Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Monday, 3 October 2011

Juror's Film Festival: 12 Angry Men (d. Sidney Lumet, 1957)

There was, of course, no more perfect ending to a fortnight of jury service than watching 12 Angry Men. It is very rightly held to be one of the greatest films ever made: a supreme example of subtle acting and direction working together to bring a tight and compelling script to the screen for an almost flawless 90 minutes.

It’s a celebration of the nature of the justice system in a modern democracy. The plot concerns a murder trial which seems open and shut, but one juror (Henry Fonda), isn’t sure that they can convict. He is facing an 11 to 1 majority, but he slowly decimates the certainty of the case and exposes reasonable doubt at every turn.

Seething underneath the drama of the case are the increasing tensions between the anonymous jurors. All of them, even Fonda’s number seven, dressed in angelic white, have their own failings and prejudices. They’re all from different backgrounds and as the summer heat gets to them and matters get more and more complicated, their preconceptions come to the fore. One wonders how fair some of their views of the trial have been.

The jury certainly is not ideal. The foreman is weak and unable to control the testosterone filled room. Juror number six is more concerned with getting to a baseball match than with considering the verdict according to his oath. Juror number three is highly aggressive and unflinching in his belief in the defendant’s guilt always concocting an excuse not to find reasonable doubt when any piece of evidence is questioned. There are enough character flaws here to cast doubt on the worth of the whole system.

Nevertheless, the film stands as testament to the fact that one man really can make a difference. Juror number seven may not be able to get the verdict he wants, but he is determined to try and give the defendant a fair hearing.

This is an anthem to western democracy and a snapshot of its difficulties as the racism and bigotry of some jurors reflect the divisions in the world outside the courthouse, divisions and disparities which may have led to murder which is being considered. However, as much as it is those things, this film is primarily a straight-up human drama about twelve men in a room coming into conflict. In constructing that drama, Lumet’s work was masterful.

Much has been made of the technical subtleties he employed: the change of lenses and lowering of camera angles to create an increasingly claustrophobic and tense atmosphere as the deliberations continue. Through this and Reginald Rose’s tight script, the story becomes quite unbelievably enthralling. It generates enough tense energy that one juror denying another one a cough sweet becomes a moment of very high drama. Furthermore, despite it being essentially stagey at its core and set almost exclusively in one room, Lumet uses every cut, camera-angle and close-up at his disposal to make this cinematic and succeeds resoundingly.

Today, the film sits amongst the pantheon of great films, and it is easy to see why. This is a great drama which strikes at eternal themes, featuring a great cast and a wonderfully controlled performance from Henry Fonda, and directed with unflinching excellence. It is as approachable today as it was fifty years ago and is one of the few films everyone should see. My politics teacher at school said that The West Wing is a crash course in US politics. 12 Angry Men is a crash course in how justice systems should work. Essential viewing.


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