12 Angry Men (1957)

Some drama films are more suspenseful than a thriller, and 12 Angry Men is one such film. Set primarily within the confines of a single room, the titular men have to decide on the outcome of a court case. It’s a murder case in which an 18-year-old boy is accused of killing his father. As we begin, 11 of the men on the jury believe that the boy is guilty, but a single man (Henry Fonda) believes that there is enough reasonable doubt to declare him innocent. As we progress, this man tries to plead his case to the rest of the jurors.

He faces an uphill battle, obviously. We begin not knowing any evidence presented in the case, but slowly we begin to understand the full picture. The deceased was killed with a knife—the same type of knife the boy had earlier purchased. A woman across the street says she saw the boy kill his father. The boy’s alibi is that he went to the cinema, yet he can’t remember what he saw. A man in the apartment heard the boy shout “I’ll kill you,” heard the body hit the floor, and saw the boy fleeing from the scene. This is quite the large amount of evidence. And yet, perhaps there are holes in each one.

12 Angry Men explores the ways in which juries operate. The discussion that takes place in a closed room, the personalities involved, and the biases that affect the votes of people—all of this is presented to us quite clearly. Tempers do indeed flare, and many of the 12 men get angry. This is an intense movie, one which goes by incredibly fast and is not for even a single moment dull.

None of these men have names. Well, we learn two of them at the very end, but that’s inconsequential. We have to keep track of them by their jury number, by their personality, and by their face. The “villain” of the picture eventually becomes Juror #3, for example. Another of the men is clearly a racist bigot. One is a watchmaker. Another works as a stock broker. Despite the large dump of information, it never becomes difficult to keep track of who’s who and what each of them believes.

12 Angry Men is masterful at pretty much every level.

It feels odd that 12 Angry Men is so simplistic. It’s deceptively simple, really. Almost all of it takes place in one room, the characters don’t get names, it consists almost exclusively of talking about things that don’t actually affect anyone involved, and yet it’s some of the most compelling cinema you can watch. It builds and builds, the tension mounts as it goes on—the cinematography makes the room feel smaller and more claustrophobic as it progresses—and it has so many memorable moments that you won’t soon forget it after it ends.

The film is based on a play made for television and very much feels like it. That’s not a criticism, but an observation. You could see how such a production would work well on a stage, or as it was originally shown, a teleplay. It’s been adapted from that version just a few years later, and brought to us by first-time feature director Sidney Lumet, who generates so much suspense and directs the film so perfectly that you would mistake him for a veteran.

It helps that he’s got a tremendous cast of actors from which to work. The biggest “name” is Henry Fonda, who also served as a producer, but you wouldn’t be able to find actors who could play each part better. Everyone is fantastic. Some roles are showy, some are subdued, but each is played as well as could be by actors whose characters don’t even get names. The lengthy takes are demanding, too, but nobody shows any weakness in their performances. They’re given a strong script with sharp writing, but the performances make this film.

12 Angry Men is masterful at pretty much every level. It’s tense and suspenseful, thoughtful and intelligent, and filled with strong performances from good actors who get interesting—and often quite funny—dialogue to recite. The cinematography makes the room feel smaller as the film progresses, increasing the tense feeling, and everyone is just so on-point. There isn’t a misstep anywhere, and you do yourself a disservice by not watching this movie. 12 Angry Men is fantastic.

Conclusion: 12 Angry Men is one of the best films of all time.

Recommendation: If you haven’t seen 12 Angry Men, you need to see 12 Angry Men.

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