It was way back in 1957 when Sidney Lumet debuted with his first movie, 12 Angry Men, beginning a long and prolific directing career that sadly ended with his passing in 2011.
Initially, the story of this masterpiece may seem as anti-cinematic as possible: twelve men in a room must perform their jury duty.
The trial has just concluded, and now it is their turn to decide the fate of a young boy accused of brutally killing his father.
There is stifling heat in the room, and most of the men seem to be in no doubt about the guilty verdict, but one of them expresses uncertainty and asks for more discussion.
The reaction of the others could be better, as they thought it was a job to be finished quickly after the long trial they witnessed.
Moreover, many of these gentlemen clearly have preconceptions about the boy, an inner-city delinquent who had a terrible relationship with his father, who was abusive to him since childhood.
However, as they analyze evidence after evidence and witness after witness, they discover that this case is less airtight than they initially believed.
Other jurors join what was initially uncertain, causing the anger and distress of others who find their objections puerile.
Tensions rise to the point of personal confrontations involving the families and life experiences of these men, unable to judge the defendant objectively.
But the law is clear; sentencing him to death requires jury unanimity, and there must be no reasonable doubt about guilt.
Thus the hours drag toward the finale, where many jurors will have to struggle more with their inner personal demons than with the clues to solve the crime.
The golden rules of classics
Whenever we think of classic cinema, we cannot help but recall movies such as 12 Angry Men from 1957.
Sidney Lumet’s debut is an emblematic example of the slow, enveloping pace that marked the film industry of yesteryear, immediately capturing the viewer’s attention from the first moment.
What is particularly remarkable about the direction is its ability to be dynamic while still staying in the same place, blending the various characters in the suffocating claustrophobia of the room into a magical and unforgettable atmosphere.
Had someone else less experienced otherwise directing, he would probably have employed the classic static shots typical of theatrical plays. Otherwise, Lumet brilliantly succeeds in keeping this confined space dense with emotion and rising tension.
Events follow one after another, never leaving room for boredom, and the viewer’s interest remains consistently high both in the fast-paced dialogues and in the pauses when these men get a chance to know each other better.
Paradoxically, the intensity of this classic reminds me of more eventful movies like John Wick, although here, the action is not through fighting and bullets but rather the human interaction between the characters and their opinions, both wise and foolish.
To all those disliking black and white, I object that it is precisely this timeless photography keeping this masterpiece always fresh compared to the thousands of modern legal thrillers.
I am trying to decide whether this movie would work with today’s audiences. Still, at times I have been pleasantly surprised to see dialogue-dense stories succeed, such as the beautiful espionage Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Unfortunately, whether there are other directors (and producers) of Lumet’s level willing to accept the challenge, remains another matter entirely.
A range of humanity around a table
I will leave it to you to discover all the wonderful characters in this movie, speaking only of those who impressed me most and whom I consider the greatest in the narrative.
Above them all, I put, of course, Juror No. 8, played by the great Henry Fonda, the first to raise a reasonable doubt about the defendant’s guilt.
However, he does so honestly and simply, demonstrating great moral integrity and a sense of justice throughout the story, and his perseverance will be the catalyst for the others to seek further investigation of the case.
Very different is Juror No. 3, played by Lee J. Cobb, the father of a boy closely resembling the defendant. This causes him to take a highly hostile attitude from the start, and his emotional closeness causes him to be adamant in his convictions, making any kind of discussion difficult.
E.G. Marshall, in the role of Juror No. 4, is equally determined to argue guilt. Yet, he stands out remarkably for his elegance and intelligence, maintaining composure and rationality in his arguments, even when he disagrees with others.
The worst is definitely Juror No. 10, played by Ed Begley, the most closed-minded figure among the twelve.
His hostility and anger peak in a memorable scene in which the other jurors are fed up with his racist nonsense and walk away from him, leaving him alone at the table.
Finally, aside from Fonda’s character, the most honest is Juror No. 9, played by the likable Joseph Sweeney, the oldest, humblest and quietest character in the group.
Despite his reserved demeanor, indeed, he will be the one to recall a crucial episode that will become decisive for the final decision of the jurors.