At the Movies with Alan Gekko: 12 Angry Men “57”

MPAA Rating: NR/ Genre: Crime Drama/ Stars: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec, Robert Webber/ Runtime: 96 minutes

Take a classic film and strip it down to its bare necessities. Gone are the extravagant sets and sweeping camera-work; removed are the lavish visual effects and epic story lines and when you’re done doing all of that what we find ourselves left with is cinema in its purest form, where acting is the sole driving-force of the narrative, and our attention is retained through the director’s thorough exploitation of a bare-bones scenario. Such is the case with Sidney Lumet’s debut feature-length film, ’12 Angry Men (1957),’ a film that truly is quite simply one of the most arresting motion pictures I have ever seen, a veritable melting pot of gripping performances and impassioned monologues and a film that is unique in that with the exception of its bookends, and a brief scene in an adjacent washroom, the entire film unfolds exclusively within one stifling, and increasingly-claustrophobic jury room, as a group of twelve jurors {all male, mostly middle-aged and middle-class}, with vastly differing attitudes and prejudices, find themselves having to debate the innocence or guilt of a young Hispanic man that has been charged with the premeditated stabbing murder of his father.

Now prior to 1957, director Sidney Lumet had already acquired some experience in television, though it wasn’t until he released his first feature film, a low-budget offering shot in only 17 days that he began to attract the attention of critics and though ’12 Angry Men’ was commercially unsuccessful {in an age of lavish, Technicolor adventures, David Lean’s magnificent ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)’ was more to the taste of audiences of the day}, the film received three Oscar nominations, for Best Writing, Best Director and Best Picture. Of course though come Oscar day, it was Lean’s epic that won each of these categories, among numerous others, but Lumet’s film, adapted by Reginald Rose from his own 1954 Studio One teleplay, is more topical and leaves more open for discussion as it explores the fairness and infallibility of the American judicial system, and the ways by which personal prejudice may affect the outcome of a criminal case and though the film opens at the conclusion of the hearing, as the apparently-bored judge (Rudy Bond) offers his final instructions to the jury members, the events of the trial are later recreated through dialogue, without ever resorting to cumbersome flashbacks or heavy-handed narration which really helps the movie continue along and keeps things going at an enjoyable pace.

What ultimately makes ’12 Angry Men’ such an electrifying viewing experience however are the incredible performances of the twelve main actors, each player delivering a distinct, perfectly-pitched characterization  that contributes richly towards their jury’s deliberations on the court-case. Central to the story, of course, is Juror #8 (Henry Fonda), the lone dissenting member, whose unwillingness to send a conceivably-innocent man to the electric chair forces the other jurors to reconsider their stance on what had initially seemed an “open-and-shut case.” Indeed Fonda, who also co-produced the film, gives a sincere and righteous performance, his actions assuredly heroic, despite the very real possibility in his mind that he may just be helping a guilty criminal escape from justice. The remaining players (in clock-wise order around the juror’s table: Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Ed Binns, Jack Warden, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec and Robert Webber) each contribute with faultless performances, though some play a more significant role in the proceedings than do others and while it would be plain naïve to label any one of the twelve jurors a “villain,” it is safe to say that the man who clashes most frequently with Fonda’s well-meaning dissenter is Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb), a loud-mouthed and temperamental bully, who, due to things about him personally that you slowly but surely find out throughout the course of the film has a rather prejudiced view towards young people and rather than deciding the murder trial based on the evidence, Juror #3 subconsciously relies on his own tremendous bias to settle what he feels should be the eventual fate of the accused man. Equally bigoted is Juror #10 (Ed Begley), whose astonishing partiality is fully revealed in his final manic tirade against lower-class citizens and in one of the film’s most brutally powerful sequences, the remaining jurors, regardless of whether or not they feel the boy is guilty or not guilty, all unite briefly and callously rise from their table in response to Juror #10’s deplorable outburst, and soon we see his confidence shattering as he finally realizes that he truly is alone in his narrow-minded views. Also interesting is Jack Warden’s Juror #7, an impatient salesman, whose complete indifference to the fate of the accused due to him wanting to get out of there and get to a much-anticipated baseball game prompts him to alter his vote in favor of the majority that may exist be it guilty or not guilty.

Now despite working in an extremely confined space, Lumet certainly makes the most of his minimalist setting, and cinematographer Boris Kaufman {who also worked on ‘On the Waterfront (1954)’} employ lenses with gradually-increasing focal lengths to make it seem as though the walls were closing in on the characters, and thus heightening the ever-present sense of claustrophobia that one feels while watching this film. Indeed Lumet was a true master of creating mood, as he also demonstrated in another one of his finest films, ‘Fail-Safe (1964),’ and due to that one begins to see there’s a certain, illogical urgency in the jurors’ proceedings, as though Fonda’s character is continually fighting a losing battle and though some of the events of the jury room would technically not be allowed {Juror #8’s extra investigations – purchasing the knife, pacing the old witness’ journey to the door – would undoubtedly have resulted in a mistrial}, the discussions in the film all work merely to prove a single, all-too-significant moral that is also an important lesson that makes this, in my opinion, required viewing for any Political Science or Govt. class in high school and college and that is this: according to the Constitution, the accused can only be convicted if there exists no reasonable doubt of his guilt and ultimately, whether he actually committed the murder or not is almost beside the point, particularly when the life of a potentially-innocent man is hanging in the balance.

All in all though 12 Angry Men truly is a film that has aged incredibly well, and is a genuine classic that offers the viewer lucky enough to watch it 12 fantastic and electric performances and is truly a film that can be watched over and over again and with each viewing be appreciated more and more each time for the classic that it truly is. On a scale of 1-5 I give 12 Angry Men “57” a 5 out of 5.