12 Angry Men is one of the most acclaimed movies ever made. Amy Smith revisits Sidney Lumet’s courtroom classic to explore how the great director imbues a sense of claustrophobia and suspense to create a gripping story that takes place in one room.
12 Angry Men (1957) is a courtroom drama unlike most others. Directed by the late, great Sidney Lumet, the film is based on a teleplay written by Reginald Rose. Where most courtroom films focus on the incident leading up to the trial in question, 12 Angry Men takes us beyond the courtroom as 12 jurors decide whether a young man should be sentenced to death. This is a film that, aside from the opening and closing sequence, takes place entirely in a single location: the jury room. It’s quite the achievement, so let’s take a look at how Lumet pulled it off, and how the impact of the single room is able to tell an entire story and build suspense whilst doing so.
The script by Reginald Rose had been adapted several times, including for television back in 1954 (with that specific footage only being found again in 2003, with the kinescope donated to The Museum of Television). It was the success of this television production that led to the adaptation for the big screen. It wasn’t all plain sailing though, and producers Henry Fonda (who plays Juror 8) and screenwriter Rose both accepted salary to lower the budget of the film. That decision would not pay off financially, as 12 Angry Men was not a box office success, despite not much known about how much it ended up making.
In terms of the production on set, the film took three weeks to shoot in New York after a short but intense rehearsal schedule. Whilst there were some scenes that the actors filmed separately (presenting another challenge in continuity of lighting and editing), Lumet had the actors rehearse in the same room, for hours at a time, to get the cast into the same claustrophobic space that their characters would be in, getting them to channel the same anger and emotions as the jurors would in their situation.
The cameras are positioned above eye level to make the room appear spacious. As the story progresses, the camera moves down to eye-level and, by the end of the film, most jury members are shown in close-ups from lower angles.
Whilst there is a single case to focus on, and quite a compelling one at that which deals with race and class, that is not the only message of this story. 12 Angry Men scrutinses the justice system and comments on how one person can make an impact on life and death. Instead of focusing on the suspect and victim, the audience is left paying attention to the jurors and their debate.
As an observing member of the jury during their debate, the audience is placed in the thick of the action. Like the jurors, the audience is not present at the scene of the crime. And, like the jurors, the audience is not witness to the police investigation. All the jurors – and the audience – have to go on is what was testified in the court room. The single-room narrative draws the audience in, with nowhere else to go, creating a desire to know the final verdict.
To make a story compelling in a single-room, there has to be some impressive filmmaking going on. Using very simple yet effective techniques, Lumet managed keeps the audience engaged in the film, but have the tension build throughout the most suspenseful moments of the story. When the film reaches a point where the final few jurors are left to be convinced of the suspect’s innocence, the rain starts to pour, bouncing off the walls and windows. Not only does this echo around the small room, building up the claustrophobic nature that the characters are placed in, it helps adds further tension to the film and reminds the audience that there is an outside world that the characters are eager to get back to.
The theatrical trailer for classic courtroom drama 12 Angry Men.
At the start of the film, the cameras are positioned above eye level and with a wide-angle focus, to space the jury members out and make the room appear spacious. As the story progresses, the camera moves down to eye-level and, by the end of the film, most jury members are shown in close-ups from lower angles. This makes the room appear to be smaller and places a focus on how each character should be viewed – as the metaphorical walls close in on the group, Lumet creates the same illusion with his camera. As Juror 8 (Fonda) convinces the other jury members, one-by-one, to change their votes to Not Guilty, the camera lowers, making him appear larger in the frame.
Lumet is not afraid of the static image, and the film has an average of one cut every 20 seconds, the majority of which take place in the final 20 minutes. The longer cuts at the outset let the audience – like the jurors – settle into the situation. As the cuts shorten, Lumet very effectively builds tension and tightens the space between characters. (Hitchcock was also a master at this, and uses a quick cut technique to ramp up tension in the famous the shower sequence in Psycho, 1960).
12 Angry Men has a stripped back approach to narrative, focusing on telling the story in a single room, allowing Sidney Lumet’s gift for visuals to flourish and dictate tone and feeling. Whilst the film presents the story of a potentially innocent man and his case, the film is about more than that. The single room narrative places the audience in the debate to watch it unfold, as the message of how one man can make such a big impact on life and death was shown with little room to breathe throughout.