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12 Angry Men (1957)
- Favorite Movies 1950s (#13)
12 Angry Men is a 1957 American drama film adapted from a teleplay of the same name by Reginald Rose. Directed by Sidney Lumet, the film tells the story of a jury made up of 12 men as they deliberate the guilt or acquittal of a defendant on the basis of reasonable doubt. In the United States (both then and now), a verdict in most criminal trials by jury must be unanimous. The film is notable for its almost exclusive use of one set: with the exception of the film's opening, which begins outside on the steps of the courthouse and ends with the jury's final instructions before retiring, a brief final scene on the courthouse steps and two short scenes in an adjoining washroom, the entire movie takes place in the jury room. The total time spent outside of the jury room is three minutes out of the full 96 minutes of the movie. 12 Angry Men explores many techniques of consensus-building, and the difficulties encountered in the process, among a group of men whose range of personalities adds intensity and conflict.
The story is a simple one: 12 jurors are asked to decide the fate of a young man who is accused of killing his father. If guilty, he will be sentenced to the electric chair. Otherwise he goes free. The evidence is overwhelmingly against him: Two eyewitnesses, a murder weapon known to be bought by the killer, and an alibi that he couldn't remember during questioning. Open and shut, but one juror stands alone against the other 11, who'd like to get home in time for dinner. And with that single 'not guilty' vote, Henry Fonda's Juror #8 sets off the titular anger.
First, the other 11 pile on him, then slowly they turn. #11 brings up questions about the evidence (is that knife so unique, really?). Re-enacts key events (could that old man have gotten to his door in 15 seconds?). Prods the other jurors into examining their own prejudices. Reasonable doubt? Could be... and one by one, the other 11 join #8. But with each vote that turns, the anger in the room becomes thicker and thicker as sides are chosen and lines are drawn in the sand.
In the 50 years since 12 Angry Men was made, it's become almost a cliche to hate jury duty. I'll do or say just about anything not to sit in a courtroom for a trial every time my number comes up. (A friend of mine simply throws away the summons when it shows up in the mail.) But 12 Angry Men offers a hopeful look at the American justice system; it's really one of the most patriotic drama/thrillers ever made. I'd suggest the movie ought to be shown in the waiting room whenever juries are being selected, but if that was the case virtually every criminal would probably get off scot free.
Sidney Lumet's technical work is unparalleled. The black and white cinematography is sharp and the direction and editing never miss a step, all despite the fact that the movie never wanders farther from the deliberation chamber than the men's room. The movie is one which bears repeated viewings well: It's every bit the classic it's been made out to be for all these years.
The new 50th Anniversary Edition includes a commentary track from historian Drew Casper and two making-of featurettes.