What’s often lost in this day and age of cinema, is the art of a truly transfixing screenplay. Though film is, of course, a visual medium, sometimes an action-less dialogue-heavy piece can be thoroughly enthralling in its own right, and that is the case with Sidney Lumet’s ’12 Angry Men’.
Taking place entirely in one location, following twelve members of a jury as they discuss what one truly means by ‘beyond reasonable’ doubt, the film manages to be a minimalist piece which in many ways comes closer to a theatrical performance than a film. Each character is beautifully fleshed out, with his own personality and agenda, and this in turn allows for a fascinating dynamic as each character compares the evidence presented, and thus interprets it through his own predetermined viewpoint and ideas of ‘a street kid’. This is the dynamic that drives the piece, the inner turmoil and wrestling, while we ask ourselves, the audience, the age old question; ‘What is reasonable doubt?’
This is turn allows the stellar cast to absolutely unleash the very best of their acting abilities, and as the twelve central members bounce off one another with their conflicting Morales and beliefs, the sight is truly a beauty to behold. Henry Fonda in particular is absolutely magnificent, and makes my heart sadden knowing that during this period actors of his caliber would considered the norm, whilst nowadays they are few and far between. He is the moral glue that holds the piece together, refusing to allow himself to condemn a young man to death without having first ascertained, beyond reasonable doubt, that the boy is guilty.
The way he then proceeds to slowly convert the other eleven members of the jury to his thinking, all the while using nothing but reasoning and intelligence, is an absolute joy to behold. This is a testament to the power of Rose’s fascinating screenplay (which was, originally, a teleplay), as the dialogue is beautifully crisp and authentic, rarely straying into generic cinematic territory. The final delivery, as the last stubborn member finally breaks down in an emotional whirlpool, of ‘Not guilty. Not guilty!’ is a cinematic moment that deserves a place in the axis of history. This is screen writing at it’s very finest, and the greatest stroke of genius is that we, the audience, are never told whether the defendant was or was not guilty. We become part of the jury, and I found myself flip-flopping between opinions as often as the characters themselves. That, my friends, is transcendent screenwriting, dragging you out of your homes, through the screen, and forcing you to participate and not merely be a passive observer.
Lumet also does a fantastically subtle job via his cinematography in collaboration with the equally iconic Boris Kaufman. As the film progresses, the shots get closer and closer, creating an ever growing sense of claustrophobia. There is a story oft-said that he even moved the very walls of the set themselves, creating a smaller and smaller space, as the tension rose ever-higher. This is a a reminder of what worked so well about the Golden age of cinema, before Lucas and Spielberg’s rise of the Blockbuster changed the game forever. This film features no action, no set-pieces, no effects and one room. Yet, it manages to remain one of the most enthralling pieces of cinema ever developed, and one has to assume it played a huge part in inspiring Lars Von Trier’s Dogville. It is no stretch to call this a master work, of a time when master works were all too commonplace.
A fantastic piece of minimalist cinema