Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #8
Director: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb
It's rare for a director – especially one with as long and productive a career as Sidney Lumet – to have their debut also heralded as their best work. Most directors take a few films to truly find their identity, but Lumet's first film, a relatively modest cinematic adaptation of a stage play about twelve jurors burdened with the fate of a young man accused of killing his father, is often considered his masterpiece, and indeed, one of Hollywood's greatest masterpieces of all time. It's not a ridiculous series of claims; 12 Angry Men is truly brilliant and shows what can be done with a limited budget when you have a talented director and cast.
Nearly the entirety of the film takes place in the jury room of a courthouse, and nothing happens that couldn't happen as easily on a stage. While that sounds like a formula for a movie that would be more interesting in print, Lumet uses some clever tactics to keep the cinematography interesting, and the film is way more visually striking than it probably should be. A lot of movies try to arouse a feeling of claustrophobia in the viewers. That all started here, and it was never done better. On what one juror says is the hottest day of the summer, we're invited into a tiny jury room to sweat and debate with twelve increasingly furious men. Tensions mount, and at times it becomes so uncomfortable that we want nothing more than to be able to crawl out of our skin – or at least out of that jury room. But Lumet doesn't offer any repose. During the ninety minutes of debating and arguing, the camera never leaves the room except for one short bathroom break. The discomfort of the jurors translates to the viewers, and Lumet successfully overcomes the hurdle of having an entire film take place in one room by making it impossible to imagine the film taking place in more than one room.
Social justice is the 12 Angry Men's take-home message, but that's not to say it's a political film. It's simply an American film. It champions the criminal justice system and the power of the jury of peers and the American Dream. It shows that everyone deserves a chance at life and that if you're going to send someone off to the electric chair, you had better be damn sure that what you're doing is right. Less idealistically but perhaps most importantly, it's a tribute to the power of oratory. If Henry Fonda hadn't said all the right things to the other eleven men in the room, it's very likely that the jury would have been hung or that the accused would have been executed. Instead, he used his words to bring out the rational human being inside the eleven violent balls of emotion that sat around him. Not unlike James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Fonda's words are his weapon for good and democracy and justice, and he succeeds. I've talked about "little films" a lot on this blog: movies with limited scope that take one idea and play with it for the the entire running time. In the past, I've used that to call films unfit to be on this list. Well, 12 Angry Men is something of a "little film," but if it doesn't belong on the IMDb Top 250, I'm not sure what does.
The Good: The painfully awkward claustrophobia created by the cinematography. It gains something by being on film instead of on stage. On stage, you expect something to only occupy a certain amount of space. It takes a brave director to have an entire world of opportunity but to keep the cameras in one tiny room simply for effect.
The Bad: It's not one of my favorite movies of all time, but I have a hard time finding much of anything wrong with it.
The Skinny: #8 is a bit too high in my personal opinion, but putting it in the Top 250 is a no-brainer.