Sunday, January 20, 2008

12 Angry Men

1957, US, directed by Sidney Lumet

Sidney Lumet's compelling first cinema feature shows the director's origins in stage-bound television drama, but the director experiments with technique throughout this sweaty tale of jury justice, to give his work a distinctly cinematic sensibility that works on the larger canvas (though the fact that it also plays rather well on a TV screen perhaps partly explains its sustained popularity as a "classic").

The film opens with a pair of shots that pan up the columns of a courthouse, then pan down inside that same building, looking up toward justice, and then down toward the antlike figures on whom that justice is dispensed inside the court building. As the camera settles at its lowest point, it moves away to bring us into the courtroom where a trial is in its final stages.

After this brief courtroom prologue, the film spends almost its entire running time inside the jury room, where one man - Henry Fonda - insists on a proper discussion of an apparently open-and-shut murder case. Lumet consciously sets up a series of "types": he's not interested in these men as people (while we learn certain facts about them, we learn only a handful of names), but rather as representatives of certain strands of the city - within limits, since this is, after all, a group of white men only.

Lumet makes use of the mirroring technique of that opening pair of shots throughout his film, most strikingly in a brace of scenes that isolate first the sole dissenter in the initial jury vote, and later an outspoken bigot who finds himself alone in a room full of men. The individual jurors frequently experience epiphanies in shots that refer back to their initial stance on the issues at hand, as if to reverse those early introductions.

Despite the close confines of the jury room, Lumet makes relatively little use of close-up shots; while one character, an older man, is often framed at close quarters, it isn't until the latter stages of the film that such shots proliferate, as the men come face-to-face with the reality of their decision.

While the film idealizes the justice system's checks and balances in implying that a good jury can make up for a poorly-conducted trial - Fonda is a surrogate for the ideal defense lawyer, who was missing from the courtroom, while other characters "prosecute" the case - it remains an intriguing insight into one of the key responsibilities of a jury-based justice system, with a tremendous cast (many of them television stalwarts).

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States