Sidney Lumet’s staggering courtroom drama 12 Angry Men mostly takes place in the cramped jury room where a dozen “men with ties” decide the fate of Puerto Rican teenager accused of murdering his abusive father. Yet the prologue to their civic imprisonment, which takes place beyond these confined walls, sets the stage for Lumet’s overarching concerns about the contradictions of the democratic process. After a few short establishing shots where men, women, and children traverse the plaza steps and interior hallways of the court building, Lumet and director of photography Boris Kaufman focus on a particular door, where one of many cases currently in motion is just about to reach critical mass. The legal arguments have subsided, leaving the courtroom mostly silent and the fate of the accused in the hands of the aforementioned 12 white men. Before their dismissal, the judge looks down at the group and bequeaths them to “separate the fact from the fancy.” Despite his harsh tone, we quickly realize only one of them takes this statement seriously.
That man is Juror 8 (Henry Fonda), the lone dissenting voice during the jury’s disturbingly jovial initial vote to convict the boy of first-degree murder, which would send him to the electric chair. Juror 8 has questions, a lot of them that he wants to discuss further, much to the chagrin of his fellow jurors. “There’s always one,” yells sarcastic Juror 10 (Ed Begley), who, like many of his fellow deliberators, desires a quick conviction so that they can all get back to their regular lives. In the minds of the other 11 men, the evidence is overwhelming in favor of the prosecution, so why even bother with debate. But Juror 8’s resistance to such mob mentality and manipulation helps erode the devastating moral righteousness of men like Juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb), whose certainty about the boy’s guilt is just one of the many red flags to surface during the proceedings. Slowly but surely, Juror 8 forces each man to look beyond their own prejudices—to question the evidence at hand and to become active participants in the judicial process.
What’s most interesting about the intense deliberations that ensue, specifically when a piece of seemingly indisputable evidence is brought back into question, is how a fresh angle and perspective, usually born from Juror 8’s critical thinking, can permanently alter the tone of the discussion. As this trend becomes more of a factor, each character begins to show their true colors in relation to the case. Whether it’s a bit of blatant racism from Juror 10, extreme hatred from Juror 3, or a sobering plea of humanity from Juror 8, Lumet shoots the most important lines of dialogue in close-up, lingering on the characters’ faces for extended moments, establishing the importance of proximity and duration when it comes to dramatic shifts in the story. It’s almost as if Fonda’s character, and Lumet for that matter, believes these men are smart enough to make the correct decision if given the context and time to carefully consider the ramifications of their actions. Despite some crippling character flaws, laziness and apathy are the only real villains here.
Aesthetically, 12 Angry Men is a master class in refurbished cinematic space. It takes a confined, almost completely banal real-world location and makes it completely dynamic, using incredibly nimble camera movements to establish character motivation and theme. Kaufman’s fluid long takes track each character as they leave the table in anger and frustration, the men departing for sporadic moments of personal reflection before returning to the heated discussion. Seemingly simple conversations lead to damning assumptions about ideology and purpose, and each man brings their own set of moral baggage to the table. This allows the location to grow in depth as the characters become more fully developed. In turn, the smooth visuals have a strange effect on the narrative itself; they juxtapose a narrative seamlessness of cause and effect with the building uneasiness in each man, creating a volatile and unpredictable feel that rivals the extreme shifts in weather (from sweltering heat to torrential downpour) beyond the juror room windows.
Incredibly, 12 Angry Men was Lumet’s feature directorial debut, a fact that remains massively impressive considering the film’s meticulous craft and pacing. Harboring just as much compulsive energy and momentum as most modern Hollywood action films, 12 Angry Men makes every shot and line of dialogue count. It’s a film immersed in the organic relationship between façade and perspective, how each character tries to hide their own weaknesses by lashing out at others. “Prejudice always obscures the truth,” one Juror finally says at the end of the film. As the unnamed men depart and walk down the courthouse steps, it’s finally clear that some of them understand how that particularly true statement relates to their own conflicted, ambiguous, and flawed life experience.