“12 Angry Men” was directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Reginald Rose. Released in 1957, the film follows 12 jurors tasked with deciding the fate of a young man on trial for murder. If found guilty, he’ll be put to death. At first, it seems that it’s an open-and-shut case with abundant evidence pointing to his guilt, but one juror (Henry Fonda) sees some holes in the story and must convince the other 11 men of the defendant’s innocence.
I’ll get straight to the point: this screenplay is in the top five greatest of all time. Despite 98% of the film taking place in a cramped room, the film moves at lightning speed with some of the strongest pacing I’ve ever experienced. Every single detail and word matters, not only in revealing the events of the case to the audience (as we discover the facts through the jury room conversations) but also in constructing 12 impeccable characters. Each juror has different worldviews and mannerisms that influence their stances on the case. Juror 3 is biased by his rocky relationship with his son, Juror 4 is cold and only cares about the facts, Juror 5 is influenced by his experiences growing up in a rough neighborhood similar to that of the defendant, Juror 11 sees the case from the perspective of an immigrant, etc. No one character is the same, and every time I watch this film I have a different favorite juror.
Each actor is at the top of his game here. Henry Fonda proves himself to be one of cinema’s greatest leading men with his commanding but subtle performance as Juror 8 and Lee J. Cobb delivers a heartbreaking, brutal performance as Juror 3. These two work brilliantly together as the ideological opposites driving the two factions inside the jury. E.G. Marshall is equally excellent as Juror 4, giving a performance similar to Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” While he isn’t necessarily a villainous character, he does feel intimidating due to his dead-eyed stare and emotional disconnect.
What glues the flawless screenplay and ensemble cast together is Sidney Lumet’s meticulous direction. His use of close-ups and snappy editing add a great intensity and, most importantly, claustrophobic atmosphere to the film. The story takes place on the hottest day of the year and you feel the heat, sweat, and humidity throughout the film. It’s incredibly immersive and involving, as the audience is conditioned to become a part of the jury as the story moves along. Lumet’s work is subtle and restrained, but it’s able to build a gripping and suffocating world unlike any other I’ve seen in cinema.
“Timeless” and “masterpiece” are words that get thrown around way too often, but both are completely appropriate for “12 Angry Men.” This is undoubtedly one of the greatest films ever made and I can’t recommend it enough.