12 Angry Men (1957, USA, Sidney Lumet)
12 Angry Men centres on a jury's attempts to come to a verdict in a first degree murder trial, back in the day when guilty verdicts brought a mandatory death sentence. Which is to say, the stakes in this situation are high. In what appears to be a slam dunk case, an unnamed or only briefly glimpsed 18-year-old boy is accused in the stabbing death of his father case. The evidence against the boy gradually emerges as the jury is forced by one belligerent member (juror number 8, played with stoic rectitude by Henry Fonda) to study the facts of the case. The kid has a terrible alibi, the knife he says he lost is at the murder scene, one witness claim to have heard the father and son fighting, another eye witness saw the boy flee the site while another is certain she saw the boy plunge the knife into his father's chest. Eleven of the jurors immediately vote guilty; only Juror No. 8 casts a not guilty vote, moreso he can continue to talk about the case than because he believes the boy is actually innocent. Over the course of the discussion, the film shifts from being an examination of the merits of the case to an exploration of the personalities of the men sequestered in the jury room. As the oppressive heat begins to wear people down, conflicts erupt and the film's true purpose begins to emerge.
Twelve Angry Men is a tightly wound top of a movie. Each scene ratchets up the tension another notch as Henry Fonda's character tries desperately to open the minds of his fellow jurors. The setting -- a claustrophobic jury room in the dog days of summer -- superbly augments the suspense. Operating within the constraints of a small budget, first-time director Sidney Lumet tightens the noose by accentuating the throbbing pulse of the ceiling fan and slowly narrowing his shots on his characters as the film approaches its climax. Based on Reginald Rose's well-known play, which had been adapted to the television screen three years earlier, Twelve Angry Men boasts a series of excellent performances by young actors who would soon become household names, including Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, and Martin Balsam. However, it is the film's established stars -- Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall and most importantly Fonda -- who play the leads, delivering the goods like seasoned pros. The film has instructional value as a study of the inherent strengths and weaknesses of the jury system, but its real value is how it allows each member of the cultural mosaic of a jury to develop into distinct, damaged, and interesting characters. In a well-crafted metaphor for the broader outline of society, the jury members must confront their prejudices in order to see that justice prevails. Nominated for three Oscars, Twelve Angry Men ran into the juggernaut of Bridge on the River Kwai and came up empty handed.