With the exception of two brief scenes that bookend the film, Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men takes place entirely in a jury room on a sweltering summer day. In other films, such a confined setting might become tedious, or even seem more like a play than a movie. But this is not the case with 12 Angry Men. The film is so finely crafted by the director, and the cast so impeccable that it transcends its humble setting to become a memorable and lasting entertainment.
The film begins with a quick courtroom scene, in which a bored judge addresses the jury of a murder trial before dismissing them. The case in question involves the murder of a father by his son, a juvenile delinquent who was allegedly seen and heard committing the crime. The vote must be unanimous to pass a decision either way, but it seems obvious that the defendant is guilty. But during the preliminary vote, there is one holdout - Juror No. 8 (Henry Fonda), who votes not guilty and expresses a desire to talk about the case. What follows takes place entirely within the confines of the jury room, as Fonda presents his argument for reasonable doubt. As the debate progresses, things get heated, and the jurors' prejudices and ulterior motives are revealed.
12 Angry Men marked the directorial debut of Sidney Lumet, who went on to direct such films as Murder on the Orient Express, Network, and Dog Day Afternoon. But even from this first feature, his skill is unquestionable. It is said that as the film progresses, Lumet used different lenses and shifting camera angles to contribute to an increasing feeling of claustrophobia. This technique is fascinating, but perhaps the most important thing about it is that the viewer hardly notices. Certainly, the tension of the film seems to increase as it goes on, but Lumet never lets any of his techniques upstage the actors.
And what a cast he assembled! The ensemble here is truly perfect. The standout, at least for me, is Lee J. Cobb as Juror No. 3, an extremely embittered and angry man who has had something of a family tragedy. But every actor delivers solid work. E.G. Marshall as a man of pure reason and Ed Begley as an outspoken racist are just a few examples. Each of these actors gives a distinct personality to their nameless characters, and the way that those personalities collide with the other jurors is consistently fascinating to watch. Ironically enough, Fonda's Juror No. 8, the protagonist of the film, is one of the few jurors who really seems like a stock character. He is honorable and dignified but rather uninteresting, mainly serving to set the story in motion. Still, this is hardly bothersome, and one can hardly blame the screenwriter for not providing a backstory for every single character.
12 Angry Men is the promising debut of a young director, who is now fully recognized as one of the great American filmmakers. That alone is reason enough to see it. But above all, 12 Angry Men is simply a terrific story brought to life by a brilliant cast. A true classic.