12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957)
A dissenting juror in a murder trial slowly manages to convince the others that the case is not as obviously clear as it seemed in court.
The first feature film directed by Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Verdict) is one of the greatest huis clos dramas to ever be put on film. Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, and eight other angry men. They are the twelve jurors who need to decide if a young Spanish-American is guilty or not of murder on his father. They are in the jury room for almost the entire film and the evolution of their decision is the center of the story. Adapted from a play by Reginald Rose, 12 Angry Men is a masterpiece of mise en scène and pacing.
At first, Fonda’s character is laid back and studies the opinions and reactions of his peers. But when he decides to get into the action he mesmerizes them one by one. This is not only a meditation on American justice, but also a human laboratory on human forces of power and influence on opinions.
It also works where Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat film fails to be the perfect huis clos, the tension and the interactions between the characters is never slowed down for a plot detail or a camera setup. Lumet’s sober mise en scène becomes the best tool he has to tell this risky story. However, he masters it like the great storyteller he is. Just look at his film Network to understand how he knows to bring controversial material to the big screen without falling into the easiness of his subjects.
The late American critic Andrew Sarris in his book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 labelled Sidney Lumet in the category Strained Seriousness. It represents “talented but uneven directors with the mortal sin of pretentiousness. Their ambitious projects tend to inflate rather than expound.” What works with 12 Angry Men, is the fact that it is an ambitious project made with honest and very humble means.
All in all, 12 Angry Men might be Lumet’s masterpiece: a film that still holds its guard more than fifty years after it was made is the sign of real talent. Plus, it is a movie that has a great entertainment value and a keen story. Highly recommended.