Perhaps the ultimate chamber drama, the celebrated story of a jury of 12 men presiding over a homicide trial, for good and bad, is as much a sociopolitical touchstone film as it is a damn good entertaining yarn. It's a courtroom drama full of clever twists and turns, heated dialogue and showcase acting.
12 Angry Men (1957) dir. Sidney Lumet
Starring: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsalm, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman
By Alan Bacchus
The 1950s was a unique decade in cinema, and 12 Angry Men exemplifies many of the hallmarks of this era in Hollywood. It comes in the post-war era of cinema, a new age influenced by the increasing political activism of the period as much as the need for escapism. As such, there arose the ‘issue’ film, something rare in Hollywood’s Golden Age, a film in which sociopolitical themes were as important as the story itself. While important in the context of the betterment of the world, it also meant often heavy-handed proselytizing and statement-making.
For instance, the films of Stanley Kramer, who made The Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, were perhaps the models for this new movement. In 12 Angry Men, Henry Fonda, the unnamed central character and the man who is initially the lone proponent of the not-guilty verdict and eventually sways the whole jury his way, exemplifies the theme of social justice, racial harmony and democratization of everyone’s voice within a populace.
At times it all comes out with such aggressive force we have to roll our eyes. The character played by Lee J. Cobb, for instance, brow beats us as the clear antagonizing force to Fonda. His bull-headed prejudice against youth and somewhat less obvious racial bigotry are engrossed by Cobb’s over-the-top performance. However, we’re meant to sympathize with him because of his fractured relationship with his estranged son.
The '50s also saw the influence of television against the big-screen medium. This was Sidney Lumet’s first film, handpicked by producer Fonda based on the strength of his television work. Lumet’s direction is flawless, as he remarkably choreographs his actors and camera to create a visual dynamic mise-en-scene and visual design out of a small undecorated space. Lumet’s wide-angle lenses and crisp black and white photography look as impressive now as they did then.
Fonda’s performance as the social conscience of the picture fits in naturally with his career-long support of the underprivileged and downtrodden in society, complementing his work on John Ford’s films The Grapes of Wrath and Young Mr. Lincoln, as well as the socially conscious classics The Ox-Bow Incident and Mister Roberts.
What holds up best is the script adapted by Reginald Rose from his own stage play. The narrative is a near-perfect construction which surmounts its own clever concept. Rose expertly lays out the criminal case in the dialogue exchanges among the jury and the twists and turns of the story as each character rethinks each key item of evidence or testimony. The personal backstories of the characters, which are as important as the conflict in the present, while heady and forthright at times, are also expertly woven into the fabric of the fascinating, thrilling and clever criminal investigation.