When Henry Fonda hired Sidney Lumet to helm the 1957 big-screen adaptation of Reginald Rose's teleplay 12 Angry Men, the 32-year-old TV director was asked to bring visual panache and verisimilitude to a story that takes place in one jury deliberation room, in real time. So Lumet developed the style he would later become known for: emphasizing faces and places. The movie opens with an artfully choreographed six-minute tracking shot, casually introducing 12 men tasked with deciding the fate of a Puerto Rican teenager accused of murdering his father. After that shot, Lumet uses camera movement sparingly, mainly relying on a series of close-ups and medium shots to document the parameters of a dingy, cramped, oppressively hot space, and observing how that environment affects 12 men from different social backgrounds.
Fonda plays the lone "not guilty" holdout when deliberations begin, and for the next 90 minutes, he wears down the resistance of the others, played by such commanding figures of the New York stage as E.G. Marshall, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden, Jack Klugman, and Martin Balsam. Rose's script builds in surprises, heated speeches, and artificial pauses for the sake of varying up the rhythm. Some of the bits of business—like the way the jurors watch each other before they decide how to vote—are well-observed examples of honest human behavior. Others—like the way each man's personal history has a bearing on their opinion—feel more contrived.
But then, good theater often abstracts reality to serve a higher truth. 12 Angry Men is a study of how ordinary men take their jury duty as an opportunity to vent about the injustice they see around them every day. The facts of the case mean what they need them to mean, whether it's that all immigrants are liars, or that the younger generation lacks the proper respect, or even that the American legal system is inept. Though the jury in 12 Angry Men reaches a verdict, neither Rose nor Lumet definitively state whether they're "right." The point—as Lumet well knows—is that when it comes to making sense of a picture, a lot depends on the framing.
Key features: Two highly informative featurettes, plus a fact-filled commentary track by USC professor Drew Caspar.