Every week, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
12 Angry Men (1957)
By all considerations, 12 Angry Men should violate the spirit of what this column is all about. Sure it was made before 1960, but it’s also an incredibly well-known movie – one that doesn’t necessarily need one more cheerleader on its side championing its cause. However, in my personal experience, this film has occupied a very odd cultural black hole of being “heard of” by almost everyone I talk to but rarely “seen” by that same group of people. It’s a masterpiece, but it has what seem to be a solid amount of strikes against it when it comes to modern audiences. It’s black and white. It’s all dialog. It takes place in a single location. It’s based off a play.
Despite the surprising lack of any explosions or ninjas, the film is regarded as a masterpiece that’s still ranked in the top ten on IMDB – amidst a slew of more modern flicks. It has an obvious staying power because of one nearly unarguable fact: the acting is some of the best ever laid to film. I think it’s incredibly relevant to look at this movie now through a modern lens because of that fact (and because of the subject matter).
Regarding the acting, I’ve noticed recently a lot of talk about performances – mostly propelled by awards season and with the general agreement on the handful of actors working in Hollywood today that can really nail down a solid dramatic role or make us laugh without fail. The realization being that the handful is about all there is, the ultimate lesson being that, for all the grief thrown toward actors – acting is difficult work. It’s a serious feat when someone can sink so deftly into a role. Cynicism melts completely away when a transcendent performance is on the screen. Clearly something incredible is happening when not one, but twelve strong performances are handed in.
After all, the film hinges completely on performance. Henry Fonda as the lone-dissenter in the room delivers the performance of a lifetime (amidst a ton of other incredible performances during his lifetime) especially when facing off against Ed Begley’s Juror 10. The dynamic of vulnerability and sheer hatred shifts to strength and exposed cowardice through nothing more than the delivery of lines and some excellent blocking. It’s the bare-bones-basic nature of the elements at play that highlights the brilliance that can develop when fantastic actors are placed in a small space together and given some of the best writing possible. Martin Balsam’s rules-based and calming Juror 1. John Fiedler’s weak-willed Juror 2. Lee J. Cobb’s ferocious and emotionally unbalanced Juror 3. E.G. Marshall’s logic-based Juror 4. Jack Klugman’s street-wise, compassionate Juror 5. Edward Binns’s staunchly principled Juror 6. Jack Warden’s apathetic Juror 7. Henry Fonda’s brilliantly charismatic, humane Juror 8. Joseph Sweeney’s wise and fragile Juror 9. Ed Begley’s racist, pompous Juror 10. George Voskovec’s hopeful Juror 11. Robert Webber’s wishy washy Juror 12. All of these are ingredients adding layers to one another’s performances. They all play important parts in building each line and action, like the steel beams and wiring of a skyscraper, beautifully crafted and painstakingly executed. Creating something much larger than themselves.
The second most integral part in the success of 12 Angry Men is the camera work. Director Sidney Lumet (who is a genius in his own right) and cinematographer Boris Kaufman somehow take a feature-length film set in a small,cramped room and make the shots work. They constantly convey a sense of entrapment, of claustrophobia – but never fail to be interesting. The blocking constantly moves men into different positions – standing in the corner, lighting cigarettes, sitting with clenched fists for close-ups – so that the camera has a chance to move around deftly. It frames a plain room and handfuls of men (sometimes opting to place all twelve figures in the shot) in some of the most beautiful ways possible. It uses shadows as the only source of contrast. Somehow it manages to take what should be the most boring set of dressing and makes it so the audience can’t pull their eyes away.
It’s tough to know what else really makes this film a masterpiece. In a modern time where a film has to throw every ingredient possible into the mix to keep an audience entranced, 12 Angry Men barely throws anything out into the crowd. It’s an earnest, stark look at minimalism – at a play-cum-movie that keeps its roots firmly planted in the theater. Perhaps that’s why they chose to film it in black and white.
However, the one other element that is often overlooked is the story itself. At the heart of the plot is a murder mystery told in reverse. It’s a genre-bending sort of plot if you think about it in terms of all the details of the case being laid out at once alongside what seems like the obvious guilt of the young man on trial. In the classic sense, the killer is not revealed in the beginning, but in another genre-twisting move – the killer is never really revealed at all. You either believe that the jury should hang the young man or that he’s innocent, leaving the role of the killer completely vacant. In between this classic whodunnit turned on its ear, the personal stories of several of the jurors shine through giving us the psychological insight into why they are voting the way they are. Brilliantly, Fonda’s character is never fully fleshed out, nor is he a change character. He’s a catalyst only, remaining a mystery all the way through and existing solely to bring about change in the other members of the jury.
To this day, 12 Angry Men somehow hasn’t saturated some movie audiences, which is why I feel it’s an important movie to feature here (in a column usually devoted to lesser-known classics). It’s an intense film that will have you sweating – sans special effects, sans color, and sans multiple locations. It’s brilliant writing colliding with brilliant acting and the added bonus of creative camera work thrown in for good measure. It deserves to move immediately from the “heard of it” column into the “fell in love with on first viewing” column.