by Jeric Llanes
A courtroom drama that seldom takes place in an actual courtroom during its 96-minute runtime, 12 Angry Men (1957) skips the actual murder-case trial and jumps straight into the decision process made by the jury. A young 18-year-old boy from the slums is charged with the murder of his father, and every juror seems to be on board with voting the boy guilty and sending him off to a death sentence. But when one juror (Henry Fonda) has reservations with making such a hasty verdict, an intense dialogue between the 12 men breaks out, leaving room for the possibility of reasonable doubt that puts the entire case in question.
This is one of the most compelling films I’ve ever seen, with stunning performances from its all-star cast to the polarizing subject matter that still remains relevant to this day. I can’t say much about the plot due to the simplicity of the story (and of course, to save from spoilers), but I think the overall bare bones nature of the film allows for the characterization to really stand out. None of the jurors are ever referred to by name, but despite that we are able to learn about their emotions and biases from the subtext of their conversations. This is a very dialogue heavy film where you really have to pay attention to the nuance of the 12 characters. Henry Fonda’s character is initially the single juror open to the possibility to a non-guilty-verdict, as he tries his best to look at the evidence with skepticism. However, the rest of the crew is against the idea, and all for their own unique reasons. The majority opinion to find the accused guilty goes beyond the proposed evidence on the surface. As the film goes on the backgrounds of each character unravels, showing a variety of emotions stemming from prejudice, personal bias, and shocking indifference (just to name a few).
I also was a huge fan of the editing choices of director Sidney Lumet. His pacing of the film was impeccable, as he was able to string out tension throughout a film that doesn’t have much action. It’s mind boggling to think that a film that takes place in the confines of one small room can hook an audience for over an hour and a half. The camera work is also something to keep an eye out for, as Lumet uses different angles and setups to convey a certain emotion in the scenes. Audiences and critics note that the film starts off using wide angle shots to make the room feel spacious early on, but when the intensity and pressure of the dialogue between the men boils over, the camera will move in closer to our characters’ distraught faces, making the room feel small, pent-up, and claustrophobic. The sense of timing also feels like it’s relative to us viewers since the film rarely skips ahead in time, ultimately making the passage of time feel like an excruciating grind.
The themes that the film chooses to tackle are very touchy topics that push us as an audience to think critically, but it never gets too ambitious where it’s forcing down a message about society. I think this is a unique take and representation of the judicial process, as it gives us a glimpse into the mindsets of everyday people making crucial decisions. And this is perhaps the film’s greatest glory. I truly believe that after watching through the movie, you could take any one of the 12 jurors on screen and start a lengthy discussion that dives deep into the psyche of the character. But what’s even more incredible is how realistic these characters feel when thinking about actual people in society. Throughout my viewing experience I felt that I personally knew at least one person who shared the viewpoints of each of the different jurors on screen, which is mind boggling when considering that this was a film written 60 years ago. Clearly, 12 Angry Men (1957) is a reflection of its time, but overall the story remains universal and still holds its ground!
Fans of intense courtroom dramas will love 12 Angry Men (1957), as well anyone who loves thought provocative movies that might change the way you think. This film might be lacking in action, but it is so rich in its characters and drama that it still manages to be an all-out classic.
Where to Watch this Film: 12 Angry Men (1957) is available for rent/purchase on YouTube, Amazon Video, VUDU, Google Play, iTunes, and Netflix DVD.