Less is more. We’ve all heard this bit of banality at one point or another, but these days it might be hard to actually experience it. There are camp sights with Internet access and most people find their way there using a GPS, probably built into their car. We just don’t take the road to minimalism often enough. That’s especially true in today’s film industry. We’re now transported in 3D to entire planets created by computers with a twelve dollar ticket stub and extra buttered popcorn. But in 12 Angry Men, all we have is a dozen men in a small room trying to come to a verdict.
On trial is an eighteen year old Hispanic boy, raised in the slums with a criminal record already. He’s accused of murdering his father. Now the jury must decide whether or not to send the boy to the electric chair. As they assemble in the cramped 16 by 24 foot room, it sounds like they’ll be out soon. Most men have made up their minds, one even has tickets for a ball game that evening. But Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) looks out the window thoughtfully before they assemble to vote. He becomes the only man to vote not guilty.
Fonda proceeds to lead the men back through the evidence and one step at a time they find inconsistencies. This quickly becomes one of those films where you are just glued to the screen. As the men discuss the evidence, certain men bring their own experiences and prejudices into both helping and hindering the progress. An older man is able to help us understand how an elderly witness may have unknowingly mislead the trial. Another is able to offer knowledge from his own experiences from the slums. But it seems that some men just want to watch the young man suffer.
Director Sidney Lumet had an ingenious camera trick to give the film a more claustrophobic feel as it progressed. In the beginning of the film, he positioned the cameras higher than usual and used wide-angled lenses to make the space within the room feel more spread out and distant. As the film goes on, the cameras move lower, there are more close-up shots and telephoto lenses are used to make the space feel more cramped. The trick is so subtle and blended with the heated plot line that you’re not likely to notice unless you are looking for it. Nonetheless, I do believe this technique does an effective job of pulling the viewer closer and engaging them within the film.
There needed to be an award for best acting ensemble. The twelve men here move the film all on their own. Together they drive the plot along at perfect pace and toss the dialogue back and forth, not just to shed more light on the trial, but to reveal hidden characteristics and motives within each other. Fonda does control a lot as the leader, but it is the eleven men around him that make this film such a compelling uphill battle depicting the importance and power of a jury.
I don’t know if much of our younger minded generation would enjoy 12 Angry Men. The biggest special effect, is when we see it start to rain out the window. The greatest action is held in the most compelling of arguments. The characters don’t even have names, just faces and opinions that form and mold around their own sense of duty or vengence. But I’d applaud any youngster who would try this simply powerful film over today’s typical sensory overload blockbusters.
“It’s always difficult to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth.”