40. EMPIRE MAGAZINE GREATEST: 12 Angry Men

July 31, 2018

Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Reginald Rose
Starring: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, E. G. Marshall, Jack Warden
Runtime: 96 Minutes

 

Original UK Release: 1957

 

★★★★★

 

12 Angry Men is Sidney Lumet's dramatic chamber piece, which unpacks the prejudice and intolerance of human beings and how we might be able to see the better in one another.

 

The courtroom drama of the story depicts the accuracy of testimony and human error; how perceptions and allegiances can change on a whim in a game that's being played with a young man's life. The balance of power tips on the whim of single split decisions that perpetually alter the state of the story. Facts are facts, but it's the way that they are presented which channel our vision of them.

 

Lumet's unique direction chooses not to recreate the murder itself, instead sticking to the original teleplay and casting doubt on the memories of the associated figures through dialogue alone.

 

The film plays with this in different visual ways. In the intimacy of these confrontations of clashing personalities, the camera pulls in close with intensity, while pulling away in moments where the characters span out and spiral away from the centre table. There's an elegant visual messiness in its depiction of the social chaos that's slowly unfolding. The lighting of the film is spectacularly moody and shifts naturally from harsh to soft light in such a tiny space, casting scrutiny on those being questioned - as well as the sound design and tension of the third act which cranks higher towards the conclusion.

 

It manages to turn political without announcing its intentions in a violent verbal battle for supremacy of the room, where even the quiet figures of the piece (referred too only by number) look set to burst below the surface. Henry Fonda's architect is the instigator of the divergence in the group, but everyone from Cobb and Warden, to Begley and Sweeney bring something to their distinctly memorable characters.

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