The other day I reviewed Double Indemnity, and seeing as the film is just outside the top 50 films of all time – as voted by the public on the Internet Movie Database – it probably came as no surprise that I thought it was great too.
This morning I watched another film in the Top 250, 12 Angry Men; a film far higher up the rankings at No. 6.
So I asked myself whether or not it was worth even reviewing it. Surely a film rated that high must be good and that’s that?
Well not necessarily.
Out of the Top 20, I’ve seen 18 of them; the only two I haven’t being The Good, The Bad & The Ugly and The Seven Samurai. Of the 18 I’ve seen I consider the two Lord of the Rings films to be enjoyable but not classic, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and the first Godfather to be merely adequate (sorry, but I prefer Part 2 and Goodfellas; both of which were in the Top 20) and two of the films (Fight Club and The Matrix) to be two of the most overrated films I’ve ever seen.
And while The Dark Knight is good, it was initially receiving of so many votes because Heath Ledger died. At one point it was number 1 before eventually slipping.
So no, being in the Top 20 let alone the Top 250 on imdb does not automatically mean I will like the film or you will either. So on that basis it really is worth having a proper look at 12 Angry Men.
What’s It About?
But for two short scenes that bookend the action, this is a film that takes place on a hot day in the jury room of a courthouse as 12 men deliberate on whether or not to convict an 18 year old ethnic lad of killing his own father.
While initially 11 of the 12 men vote guilty, one man – Henry Fonda – implores them to take the time to discuss the issue in the face of some shaky evidence and potentially unreliable witnesses.
As they discuss it, doubt creeps in to the minds of the jury as to whether he really was guilty, but some of the men are blighted by prejudice and vendetta.
Will the jury force a mistrial or will they eventually all settle on a conclusion one way or the other?
Thoughts – The Negatives
Let’s get the negatives out the way to start off with.
The defendant’s court appointed solicitor must have been phoning it in if he couldn’t see the flaws in the prosecution’s case.
The Positives – The Jury
Apart from the aforementioned stupidity of the defence that led to them getting round the table and questioning the issues in the first place, the film is a cracker from start to finish.
As you can tell from the title, this is a story more about the 12 men than it is about the case.
And as they discuss the case you see each of their characters coming to the fore. You’ve got…
- The foreman who is more preoccupied with his duties than adding to the debate
- The meek and mild-mannered bank clerk, initially spoken over but gradually growing in confidence as events unfold
- The stubborn opinionated businessman who has had a fallout with his own son and seems to want to punish the defendant for that
- The straight-laced, rational and self assure stockbroker who believes in facts rather than conjecture
- A quiet young man from the slums who feels as though he’s being pre-judged because of his background
- A down-to-earth Blue Collar worker who is respectful and principled
- A wise cracking and indifferent salesman who is more interested in getting away to a baseball game he has tickets for.
- The Henry Fonda character – the protagonist. He just wants things fully discussed before sending someone off to die.
- The wise and observant old man who is softly spoken but can be firm when needed
- A racist who believes that the defendant is guilty because he’s “one of them”
- A European watchmaker who takes notes on their discussions to try to piece everything together
- An indecisive advertising executive who seems more interested in selling himself than coming to a conclusion
As they interact with each other they all clearly develop over the course of the 96 minutes and as they develop so too does the plot.
While initially it seems as though Fonda’s character votes not guilty just to spark some debate, by doing so it allows the jury – and us as the viewer – to fully understand the case.
Yes, we’re obviously conditioned to believe that the guy really is innocent and that as the protagonist, Fonda is fighting as much for the defendant as he is for us, but the way each of the prosecution’s points – as championed by Jurors 3 & 4 in particular – end up being proven unreliable is terrific. And crucially it makes sense.
Of note, I love how the temper of Juror No. 3 leads him to say things that ultimately ruin his own arguments, but then it’s clear that his arguments are there because – as I say above – he has unresolved issues with his own son. And that becomes clear thanks to a seemingly unimportant line of small talk early in proceedings.
I also think the way Juror No. 10’s racism is fully exposed and dealt with by the other 11 men – even the ones who we’re supposed to believe are on ‘his side’ – is very effective.
The Direction and The Tension
The direction of this film is top-notch.
There’s a tension in the air not just because of all the characters are so different but because it’s a swelteringly hot day in a room without air conditioning, and so that just makes things worse.
And as the story develops the characters begin to sweat profusely, and as the heat and tension builds the director begins to employ close-up shots to perfection.
My favourite two shots in the film are when Fonda produces the other knife and when the camera closes in on Juror No. 8 as he confirms he was the first man to change his mind to not guilty.
It’s a joy to watch, and considering it was filmed almost entirely in one room it is brilliantly executed.
And it’s not just the director or the writer who should take the praise; the actors are the ones responsible for bringing these characters to life.
Yes, the director was responsible for casting these guys so perfectly (there probably wasn’t an actor more suited to Juror No. 2 as John Fielder – a man probably more famous for being the voice of Piglet in Winnie the Pooh) but all 12 men act their respective arses off.
It’s easy to single out Lee J. Cobb for praise because his character (No. 3) is the loudest and most outspoken, but they all play their parts to perfection; even the quieter ones like Jack Klugman (5) and Edward Binns (6).
Overall it’s just a great film.
Yes, this review is almost a love letter to 12 Angry Men, but it deserves it. According to imdb the only films better than it are The Shawshank Redemption, The Godfather Parts 1 and 2, Pulp Fiction and The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.
Well as I say, I haven’t seen the latter of those films but I honestly believe 12 Angry Men is a better film than the others.
That’s not to say that it’s my favourite film of all time, because it’s not. But it’s definitely one of them.
Never mind the imdb top 250, this is in the StuartReviewsStuff Top 10 at the very least.
If you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for?