Twelve jurors must decide the fate of a young Puerto Rican boy charged with the murder of his father.
“You’ve listened to a long and complex case, murder in the first degree. Premeditated murder is the most serious charge tried in our criminal courts. You’ve listened to the testimony, you’ve had the law read to you and interpreted as it applies in this case, it’s now your duty to sit down and try to separate the facts from the fancy. One man is dead; another man’s life is at stake. If there’s a reasonable in your minds as to the guilt of the accused, a reasonable doubt, then you must bring me a verdict of “Not Guilty.” If, however, there’s no reasonable doubt, then you must, in good conscience, find the accused “Guilty.” However you decide, your verdict must be unanimous. In the event that you find the accused “Guilty,” the bench will not entertain a recommendation for mercy. The death sentence is mandatory in this case. You’re faced with a grave responsibility. Thank you, gentlemen.”
So begins Sidney Lumet’s masterful debut film “12 Angry Men”. This is a movie that has no gunfights, explosions, car chases, or epic set pieces, but it still remains one of the tensest, most exhilarating films in cinematic history. This is a movie that works based solely on the performances of the actors, the dialogue scribed by the writers, and the direction of Sidney Lumet. Almost the entirety of the film is set in one room, but Lumet uses a variety of techniques to create different feelings of claustrophobia and isolation all within the confines of that room. It’s a movie that makes you wait with bated breath as these men with eclectic backgrounds try to determine the fate of one man.
(SOME SPOILERS IN THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH)
Twelve jurors are locked in a room until they can decide the accused’s fate. The boy is accused of murdering his father in the first degree, and all the evidence points to the boy doing it. When the jurors take a preliminary vote, only Juror 8 (Henry Fonda, “Once Upon a Time in the West”) believes he’s “Not Guilty.” As the other jurors try to change Juror 8’s mind, Juror 8 urges them to rethink the case. They go over the details again, and little things start to put doubts in all of their minds.
First off, the writing in this movie is spot on. The entire movie is dialogue; it’s just twelve men sitting in a room, discussing the fate of one man. Had the writing been awful, this would’ve been an impossible film to sit through. However, from the very beginning, even with the judge’s opening monologue shown above, this movie draws you in. As characters begin to go over the details of the case there is a lot of expositional dialogue. In many films, expositional dialogue comes off as on the nose, but in this setting the way the dialogue is delivered propels the viewer right into the heat of the case. As Juror 8 stubbornly holds out against the other eleven men, and the details of the case come out, it becomes very apparent that the evidence does point to a guilty verdict, but Juror 8 still holds his ground. Juror 8 starts to call into question the reliability of the witnesses, the switchblade (Juror 8 found an identical copy) the layout of the apartments and it’s relationship to a passing train… all these details are called into account because Juror 8 is not ready to send a boy to his death just yet.
To continue raving about the writing in this film, I bring forth the characters, all of which are from eclectic backgrounds. We never learn the names of any of the characters (save two at the end); they’re all known by their assigned juror numbers. But though we don’t know the names of our characters, we get to know their backgrounds, and what they personally bring to the table. There’s a racist man who lets his prejudices control his vote, the salesman who just wants to get to a baseball game, a banker who seems open to talking, a lonely elderly man, a quiet Puerto Rican man, a European watchmaker who came to America during or after WW2, an ad executive, and a few other characters who stay quieter too. The issues the characters bring forward are just as relevant as they were sixty years ago: xenophobia, racism, prejudices and preconceived notions about what people with certain backgrounds are like. But the characters don’t just bring their prejudices, they also bring forward their own ways of thinking about things, like Juror 9 (Joseph Sweeney), a lonely old man, brings up the idea that maybe the elderly witness was just looking for some kind of attention, because he himself knows what it’s like to be an elderly man with no one to care for him.
Directing and cinematography are things that this movie really excels with. This movie, as I stated before, takes place almost entirely in one room. But that one room, through Sidney Lumet’s lens becomes a world of different places. It’s amazing to see how varied the shots can be, even in one room. Lumet’s distance from the actors, angles, and camera moves all help to propel the movie forward while saying things about what each character thinks and feels. Low angles looking up make the characters feel more empowered, usually, but because of the low ceiling, it almost makes them look trapped at parts. The way that Lumet arranges the jurors during each shot, particularly in the beginning, shows which side people are on. When the first vote is called, and everyone turns to look at Henry Fonda, look at the framing of all the jurors; not many people say anything, but we can tell by their positioning and the looks on their faces what they’re all feeling. Another scene I love is when the racist juror goes on his rant, and almost everyone gets up from the table. This scene is incredibly directed, because again we see what everyone is thinking without them saying anything. Also during that scene we see that the racist, insensitive comments isolate the man from his other jurors more than bring them together.
This is one of the best-reviewed movies of all time. Had it not gone up against “The Bridge on the River Kwai” for best picture, I can almost guarantee it would’ve won. It’s an amazing film with incredible dialogue, perfect direction, and breakneck pacing. This is a movie I think everyone should see.
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