12 Angry Men is a courtroom drama set in the centre of a stuffy jury room as 12 men decide the fate of a boy suspected of murder. 11 say he’s guilty whilst 1 thinks he may be innocent. Drama unfolds…
12 Angry Men is undoubtedly one of the greatest movies ever made and it is an undeniably classic movie but why? Many assume that it’s just perfect storytelling that wonderfully controls the curiosity of the audience whereas some (including myself) know there is more happening than just storytelling brilliance.
I won’t speak any further of the plot itself in 12 Angry Men as it is best experienced in the moment. Whether it is experienced through film, television, book, play or radio, it’s always a cracking story.
The pacing, the characters, the end verdict, it all makes for a tale that just can’t go wrong. And with more than 90% of it being set in one room (the jury room), one can easily see how it started as a stage play. So why make it into a movie? The benefits of editing.
You could make a movie adaptation of 12 Angry Men and do it in one take (like Russian Ark, Rope, Birdman, Victoria, etc.) and I’m honestly quite surprised no one has attempted to do exactly that yet but the 1957 adaptation included a great many cuts and close-ups. Many of which contributed to or greatly enhanced the state of each scene.
The early scenes where the 12 jury members are getting to know each other are shot on wide lenses and from a slight distance in longer takes but as the film progresses, the shots become tighter, closer and shorter. They also change from being above eye-level looking down on the drama, to eye-level and centre with the drama then finally, below eye-level and facing up to the characters.
This attention to detail would surely be missed if placed in the hands of many other directors active during the 1950s but Sidney Lumet, you got it just right.
Aside from the perfectly paced story and very well-thought out and executed directing, 12 Angry Men is also acclaimed for its brilliant performances. 12 main cast members and not a single one made me remember they were actors. I didn’t feel that Henry Fonda was an actor and I even knew who he was.
In a review I wrote a few weeks ago for The Jungle Book, I claimed that the 1967 animated version of the story was one of the rare perfect films. I have actually kept a slow-growing list through every movie that I have ever seen of the films I feel are flawless.
There are approximately 20-something films on the list currently and 12 Angry Men is one of them. The perfectly paced story, the brilliant performances, the utilisation of one small set, the spot-on directing and the short runtime make for what I would definitely title a perfect film. Not bad for a directorial debut Sidney. Not bad at all.
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