12 Angry Men (1957)
It's ironic that one of the most famous (if not the quintessential piece itself) courtroom dramas does not take place in a courtroom. "12 Angry Men", written by Reginald Rose after he was a juror, instead examines the twelve men who hold someone else's life in their hands. It's a story mainly concerned with ethics and performances and from its mans-only cast, it brings forth the most memorable of turns, each actor besting the next.
An ensemble cast tour de force, "12 Angry Men" is also a work of extreme genius in writing. Because only the first scene is shot in court, we do not get to know about the case itself. The opening scene gives us the bare basics: it's the end of a six day murder trial. The jury has heard all of the evidence and now they must decide whether the defendant is or is not guilty of pre-meditated murder. If they convict the defendant, he must be sentenced to death, the court will not accept anything less.
With this in mind, the twelve men enter a back room and start by a preliminary vote. The overriding thought of the men is that the boy is guilty. This eighteen year old slum kid is accused of stabbing his father in the chest with a switchblade.
With so much evidence, including two eye witnesses, piled up against the boy, it would seem that this is one of the easiest cases to call...or so it would seem.
Juror #8 (Henry Fonda, also the producer of the movie, one of the chief reasons it got made) is the only man on the preliminary vote who doesn't want to immediately vote "guilty". His reasons? He thinks that there is a reasonable doubt that the boy didn't commit the crime, and therefore, he doesn't want to quickly sign the boy's life away.
The room starts to take a tense shift as the jurors, one by one try to convince #8 that he's wrong. This is how the script manages to recall the exact details of the crime without making us sit through the defense and prosecution arguments.
Yet as they start to argue and the room heats up, it becomes clear that each one of them brings their own sort of prejudices and baggage with them. Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb) is the biggest of all the bullies in the room, clearly feeling empathetic towards the victim in this situation because of a personal relationship between he and his son. Then there's Juror #10 (Ed Begley) who is just an old racist, ready to condemn the boy just because he's Hispanic.
Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney) is the only man who lends a listening ear to #8. He begins to rationalize the case, to think about how easy it would be to send the boy to the chair, and he realizes that he too doesn't think all the points of the case line up.
But the arguing continues and the tempers flare even more as the case continually gets scrutinized into the night.
Much like "Dog Day Afternoon" or "Do the Right Thing", "12 Angry Men" is all about how crazy people get in the heat. On a blistering summer day, the twelve men don't exactly have the most comfortable of circumstances, yet they all try to keep a level head. The heat and humidity is infused into the movie, it makes the jurors uneasy.
"12 Angry Men" tackles a large array of issues from strained paternal relationships to justice to racism. What makes the film so iconic is that none of its original potency has been lost through the years. Somehow director Sidney Lumet managed to stop time for a moment. This is one film that doesn't seem to have aged a day since its release over 50 years ago.
Though the film managed to get three Oscar nomination, it was a box-office flop. It's only in the years that followed it that the film has grown into a classic and landed a permanent place in the canon of cinema.
"12 Angry Men" partly succeeds because of Boris Kaufman's incredible cinematography including an opening shot that is six minutes long with no cuts. The technical savvy of using camera and lights to make one room with twelve men stuffed inside interesting is beyond compare. The camera never idles and the technique here is what makes the movie beyond great.
"12 Angry Men" is a powerhouse of a film and one of the greatest dramas ever made.
Posted by Micah Jones