Timeless, black and white formatting, and spellbinding performances are all nuggets of criteria that fit Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men.” The infamous director of the best picture nominee of the 49th Academy Awards, “Network.” The film that lost out to the rivetingly inspiring “Rocky” in 1977. Lumet began his feature-length filmmaking career well before 1976 though, with a tense and enclosed courtroom drama about one man’s differing opinion on a murder trial. That one difference of opinion inherently creates a dialogue driven thriller about a group of men attempting to figure out the reasoning behind one man’s opposition to what seems to be a clear-cut case.
The stigma of courtroom dramas that makes them so applicable for dramas is the reflection they have for authenticity, which is the best way to describe “12 Angry Men.” Authentic. The legitimacy of “12 Angry Men” begins with that of the visuals. The grainy framing of the 1957 format of the film leads to a palpable and tangible sense to the film. The smoke from the cigarettes feels enveloping and intoxicating, the rain patters across the screen on to your forearm, and the design of it all provides a DeLorean-like time machine to a time of upfront honesty. Boris Kaufman, the acting director of photography on the set, uses the camera as a point of believability and perspective. Never does the camera provide any sense of filmatic quality, and by that, I mean no big sweeping moments where the music sweeps up, and the camera zooms out. The film lacks everything that we would associate cinematic quality with, but that’s not what makes “12 Angry Men” one of the most exceptional films in the over one hundred year history of cinema.
The realism of “12 Angry Men” is what makes it such a timeless composition of storytelling. The lack of music allows for each footstep, cough, and snivel to be heard. The camera never becomes the focal point of attention but merely the visual depiction of the story. The difference between this film and most films of today, and most director’s filmography, in general, is the focus placed on the story. Sidney Lumet never lets anything but the story of the film be the focus, and like that of the Juror #1 (Martin Balsam) he sits at the head of the table and attempts to keep everything in order and focused upon the essential material. He never lets anything trivial or nonpurposeful become the focus. Instead, Lumet continued to push the story to its breaking limit. Few filmmakers replicate that same kind of aggressive artistry, but Lumet was one of those filmmakers that never backed down from a challenge.
Much like Lumet, Reginald Rose was unafraid of pushing the narrative which is ironic for a writer, obviously. Rose became a premier writer in the 1960’s with the success of “12 Angry Men.” He began writing for television with a spinoff courtroom series in that of the “Defenders," and he was responsible for a unique episode of the “Twilight Zone” that detailed how the past is always glorified due to the censorships of the flaws that we choose to repress.
Much like most of Rose's career, “12 Angry Men” subtly discusses some significant socio-political matters. The men in the room all come from different walks of life, some of the disparagement, others from optimism. As the tension surges, the men in the room begin to divulge personal components about them which leads to some intelligent and poignant moments of storytelling. From the sickness of racism to the uselessness of cynicism, “12 Angry Men” can dissect both of these ideologies in a fashion that is casually impactful as if Rose accidentally arrived upon these subject matters as if they naturally became apart of his characters. Not only does Rose dissect these moments of conflict in a light of revelation, but he does it all with the charm of the actors. He allows the dialogue to feel natural and provide the exposition needed for the audience, without beating us over the head with any political message or societal preach on injustice. Rose is able to commit the audience to a story that will allow them to view how the judicial system of the United States is not as trivial and seamless as many make it out to be, especially when you're the one sitting in the jury box.
The performances are the apparent source of massive amounts of praise. The sheer magnetism of Henry Fonda is unequivocally sentimental throughout the film as the close-ups that appear upon him allow for his piercing eyes to act as cliched windows to the soul of a character that is just trying to do the right thing. Lee J. Cobb provides a performance that is uniquely profound as he continually hides behind a front of reflection that leads to one of the most poignantly cathartic arcs in cinematic history. There's much more to be found beyond their two excellent performances in that of the sternly honest, E.G. Marshall whose moment of sweat is one of the most riveting moments of cinema these eyes have ever witnessed. Ed Begley, John Fielder, Martin Balsam, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Joseph Sweeney, George Voskovec, and Robert Webber provide a sweeping conformity of performances that offer a prolific amount of storytelling through dialogue. A form of storytelling that has become outdated as of today, but one that isn’t used enough.
“12 Angry Men” is simply one of the best movies ever made. The use of dialogue is both old-fashioned yet timeless, the formatting of its story is tangibly perceptible, and the story is profoundly timeless. The socio-political discussions to be had and how they are so applicable to today’s climate showcases how far we have come and how far we have to go. It's the simplicity of a courtroom drama that acts as a mirror of emotion for the viewer; it’s the timeless story of a group of men attempting to understand each other under extreme scrutiny and pressure. The amount of pressure placed upon them is what tends to them dissecting one another's values that are so seamlessly a part of their decision making. The idea of how our prejudices and preconceptions can tend to one’s opinion on a subject that should be completely objective is a timeless story as long as individualism exists. I don’t know if Sidney Lumet and Reginald Rose realized this idea when constructing this story, but few artists realize such a thing when they’re making a masterpiece, so I doubt it.