12 Angry Men ★★★★★

Part of the Rewatchathon: popular classics

There is a certain predictable inevitability when watching a classic when you're a bit older than the first time you watched it. You up the rating to reflect its classic status. I'm glad to say that this is also the case for 12 Angry Men.

The always underwatched Sidney Lumet's first feature film proves to be the first promise he made for all the marvellous films he has made after it. 12 Angry Men is a dialogue driven cross section of male America in the fifties and it is unflinching in how it dares portray the pettiness and weaker sides of us humans. Weaknesses that are still present some 50 years after this was made.

The premise is brilliant. 12 jurors, one murder case and one vote of 'not guilty'. It is astounding how Lumet manages to pace his film and keeps his audience completely enthralled for its entire running time. The way he switches from heated debate to mesmerising monologues, swaying from wide shots to perfectly placed close-ups is a thing of beauty to behold. This film has a certain cadence to it that makes it simply impossible to look away.

The performances are, without exception, stunning. These twelve men depict their archetypical characters with refreshing realism, never overreaching and always convincing. Fonda is perhaps the star in this film as he has the most important role and I have to say the way he verbally plants seeds of doubt, questions everything and reiterates his theories is very impressive, but most (especially Cobb) match him every step of the way.

With all these intrinsic qualities of such a high level, what puts the icing on the cake is the fact that this film has something to say. It gives an intriguing insight in the American Justice systems and poses some strong moral questions. How do you decide on a man's life? What do you base your decisions on? But, most importantly, what if you're wrong? And that's what struck me most about the film. This is essentially about manipulation. We are inclined to root for Fonda's character as he is the one pleading 'Not Guilty'. He is intent to make his case and wants to debate everything. What he, in fact, does is plant seeds of doubt in the other jurors. Slowly but surely, they start to see his point and join him, mainly because he is civilized and eloquent. There is a turning point when they are split down the middle. What Lumet does then is to show close ups of Fonda's face whenever another juror changes his vote. There is triumph in his eyes. He becomes almost as fanatic as Cobb's character, who is clearly set away as the crude bad guy, a polar opposite of Fonda. What this film left me was this question: What if Fonda was wrong? The film cleverly does not provide an answer. It does show us that within the proceedings and decision making process, people will often act out of their own best interests and will always look for leadership and people telling them what to do.

This without a question of a doubt one of the best films ever made. On all levels.