12 Angry Men, is, undoubtedly, one of the greatest films ever made. Short, snappy, and carrying a brilliant message about what we are like inside (among lots of other things), it stands out because of a combination of things which elevate it to something very special indeed. It heralded a new hero for the celluloid: Henry Fonda as Juror #8.
Every person going into a jury after seeing this film will dream of becoming some kind of hero like Juror #8, and his incredible, powering performance is the key to the film, and what keeps it fresh and exciting when it could easily be trite and contrived. It truly is a masterpiece, and as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. Age has not lessened its message.
The plot is simple: the members of a jury are all dead straight that the man in the case they are part of is guilty. Except for one, Juror #8. The rest of the film concerns his efforts in convincing everyone to let the defendant go free. It is minimalist cinema, with the whole film taking place in a small room. This allows our attention to shift entirely to the script, dialogue and characters. And the script flows, the dialogue crackles, and the characters explode into life.
Each character gets their line, their own little moment to shine, and nobody ever seems like they are there to fill space. Lee J Cobb is also excellent as Juror #3, turning his potentially one-note character into a man with agendas and ideas of his own, who seems genuinely caught up in the middle of things, with his seemingly simple decision called into question.
He responds with understandable anger and confusion, and despite the fact that he is going against what the majority of the audience will have been led to believe, you can’t help but feel that he is something of an old-fashioned wayward thinking everyman, and as a result, he does illicit sympathy of some sort, even if you don’t believe in what he is saying.
Given the age of the film, you would expect the message to have been dulled, or not be relevant anymore, but I actually feel it has become more important as time has gone on. Something that often gets overlooked is the idea of being accepted by everyone else, with Henry Fonda’s character representing the ‘one man going against the system’, with everyone else representing the masses, fed information so they don’t have to think for themselves.
As a result, as more and more people become convinced of his way, there is a role reversal going on, with the previously headstrong Juror # 3 becoming the outcast. And whatever you think the actual outcome should have been, it says something that, everyone on the jury was happy to let the decision be made for them.
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The theme of murder and death is also prevalent, as is the underlying theme of racism (the convicted man is, after all, Spanish-American). In fact, for a relatively short film, it is incredible how many things screenwriter Reginald Rose managed to fit into it.
In, fact the length of the film is something of a paradox: it runs in at a relatively trim 90 minutes (it is in real time, after all), yet there are so many things explored in that time, that the film feels like it could have been at least half-an-hour longer. At the same time, however, not a minute of this film drags: it captures the attention from first shot to last. There are not many films where you don’t want it to end, but I think that this qualifies as one.
Upon its release in 1957, it was only nominated for the three main Oscars (Direction, Best Actor, Screenplay). It was beaten by the Bridge Over the River Kwai, but looking at it now, which is the better film? 12 Angry Men is ranked 8th on the IMDB top 250 list, the Bridge Over the River Kwai 78th. It may not have been evident at the time, but 12 Angry Men really has gone down in history as one of the greatest films ever made.
It endures, I think, because not an awful lot has changed in how we look at things in those 50 years. It is so thrilling, because at least one of the characters on the jury reminds us of ourselves. It was so far ahead of its time, it has probably needed this long for the full impact of the film to be realised. There are even some people who claim it was a bit of a precedent for the ‘reality’ TV shows (such as Big Brother) that we gorge ourselves on so much these days.
Truth is, a review can’t do it much justice (12 men, in a room, for an hour-and-a-half), and it has to be seen to be appreciated. I know that most of the adults reading this will have seen it, so this is a plea to anyone (my age or otherwise) who hasn’t heard of it: please, please, please watch this film! You will be amazed at how good it is, and you will come out of it feeling enriched, with some faith in the good of man. Thrilling, daring, ahead of its time, and utterly brilliant. I didn’t want it to end, and it captured me from start to finish.