12 Angry Men – Infuriatingly good

Picture the scene – twelve ordinary people are sat around a table in an ordinary room. The heat is stifling and they are all perspiring freely. I burst in the door, gasping for air.

“You guys, 12 Angry Men is absolutely amazing!”

The occupants of the room are unfazed.

“We know… we’ve already seen it…”

Ok, so I am really late to the party on this one. But 12 Angry Men is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. It is a remarkable pairing of an engaging story with simple but effective cinematic techniques. I’m almost angry myself that it’s taken me 24 years to finally get around to seeing it.

As normal, I won’t spoil the plot (despite the fact that it is basically public knowledge by this point), but the premise is this – a young man stands accused of murder, and if found guilty will face the electric chair. The 12 men of the jury retire to a room to reach a decision, which must be unanimous. After an initial vote 11 men vote guilty while one man stands alone and votes not guilty. And so the group unravels…

As I stated in my first post my principal interest as a filmmaker are the visuals on screen but it would be criminal to not talk about the plot of 12 Angry Men. Originally written as a teledrama, then adapted into a stage play and then adapted into a film, it very much plays like a one-act play. But remarkably it doesn’t suffer for it. The characters all get a good amount of screen time to reveal their complex natures and motivations, and each are characterised just enough to make them distinct and interesting. Everyone comes away with a few favourite jurors – #8, #2, and #11 for me – despite never knowing their names. Each juror is referred to simply by number, with the exception of two jurors (who I won’t name) who identify each other in the very last shot of the film. The shot in question being one of only a handful to take place outside the stifling jury room – of the film’s 96 minute running time only 3 minutes take place outside the sixteen by twenty four foot space, and yet the film again doesn’t suffer for it.

In fact 12 Angry Men seems to laugh in the face of typical filmmaking practice – instead of showing you the events of the film, it tells you what happened. Characters are reduced to a simple list of occupations and opinions. The camera is limited to a space no bigger than a train carriage. And somehow director Sidney Lumet (in his debut, I incredulously mention) makes it all work. And more than just work – the film is a triumph of pared down storytelling.

Lumet makes two very effective directing decisions that span the whole film in impressive consistency – as the film progresses shots get tighter, and lower. At the start of the film the room is shot in long takes with wide lenses at a high angle, to set the scene and give a sense of scale. As the film progresses the wide lenses are ditched in favour of telephoto ones, and the framing on each character gets tighter and tighter, representing the building tension and claustrophobia (and number of sweat patches) in the room. The viewpoint is lowered as well, moving from an almost omniscient high angle to being level with the members of the room, drawing you in.

Compare a shot from the beginning of the film...
Compare a shot from the beginning of the film…
... to a shot from toward its conclusion
… to a shot from toward its conclusion

This is then undone at the film’s conclusion, with the last shot of the film following juror #8 leaving the courthouse shot on the widest lens used in the whole film at a high angle. Lumet has said in interviews that this was used to convey the sense of release and freedom associated with the shot, and it works. For such a simple technique, it really contributes to the building tension throughout the film. The shot of juror #3 which acts as the film’s denouement represents 80 minutes of tension ratcheting up and up and when the wave of emotion breaks it is just breathtaking. I can’t praise the effectiveness of Lumet’s direction on this matter enough.

Apart from these two techniques the use of camera movement to keep the film’s static location dynamic is also very effective, as is the use of some geometric framing techniques. One shot in particular constructs a triangle between three jurors, which is an effective technique in itself.

Note the triangle formed between the heads of jurors #2, #8, and #11
Note the triangle formed between the heads of jurors #2, #8, and #11

But what Lumet (and cinematographer Boris Kaufman) then does is interrupt this triangle with the arrival of juror #10 twisting the facts of the discussion to fit his prejudice.

...and now juror #10 interrupts the constructed triangle
…and now juror #10 interrupts the constructed triangle

By disrupting a classic framing technique the juror’s interruption becomes even more impactful and even more brash. This is just one moment in a sequence of excellent shots, and yet this one stands out in particular. Visual directing at its best.

Lastly on the visual front the film is beautiful to look at. Kaufman lights in a pseudo-noir fashion, with extensive hair lights providing deep shadows on the juror’s faces, and highlights on the face provided in ‘glamour shots’ at key moral moments. It’s probably the best-looking black and white picture I’ve seen, right up there with Gregg Toland’s work on Citizen Kane.

Is there anything wrong with 12 Angry Men? If I was splitting hairs I would quibble with the use of dramatic music at certain points at the film, as is so common with pictures from this time. Entirely how people didn’t find it over-the-top at the time I will never know. But this is me splitting hairs. 12 Angry Men is one of the best films I’ve ever watched. The way that it handles racial tensions, personal prejudices, conflict resolution and an escalating tension is just world-class. If you’ve never seen it, or only watched it after being forced to for GCSE English, please do yourself a favour and give it a watch. It’s an engrossing 90 minutes and a masterclass in how you can take a simple premise and make an excellent film out of it.