Sidney Lumet / US / 1957 / 96minutes
Available on Blu-Ray Mon 15 May 2017
There’s a very spicy and funny spoof of 12 Angry Men by American shock comedian Amy Schumer where the jurors don’t examine a switchblade knife used in the crime but wobbly, rubber dildo and debate whether Ms Schumer is ‘hot enough’ to be allowed on TV. Sixty years after it was made 12 Angry Men does creak a little but is it really worthy of outrageous spoofing? As the title suggests there are no women in this jury room the jurors are supposed to represent a cross-section of humanity (or 1950’s maleness at least). Incredibly, not until 1973, did all fifty American states allow women to sit on courtroom juries.
The conceit is that it’s a hot day, the jurors have heard a long case (a juvenile with a non-white ethnicity has knifed his father to death). The men are keen to get things over and done with, sentence the boy and send him to the electric chair. But one – the man in the white suit, played by Henry Fonda – wants to air the doubts in his mind and insists that the eleven others must do their duty and give the accused a fair chance. The production is all beautifully played as the camera glides elegantly around the stifling room. Ugly, rednecked old-fashioned prejudices are laid bare; prejudices about race and class. It’s a movie about big issues.
Back in the 50’s the subject that they dare not speak its name was Communism. Hollywood, in particular, was seen as a hotbed of pinko lefties. Some artists responded by making thinly-disguised stories that depicted the dangers of mob mentality (what’s now called populism) and how it should and could be resisted. 12 Angry Men was an important film when it was released, though notably not popular at the box office.
The action plays out in real time and, as much as anything, the movie is a depiction of masculinity, a masculinity that has changed immeasurably – in some ways – since the film was made. There’s the wheezing old geezer, the jock, the nerd, the loudmouth… As counterpoint to Fonda and sitting opposite him at the jury table is the racist, sadistic tough guy (a scenery-chewing performance from Lee J Cobb) who talks of ‘bleeding heart liberals’ with true venom in a way that is all too familiar today. But the saintly Fonda is not to be fazed and slowly talks the other jurors into reconsidering their views. Fonda made a career out of supposedly ordinary good guys who can be trusted and listened to.
The direction is perfect (this was Lumet’s first movie) and is saved from being stagey thanks to fine ensemble playing. The cinematography with its deep focus and startling close-ups of the men’s faces quite unexpected. Cinematographer Boris Kaufman also did limits On the Waterfront. There’s also an interesting comparison to be made with the original TV version (included in the extras).