12 Angry Men is the very first film of Sidney Lumet's career, a career which included the likes of Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. Sidney Lumet's first directorial effort was acclaimed as an instant classic, though audiences never went to see it, and almost 65 years on 12 Angry Men is right up there with the very best of American classics from the 50s and cinema in general. 12 Angry Men is a film of such quality, for all his efforts, that Lumet never matched. He may have come close with Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon but the two are not in the same league as 12 Angry Men.
A Puerto Rican youth is on trial, the defendant is accused of the murder of his father. The jury is dismissed from the courtroom, the only time the film is outside the two small rooms that make up the jury room (excluding the end scene). The jury retire to the jury room and cast their verdict on the defendant. Eleven are in favour of a guilty verdict but juror eight (Henry Fonda) is convinced that there is enough doubt to counter a guilty verdict a send a man to his death.
Sidney Lumet's film takes place largely in one room, with some trips to the toilet, which creates a tense, claustrophobic and sweaty atmosphere as twelve men sit in a sweltering jury room attempting to come to a quick and easy verdict to what appears to be an open shut case but as the details are examined and witnesses discredited the certainty of a guilty verdict becomes less convincing. Lumet's brilliant direction and Reginald Rose's (who, with Fonda, was also the producer) superb script rewards every viewer which each gripping twist in the narrative and bead of sweat as it drips down the twelve unique characters. We have the distraught and stubborn father played magnificently by Lee J. Cobb, a performance that is equal to his performance as Johnny Friendly in On The Waterfront. We have a young man from the slum; a man more interested in attending the baseball game and a loud mouthed bigot whose opinions and prejudices hinder his decision making whose opinions offend everyone, in particular the man born in the slums of the city. This clash of personalities makes for gripping and tense viewing as tempers rise in a cramped, hot and stuffy room in which the sun shines brightly on and the mood is damped as storms lash the city.
While the acclaim Sidney Lumet gets for 12 Angry Men is fully deserved, the use of camera angles and close up shots heightens the sense of claustrophobia but writer Reginald Rose's play, on which the film is based, provides a stable foundation that is just perfect for a skilled director to use. With themes of the criminal justice system, the death penalty and racial prejudice Rose's intelligent script allows for all of the twelve jury members to play a part and not be lost in the background and become underdeveloped. Each twist is revealing and gripping and discusses the themes in great detail (the scene in which ten of the jurors turn that back on the bigot sprouting prejudice rubbish is superb) and the definition of the words 'beyond reasonable doubt' is called into question. Fonda is the central figure, the protagonist, or hero if you will, Fonda is also a man who values every life equally and questions the morality of sending a possibly innocent man to his death. Fonda remains calm as the men seek to escape the room and allow themselves a chance to breathe.
All this raised tension would be useless without superb performances from the cast and there are superb performances, in fact, there are twelve of them. Each of the cast members are terrific in playing their character all of whom each have their own unique characteristics. Henry Fonda delivers one of the best performances of his career and Lee J Cobb delivers what is also his best performance of his entire career. Cobb plays a man who feels he is betrayed by his own son and has negative views of youth and how they are not respecting their elders, his personality is somewhat mirrored by Ed Begley (as bigoted Juror 10) who is also great in his role. Never does the movie feel dated in presenting its themes and neither is there a dated feeling within the script. Even the death penalty is still active in some US states and the racial prejudices that Juror 10 feels are still a part of society but all we have to do to these people is turn our backs to them.
12 Angry Men is a true classic due to the stunning performances from all twelve of the main cast members, the sweaty, claustrophobic tension, Sidney Lumet's confident and top quality direction and Reginald Rose's compelling screenplay. It is the finest film of Lumet's career and one the finest films of that decade, it would have swept the 1957 Oscar Awards if it had not been for David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai which gained most of the major awards.