wogma rating: Add to 'must watch' list (?)
12 jurors sit in a room, on the hottest day of the year and eleven of them are convinced that an 18-year accused in a murder is guilty. One man isn’t sure. That’s 12 Angry Men, Sidney Lumet’s gripping, edge-of-the-seat courtroom drama which went on to receive nominations for Best Picture at the Oscars and the Golden Globes and also win the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1957. Stellar writing, and an outstanding directorial debut for Lumet. Must watch.Read more
I’m a sucker for films which are based in a claustrophobic setting; where the characters cannot escape. Something like being caught in the lift for two hours. Or, being locked inside a house. Confinement, entrapment bring about interesting layers in human character. Perhaps that’s why I love prison dramas.
12 Angry Men is not a prison drama, it is rather a courtroom one. It doesn’t unfold in a courtroom, rather it is set in a room where 12 jury members must determine collectively whether the accused is innocent or guilty of the charge of first degree murder. From the looks of it, it seems like an ‘open and shut’ case. You begin to wonder how you’re going to sit through the next 90-odd minutes, if the case is so obvious.
But Lumet’s mastery kicks in early into the film and he drops clever signs of an impasse in store. A hot afternoon, no air-conditioning, a wall-fan which refuses to work and a room which has to be remain locked until a decision is arrived at - all these hinting at the dead-lock in store, the nerves about to fly and heated exchanges set to unravel. Half-way through the film, it begins to rain outside and by the time the film ends, so does the rain. That the director has kept in mind nature’s background score, is impressive.
My curiosity for this film piqued last month when I got my hands on to Lumet’s book, Talking Movies where he describes how he used a specific set of lenses to shoot 12 Angry Men - lenses which would make the room appear much smaller than it actually is - thus adding to the claustrophobia. He gradually adjusted those lenses in such a way, that as the film progressed, the room appeared even smaller - adding to the tension. You cannot see the ceiling when the film begins, but you can towards the last 20-odd minutes of the film, suggesting that even the roofs are caving in on to the characters, almost in protest, begging for a decision to be arrived at. I didn’t consciously notice these things while watching the film. But what I did feel was the rise in the adrenaline levels of the screenplay as the film progressed. Which means, each of Lumet’s tricks behind the camera worked.
In the process, the story touched upon some major issues - not just how the judicial system debates on a judgement, but also made a valid case for why it is so important to question the obvious. It becomes clear that being in doubt, questioning the facts again and again and not being prejudiced are the holy grail of decision making. When the jury convenes to debate the trial and what the verdict should be, there’s only Juror No. 8 (Henry Fonda) who has a reasonable doubt of the accused being not guilty. The rest vote otherwise.
As the film proceeds, his questioning zest spreads to other members in the room. Sparks fly and cans of prejudices are opened, as are empty heads filled with lack of interest and concern. The same jurors are caught wanting to swallow their own words.
Each of the 12 jurors are interesting and unique in their own way. Hats off to screenwriter Regiland Rose for being able to seamlessly put to paper such different voices from the same pen. There’s an old experienced juror, an advertising executive, a man in a hurry to attend a baseball game, an adamant self righteous juror unhappy about his teenager son, an old hag who thinks the verdict is too obvious to debate about, a suave gentleman who remains composed in expressing his point, a naive apprentice, and a man who belongs to the same community as of the accused. That’s a diverse offering to place around a table.
The film isn’t just about whether the accused is guilty or not, it’s rather about how much reasonable doubt does the existing evidence throw up. In cricket, we often refer to the term ‘benefit of doubt’. In this film we realise why it’s so important to consider even an iota of doubt and clear it out of the way. It could save an innocent’s life.
Lumet extracts great performances from the cast. Fonda is certainly good, but its Lee J Cobb who steals the show in being his nemesis. A courtroom drama looks like an uncool choice on a Sunday afternoon, but the actors have enough layers in them to keep you involved, engrossed with them in helping them solve the mystery.
A noteworthy feature film debut, Mr Lumet! Despite nil special features on the DVD, except a booklet, this one has enough in it to warrant a ‘must watch’.
PS: Special mention to the Enlighten Home Library team for a very powerful DVD cover. Love the design!
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