12 Angry Men is a 1957 American drama film adapted from a teleplay of the same name by Reginald Rose. Directed by Sidney Lumet, the film tells the story of a jury made up of 12 men as they deliberate the guilt or acquittal of a defendant on the basis of reasonable doubt. The film stars Henry Fonda, who also produced the film.
Lumet began his career as an Off-Broadway director, then became a highly efficient TV director. His first movie was typical of his best work: a well-acted, tightly written, deeply considered “problem picture,” 12 Angry Men (1957). From that point on Lumet divided his energies among other idealistic problem pictures along with literate adaptations of plays and novels, big stylish pictures, New York-based black comedies, and realistic crime dramas.
The Encyclopedia of Hollywood states that Lumet was one of the most prolific directors of the modern era, making more than one movie per year on average since his directorial debut in 1957. He was noted by for his “strong direction of actors”, “vigorous storytelling” and the “social realism” in his best work. He is also described as having been “one of the finest craftsmen and warmest humanitarians among all film directors.” Lumet was also known as an “actor’s director,” having worked with the best of them during his career, probably more than “any other director.”
Consider these titles from among his 43 films: “The Pawnbroker” (the Holocaust), “Fail-Safe” (accidental nuclear war), “Serpico” (police corruption), “Dog Day Afternoon” (homosexuality), “Network” (the decay of TV news), “The Verdict” (alcoholism and malpractice), “Daniel” (a son punished for the sins of his parents), “Running on Empty” (radical fugitives), and “Critical Care” (health care). There are also comedies and a musical (“The Wiz”). If Lumet is not among the most famous of American directors, that is only because he ranges so widely he cannot be categorized. Few filmmakers have been so consistently respectful of the audience’s intelligence.
Cinematography in 12 Angry Men
The visual strategy of the movie is discussed by Lumet in Making Movies, one of the most intelligent and informative books ever written about the cinema. In planning the movie, he says, a “lens plot” occurred to him: To make the room seem smaller as the story continued, he gradually changed to lenses of longer focal lengths, so that the backgrounds seemed to close in on the characters.
“In addition,” he writes, “I shot the first third of the movie above eye level, shot the second third at eye level and the last third from below eye level. In that way, toward the end the ceiling began to appear. Not only were the walls closing in, the ceiling was as well. The sense of increasing claustrophobia did a lot to raise the tension of the last part of the movie.” In the film’s last shot, he observes, he used a wide-angle lens “to let us finally breathe.”
The movie plays like a textbook for directors interested in how lens choices affect mood. By gradually lowering his camera, Lumet illustrates another principle of composition: A higher camera tends to dominate, a lower camera tends to be dominated. As the film begins we look down on the characters, and the angle suggests they can be comprehended and mastered. By the end, they loom over us, and we feel overwhelmed by the force of their passion. Lumet uses closeups rarely, but effectively: One man in particular–Juror No. 9 (Joseph Sweeney, the oldest man on the jury)–is often seen in full-frame, because he has a way of cutting to the crucial point and stating the obvious after it has eluded the others.