12 Angry Men (1957)

So the catch up with Sidney Lumet begins here, and I suppose it begins logically enough with his first feature. Lumet began in television, and so did this film, which (like a number of its contemporaries) began life as a live television play. The latter was apparently done by Franklin Shaffner, but the material really is the sort of thing Lumet apparently thrived on, liberal humanist stuff that’s quite literally about a matter of life and death: twelve good men and true must decide whether or not a young Hispanic man is guilty of murdering his father beyond a reasonable doubt. 11 are sure of his guilt, but one isn’t. Complications naturally ensue. There’s something almost shocking about the lightness with which the 11 seem to treat the situation (let’s find the guy guilty, I’ve got tickets for the ball game), although not all of them seem equally firm in their convictions (and we will crucially see one man waver back to “guilty” late in the film); the presumption of juror #8 to doubt, to not share their certainty, to hold them up from getting back to their normal lives, offends them. And the weather isn’t helping anybody. There’s an astonishing tension throughout the entire film as juror #8 gradually convinces the others to share his doubt; this process does unfortunately result in a few overly obvious speeches, but they’re mitigated by the general handling of the material, which is truly remarkable: although almost the entire film takes place in one room, Lumet and cameraman Boris Kaufman do a stellar job of avoiding almost any sense of “filmed theatre” (apart from one or two moments, e.g. juror #10’s rant about the poor). 12 Angry Men is ultimately the sort of film that’s about story and acting (though Henry Fonda as juror #8 is the obvious nominal star, Lee J. Cobb as juror #3, the most certain and inflexible of the lot, actually probably gives the best performance), but credit to Lumet and Kaufman for making that one room so interesting for an hour and a half. A terrific debut, and a film I obviously should’ve seen years ago if only I’d had any sense of what I was missing.

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