12 Angry Men (1957) 4.65/5 (2)


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Rating: The Good – 95.5
Genre: Drama
Duration: 96 mins
Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam

“You’re like everybody else. You think too much and get mixed up.” Few films have managed to get to the truth of things like 12 Angry Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Inherit the Wind and it’s a shame those few exceptions are all from over half a century ago. The premise is well known now: twelve white male jurors all sitting in a sweaty room debating whether a young man from the wrong side of the tracks is guilty of killing his father. Writer Reginald Rose and a 34 year old Sidney Lumet cleverly use the context to expose the varied prejudices which humans bring to bear on the world and the result is an insightful analysis of truth, perception, and moral fortitude. Henry Fonda is exquisite as the brave conscience of the twelve but there isn’t one of them (Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, and Martin Balsam especially) who doesn’t pull out all the stops.

12 Angry Men is a testament to the power of simplicity when delivered with clear purpose. The dialogue is not fancy but rather tailored authentically to the various personalities whether they be straight-talking working class men or more white-collar. They talk exactly like you’d expect their characters to talk and the arguments which unfold do so in an organic and unplanned manner, again exactly how real life informal debates do. That Rose and Lumet manage to peak the drama around the key points and revelations that come from these arguments is no mean feat. In  fact, for all the glowing talent in front of the camera and for all the brilliance of Rose’s story and screenplay, the standout performer here is undoubtedly Lumet who quite simply rewrote the directors’ manual with the methods and devices he used to generate and balance the tension as it rises and settles repeatedly throughout the film. Watch how he builds a sense of anticipation particularly in the opening scenes and how he focuses it on the faces of the actors, the knife, the glasses, or Fonda’s simulated limp. Lumet knew how to get the best from his sterling cast and his framing of their faces and actions works flawlessly yet silently to achieve this.

12 Angry Men is a profoundly moving film and deeply arresting. It’s not a pulpit for liberalism or a champion of bleeding heartism. It’s an analysis of both the flaws and strengths of humankind and a piercing one at that. From a purely film-making point of view, it’s not only a lesson in the construction of dramatic tension on screen but it’s damn near the best made drama ever. It’s cinematic gold is what it is.

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