12 Angry Men (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1957)
"I feel sorry for you. What it must feel like to want to pull the switch. Ever since you walked into this room, you've been acting like a self-appointed public avenger. You want to see this boy die because you personally want it, not because of the facts."
My friend Julien once said that 12 Angry Men would be one of the films he would use to introduce people to Black and White, I go further. This is one of the films I would use to introduce people to the species of man.
12 Angry Men shows, that although we can think terrible thoughts and commit atrocious acts; from time to time one man can step up and redeem us all. One man can challenge us all not to give into the pressures of others, or succumb to society’s race to the middle. It shows that if one man stands tall for honesty and justice, wonderful things can happen. In the narrative of this film it is Juror number 8 (Fonda), in the narrative of the world: it is Sidney Lumet.
This film is a lesson for all future filmmakers in 3 things: How to transport a small-scale play onto the screen, how to explore any male-to-male relationship, and how to utilise the power of ensemble.
For a film set essentially all in one room 12 Angry Men is boldly cinematic. Lumet’s exceptional direction, combined with the dynamic editing of Carl Lerner create and build excitement, tension, emotion, claustrophobia, and heat the way a stage production could never achieve. At no time does it feel that Lumet was constricted by the size of the room, yet at no time does one escape it. The camera moves around the room the way anyone of us would if we were there. Searching for clues, studying the faces and body language of every man in the room, examining the evidence, the facts, the motives, the clews in a desperate desire for truth; or the closest we can get to truth.
I have oft remarked that one of my favorite things about 12 Angry Men is that it covers every male-to-male relationship (and basically every kind of man) there is. This achievement cannot not just be credited to Lumet but to writer Reginald Rose, and to Martin Balsam, John Fielder, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Henry Fonda, Joseph Sweeny, Ed Begley, George Voskovec, and Robert Webber. All 14 must have been hit by the same bolt of lightning, they work with such combined focus and intent. Every man in this film could exist in another movie where they were the leading protagonist, and it would be a thoroughly fascinating study. Everyone is completely fleshed out, so that no decision feels at odds with whom they are; no word or deed could be attributed to anything but an organic, truthful reaction to the word or deed just experienced. Nothing in this film exists solely to support an ‘idea’, a ‘theme’, or a ‘device’ - everything exists to support the 12 Angry Men, and that is what makes it one of the most authentic, truthful, intelligent, emotional, and beautiful films ever made.
It is a treatise on life, on humanity, and on man. Every frame, every word is worth your study - for if you were to devote a year of your life to commit this film to memory: you would be richer for it.
It could easily be my favorite film.