose, Henry Fonda
Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, E. G. Marshall, Martin Balsam, Jack Warden
Release Year: 1957
Running Time: 96 minutes