We wish Sidney Lumet had won the Best Director Oscar for the 1957 ensemble drama 12 Angry Men.
The poor slob didn’t have a chance. The Bridge on the River Kwai was the juggernaut that year, winning seven out of eight nominations. A black and white movie about twelve men talking in an meeting room is no match for a sweeping technicolor war epic.
Lean deserved an Oscar, in our opinion. But we like to think, had 12 Angry Men been released any other year, Lumet would have scored the top prize.
Now, we weren’t kidding about the premise of 12 Angry Men. This really is a movie about jurors debating whether an 18 year-old teenager is guilty of murdering his father. There are no car chases, no romantic interludes, no gun fights. These men sit at a boardroom table and talk.
This movie is so riveting, you cannot take your eyes from the screen. It has a brilliant screenplay with a perfect cast, e.g. Henry Fonda, Jack Warden, and our fave, Lee J. Cobb. It also has a director who pulls you into the screen and makes you feel as though you’ve been sequestered in the same room as the jurors.
The movie opens as the trial judge finishes giving his instructions to the jury. As the jury leaves and the courtroom empties, Lumet’s camera moves in close and isolates the defendant. He’s little more than a frightened boy who looks as though he should be sitting in math class instead of a murder trial.
The remainder of the film, which centres on the jury’s discussion, is set in a hot, airless boardroom. It has a large table, uncomfortable wooden chairs and a fan that doesn’t work.
Here is where we meet the jurors, all of them white and male but very different in temperament. Included in this bunch is a stock broker, a salesman, a house painter, and a high school coach.
What we don’t realize is that Lumet has already started toying with us via camera angles. He consistently keeps the height of the camera in two positions: (A) as if you were seated at the table with the jurors; and (B) as if you were standing near the table with the jurors. He creates intimacy by never letting the characters get too far away from us.
He’s also forcing us to form quick opinions of these jurors, but we’ll get into that later.
The judge has instructed the jury to reach a unanimous verdict. Eleven men think the defendant is guilty; one (Fonda) does not. The other jurors become frustrated with Fonda; Warden, for instance, has tickets to a ball game and wants to quickly dispense with the matter.
As the jurors discuss the case, they reveal their personalities. Lumet has the actors unwrap each character slowly, giving them space to examine their values and prejudices. Even minor characters with few lines are notable by their silence. (Lumet often includes two men in his shots, and the one who’s listening sometimes says more than the one who’s speaking.)
On the surface, the men’s discussion centres around evidence presented at the trial, but what we’re really examining is the men and their motivations.
As the discussion unravels, the jurors divulge the truth about themselves and we realize this is what we’ve been expecting all along. What we didn’t expect, though, is how our opinion of these characters is changing.
Do you know why this movie is so riveting? It’s this: Just as the jurors see the defendant in a new way, we see the jurors in a new way. They mirror what we are experiencing as we watch the film. Lumet has cast us, the audience, as these men’s jurors.
This is Lumet’s gift to us. He hasn’t merely entertained us; he’s given us a chance to expand our thinking.
12 Angry Men Oscar Nominations (1958):
12 Angry Men: starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Written by Reginald Rose. United Artists Corp., 1957, B&W, 93 mins.
This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club during the month of February. Be sure to read all the other fabulous contributions.