My Favorite Movies – 12 Angry Men (1957)

25 May

By Tanner Smith

I talked about so many modern films recently, so now I’m going back to the 1950s with a film in my top-20: 12 Angry Men.

There are some snooty jerks who mock films that are “talky” and in which “nothing happens.” Well, I don’t associate with them, because if you have the right writing, acting, and directing, films that contain one long conversation after another can be the most insightful, powerful films ever made.

That’s how I feel about Spotlight, the “Before” trilogy, The End of the Tour, The Breakfast Club, Everybody Wants Some!!, and “12 Angry Men”–great dialogue, great acting, and I could listen to all of these people for another two hours.

Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” is set almost entirely in one room–inside this room, a courtroom jury of 12 men are deciding the fate of an 18-year-old boy charged with murdering his father. Did he? 11 of them think the answer is clear: he’s guilty. But one (Henry Fonda) isn’t so sure–things don’t quite add up to him. Their decision has to be unanimous, so they spend the entire rest of the film putting more pieces together so they can determine whether or not the kid is truly guilty.

There are no clear answers here. There are merely deductions, possibilities, even contradictions to both facts and opinions. What if the boy really did kill his father and they’re arguing about whether or not he should be let go? You’d have to have a really strong case to prove otherwise, and the way the mystery leaves room open for more answers is truly fascinating. What’s the proper way to use a knife like the murder weapon? Can you hear someone shout at the top of their lungs over the deafening sound of a passing el train? Can you remember the last movies you saw in a moment of distress? Could those two distinct marks on the witness’ nose be made by anything other than eyeglasses?

A lot of discussion, a lot of conflict, and a lot of interest–and this is all coming from a jury that needs to do its job well or risk letting an innocent man die.

My favorite scene: without giving it away, it’s Juror #3’s moment of revelation, wonderfully acted by Lee J Cobb.

I have seen the 1997 made-for-TV remake by William Friedkin–it’s fine; it’s still the same dialogue delivered by great actors (and as good as Lee J Cobb was, George C. Scott is probably a step up as Juror #3), and it’s worth a watch if you love the original play and the ’57 film and are curious to see how it’s handled here.

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