Simple is magnificent. That’s what makes 12 Angry Men so special — its stark simplicity and the sheer brilliance within it. The 1957 Sidney Lumet feature debut is a dramatically effective courtroom thriller, a modern classic rightfully regarded as a seminal film. The plot is superbly written and well compensated by great acting of a formidable ensemble cast starring the legendary Henry Fonda and great cinematography by the veteran hands of Boris Kaufman. Apart from a brief setup and even briefer epilogue, this 96-minute staggering courtroom drama takes place entirely in an NYC jury room as 12 jury members are to debate and reach to a conclusion regarding the fate of the young defendant charged with the murder of his father.
Among the 12 men, we get to see people of different mindsets having different moral standards and prejudices. We see juror #3, played by Lee J. Cobb, who angrily remembers his son’s defiance of authority and tries to pass on the verdict biased by his past experience. There is another juror who is a garage owner seething with racial prejudice. We see a wise and benign old man well played by Joseph Sweeney. Again there is an anxious salesman who wants to vote and leave as soon as possible.
None of the jurors are introduced by their names, rather they are defined through their personality, emotions, occupations, and backgrounds. At first, all the 11 jurors vote against the defendant except juror #8, played by Henry Fonda, who has given yet another performance to be remembered. Through his logical approach and impressive dialogue, the film addresses the crucial principle of reasonable doubt — the belief that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty and deserves a fair trial based on facts and not fancy. Juror #8 questions the evidence presented in the trial. His critical thinking gradually convinces others to think beyond their own prejudices. They speak, they smoke, they swear, they get angry, and as the debate progresses, logic, emotions, biasness come into play.
It is a film where personality conflicts, dialogues and body language are the sources of drama and tension. There are no fancy effects, no action, no whizzy camerawork — only compelling dialogue, finely etched characters and a beautifully written plot. What makes 12 Angry Men a standout from the rest of courtroom films is that it never feels the necessity to state the verdict, rather its focus is on whether the jurors have reasonable doubt about the guilt. The film never shows anything of the trial, rather all the evidence is disclosed eventually from the dialogue between the jurors. And each cast member puts up such a great performance that it seems as if the debate is happening in front of the viewer.
The camera-work of the film is also brilliant. It is simple and different from contemporary styles. The close and long shots taken on the facial expressions and body languages of the characters adds to the tension of the film. Different lenses were used during different phases of the film, which helped give a sense of increasing claustrophobia. The film was not a commercial success given the type of film it is, but it has achieved the universal acclaim from critics that it rightfully deserves. What makes the film even more special is that the theme of its content is still relevant to this time and highly likely to stay the same. This is a film that is very intimate to humanity and human emotions. It is realistic and leaves a tremendous impact. Its drama is so powerful and thought-provoking that it is bound to fascinate the viewers and keep them enthralled.