Most directors, when handed a script, will consider a variety of locations in order to broaden the story. They will insert as many different backgrounds as time, money and narrative will allow. After all, wouldn’t it be terribly boring to watch all of the action taking place in just one room? The genius of Sidney Lumet’s potent 12 Angry Men is that we forget all of the action takes place in just one small, claustrophobic space because the dialogue and story move at such a pace!
As the film progresses, Lumet gradually moves the walls of the studio set closer and closer in; he changes camera lenses to reduce the apparent distance between the backgrounds and the figures prowling the room- ramping up the tension even further.
These 12 men are a jury who must decide the fate of an 18-year-old who is accused of stabbing his abusive father to death; if he’s found guilty, he’ll go to the chair. Eleven of the jurors are convinced he did it; juror No 8, played by Henry Fonda, isn’t so sure, and gradually his doubts infect the others. The bigotry and stupidity so well established at the outset are so convincingly overcome by a combination of compassion and clear thinking that the audience can marvel at how nothing but dialogue can affect change.
Although Fonda’s character has a great potential for sanctimoniousness, he admirably reins it in. Conversely, the “bad guys” in the room, Number 3. Played by Lee J Cobb and Number 10, played by Ed Begley, let rip with their monstrous creations – with mesmerising effect.
Yet we feel sympathy when No 3 is finally crushed by a realisation of his own inadequacy as a father.
By far the most spellbinding moment of the film, however, is when No 10’s racist rant prompts the others, slowly, one by one, to leave the table and stand with their backs to him, each an icy tower in this boiling hot room.
We’re in no doubt from the opening moments that the room is an oven: it’s the hottest day of the year, there’s no air conditioning, and the single, wall-mounted fan seems to be out of order. Beads of sweat glisten on foreheads; shirt backs become increasingly damp. It’s no wonder these men are so desperate to leave the room and want nothing more than a, easy verdict- unfortunately, ‘easy’ seems to mean the death sentence for a teenager.
Screenwriter Reginald Rose’s fundamental thought is that the somewhat disturbing legal term, “beyond a reasonable doubt,” should not be regarded as a flat phrase casually coined by the law-makers. The defendant involved (whom we catch merely a glimpse of in the opening shot), is a tough 18-year-old from a broken slum home charged with having stabbed his brutal father, a former convict. All but one of the jurymen are convinced this is an open-and-shut case. Number 8 does not assert that the boy is innocent, but that the conduct of the trial, especially that of the defence lawyer, has left him with gnawing doubts.
It’s likely you won’t notice, so wrapped up will you be in the unfurling of an absorbing tale through dialogue that is both complex and unassuming, but the camerawork in this film is truly magnificent. At the beginning, the cameras are all positioned above eye level and mounted with wide-angle lenses to give the appearance of greater distance between the subjects. As the film progresses the cameras slip down to eye level. By the end of the film, nearly all of it is shot below eye level, in close-up and with telephoto lenses to increase the encroaching sense of claustrophobia.