#36. 12 Angry Men (1957)
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Written by: Reginald Rose (story by Reginald Rose)
Starring: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden
12 Angry Men is one of the greatest directorial debuts in history, launching the career of industry legend Sidney Lumet. The film is considered to be one of the all-time great courtroom dramas, and set the stage for single location dramas to follow. 12 Angry Men sees twelve jurors – most prominently #8 (Henry Fonda) and #3 (Lee J. Cobb) battling to decide the fate of a young Hispanic man accused of murdering his father. The only holdout of the bunch is Juror #8, who slowly tries to convince the other eleven jurors to consider the evidence presented and vote with their minds instead of with their gut. Over the course of the afternoon, the jurors resort to shouting matches, bigotry, and general pettiness, all in the name of getting out of the courtroom and going back to their normal lives. 12 Angry Men is incredibly powerful in its intelligence and progressiveness, with Henry Fonda serving as the film’s upstanding moral compass, trying to hand his wisdom over to eleven other grown men who have already made up their minds about the case. Reginald Rose’s script is brilliant in its pacing, and elegant in its balancing drama with staying true to reality. While Juror #8 is slowly trying to convert others into at least recalling evidence and testimony from the trial, the much more aggressive Juror #3 is attempting to do the opposite. When Fonda’s Juror #8 finally makes some of men turn around and reconsider, it’s done in a grounded, realistic fashion rather than becoming romantic and idealized about changing people’s nature. Things slowly become more and more urgent as the afternoon wears on, and the race against the clock to avoid declaring a hung jury is always apparent. This is where Rose’s script does the heavy lifting, and where Sidney Lumet’s direction also comes into play. Lumet gives the film a darker, heavier feel as 12 Angry Men wears on, all the characters are disheveled and sweaty, making them even more frustrated and eager to leave the courtroom. Lumet directs the entire cast to terrific performances, especially that of Lee J. Cobb’s aggressive, ignorant Juror #3, whose performance is frustrating to any sensible and logical viewer. Cobb’s performance is contrasted by the legendary Henry Fonda, whose sensitive – but brave and moral – Juror #8 is working to undo the damage done by Juror #3. Other performances worth noting are John Fiedler, whose meek Juror #2 eventually rises up and shows a great deal of courage in his decision making, and George Voskovec’s Juror #11, whose polite nature allows him to deal with the bigotry and ignorance dealt by other jurors. 12 Angry Men is an absolute masterpiece, making what could be very mundane subject matter into one of the best, most tense multi-character studies ever made in Hollywood. The fact that it served as Sidney Lumet’s debut film says a great deal about his talent behind the camera, and introduced viewers to Lumet with a knockout straight out of the gate. If you’re apprehensive about classic films in the slightest, I can’t possibly think of a better starting point than 12 Angry Men.