12 Angry Men Official trailer. Source : MGM

When Reginald Rose’s, “12 Angry Men” screenplay was broadcasted as a television play in 1954, who knew this would become the single most popular adaptation for the stage as well as for television?

But without a doubt, the most successful adaptation was made by Sidney Lumet in 1957 in a movie by the same title, “12 Angry Men”. Chamber dramas are a complex concept, especially when it comes to turning them into movies. A chamber drama can be characterized by a type of drama having a few numbers of characters being confined to a small to medium-sized space or location for an extended period of time. The choices are the bare minimum in a chamber drama. There already is a lack of background, there is a lack in the number of characters hence creating and maintaining a constant interest without leading the audience into a claustrophobic atmosphere is a huge task at hand. Even if it is comparatively easier on a stage, for a movie audience sustenance interest becomes even more difficult.

Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” is probably the pinnacle of a chamber drama. Despite the lack of great cinematic spectacle, this movie has always led the audience on a captivating journey. It is crucial to address this movie’s value to the newer generations. Especially for those who completely disregard experiencing the movies from the black-and-white era.

“12 Angry Men” did everything before anyone else and did everything better than anyone else. For many merciless film critics, this movie is still the best example of utter perfection. So, what is it about this movie that was so brilliant?

Well, firstly this was the debut film of 33-year-old Sidney Lumet. Despite this the treatment of this film never makes you question the ability of a new director to portray something so advanced. The story of the “12 Angry Men” basically revolves around a first-degree murder trial where an 18- year-old boy is accused of murdering his father. The film starts at a place where the judge lets the jury take the decision and leaves the young boy’s fate in their hands. If proven guilty by the jury, he will be sent to the electric chair. Throughout the movie, we never see the face of this kid (defendant), except in the very beginning when the jury is entering their designated room we get a brief glance at the kid’s face and the director succeeds in making it so impactful that we somehow detect that something is wrong. But It’s never concrete. Rather we get to know that most of the jury members are quite sure of the fact that this is an “open and shut case” and the kid is indeed guilty. Well, all of them except one.

Official Poster for 12 Angry Men. Source : Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

What starts with an open and shut case becomes a two-hour-long crash course on effective communication. And the professor of that class is simply named Juror #8, played by the amazing Henry Fonda. Juror #8 becomes the only man in that room who stood against the tide, saying “it is possible” that the kid is not guilty, that there still is some room for “reasonable doubt”. The arguments and counterarguments inside the room quickly took the shape of a game of chess. How to argue effectively? How to communicate reasoning? How to question the reasoning? How to successfully transform an opposite viewpoint? The film becomes a brilliant account of dispute resolution through effective communication.

“12 Angry Men” very cleverly broke the convention of the so-called “Hero” characteristic portrayed in Hollywood cinema back then. It was only evident that the hero will always be a flamboyant

character, extremely confrontational, massively charming, and incredibly aggressive. At least that’s what Hollywood majorly used to sell. In this movie, on the contrary, juror #8, the protagonist is a relatively passive personality who is rarely confrontational, who is non-aggressive, very soft-spoken, and most importantly an excellent listener. It probably is not so unusual in this day and age as the audience has become more mature. Cinema also has touched on and addressed the more humane nature through its characters. But in late 50s Hollywood, this was unusual, to say the least. This leads to some of the more excellent aspects of this movie.

The screenplay is the riding force of any movie. The screenplay of “12 Angry Men” was something special. In addition to setting a benchmark of what a well-written screenplay looks like, it broke all the conventions of screenplay writing. It defied the custom of “show not tell”, the whole movie is dialogue-heavy, yet it managed to create such a great vision through its efficient use (something that is largely practised now by directors like Quentin Tarrantino). The age-old writing custom was to provide an accurate introduction of characters so that it gets easier for the audience to construct their needs and demands from them. Yet, this movie literally starts with 12 characters inside a room, without portraying any sort of information about them beforehand and all are named as Jurors. Each scene is so deliberately constructed that every line, every glance, and every bid of silence feels purposeful. All the elements add something to the characters and to the story.

Amongst all the heavy-weighted rules of storytelling that the film schools largely teach now, there lies a very trivial yet important message that storytelling should not be restricted in any way. There should be more encouragement for finding unconventional ways. This movie had become an inspiration for trying and experimenting with new things in storytelling.

“I saw it I was so embarrassed I almost threw up. I said I’m gonna make a man out of you if I have to break you in 2 tryin. Well, I made a man out of him. When he was 16 we had a fight. Hit me in the jaw – a big kid. Haven’t seen him for two years.

Kids… work your heart out…” — Juror #3

The notions of prejudice covered in this movie are another marvelous example of masterful storytelling. “Kids these days” and “they are all the same”, dialogues as such come up quite a number of times. What needs to be understood is that the jurors are obviously human and as human beings, it is a difficult task to not have any preconceived notions about things. It is difficult to listen to and accept a counter-intuitive viewpoint. Yet it is important to judge and convey a matter as important as the death penalty without exercising personal agenda. This movie remarkably shows the lack of attention given to the underprivileged by the so-called ‘elites’ of society and when that elites of society become guardians of justice there begins the problem. But the social message of the movie never undermines the main plot of the story, which still was about giving justice to an 18-year-old.

This is exactly where “The 12 Angry Men” becomes much more than just a movie. It’s excellent documentation and commentary on the societal structure.

“Suppose you talk us all out of this and the kid really knife his father, huh?”

– Juror #6

It might feel at some point that it seems things are taking place way too easily.

Juror #8 in this equation, the only person standing against the tide of a “guilty” verdict had to fight all the adversities laid in front of him by the other jurors. Especially the risk of getting them convinced into giving a “not guilty” verdict and letting an actual murderer unpunished. It’s quite extraordinary how the director puts this thought inside the audience’s heads and to be frank, it’s a major consequence until Juror #8 meets Juror #6 (Edward Binns) at the toilet and Juror #6, raises the

possibility of it. This is a prime example of great screenwriting. To have the audience just in the right place as the director wants them to be.

Films such as “12 Angry Men” were necessary in the world of cinema. They were so important and such an eye-opener that they still carry that sort of wise aura in the cinematic universe. And that is difficult. Movies such as “12 Angry Men” are rare. This movie is an example of how brilliant can filmmaking be. This thing named “Cinema”, why is it so addictive? How is it that this art form is a successful accumulation of so many things? Not a lot of movies can answer this but “12 Angry Men” showcases something very near to that answer.

When a movie stands the test of time and still is relevant you can realize how important that movie is. It is complex and it is still a mystery how some movies become so relatable to a large part of society that their impact does not limit itself to the screens of the theatres. “12 Angry Men” at a first glance is just a remarkable story of a judgment conducted by the jurors yet it grows much more than that. It’s a social commentary, it’s a psychological commentary, it’s deeply political, it’s very much about human beings and underneath everything, it becomes a story about right and wrong. It’s wonderful how this movie addressed the matter of open-mindedness. The liberation of thought. A room full of individuals, unknown to each other wrote nothing less than a history. A history where a kid being wrongly accused of murder will get to live a life on this earth. Isn’t that beautiful?


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