"Do you think you were born with a monopoly on the truth?"
There are many great ensemble dramas in the history of film. And then there is the great ensemble drama, which may very well be Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men. Adapted from a TV movie, this superb motion picture collects some of the finest actors of their own and any other generation, puts them in a room together for an hour and a half, and the result is absolute gold.
Let's have a look at the unbelievable assemblage of talent on display here. The gruff and cynical Jack Warden; the beguiling and childlike John Fiedler; the menacing and pompous Lee J. Cobb; the very young and unassuming Jack Klugman; the understated yet riveting Ed Begley; the regal and commanding E.G. Marshall. And of course, the beloved everyman himself, Henry Fonda as the central figure on the jury. And that's not even covering all 12 of the angry men!
To call this a dream cast would be the understatement of the century. This is the kind of a cast a director would kill to have working for him--a room full of unparalleled pros who take the already excellent material written by Manhattanite wordsmith Reginald Rose, and weave it into a tapestry of such sublime interaction, that the viewer is caught up in every nuance of the 90-minute conversation, from beginning to end.
How ironic that such an impeccable gathering of gifted actors would be brought together for first-time film director Sidney Lumet. Up to that point strictly a TV guy, Lumet was a hot young prospect at the time, and the homerun he hit out of the park with this Oscar nominee opened the door to an illustrious career that included such pictures as Long Day's Journey Into Night, The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Verdict, A Stranger Among Us, and Before the Devil Knows Your Dead.
Here, the 32-year-old auteur certainly has an advantage in a cast of gentlemen who could not give a bad performance if their lives depended on it. Naturally, it would be unfair to say that even a lesser director could've pulled off a classic given the material and the participants. Lumet was responsible for bringing it all together into a coherent whole, and he does so with the masterful confidence of a veteran, flawlessly staging the nearly claustrophobic goings-on with the help of Russian cinematographer Boris Kaufman, ratcheting up the tension higher and higher with the skill of an orchestra conductor.
12 Angry Men was a standout film in a sweeping sub-genre of "message" movies that Hollywood cranked out during the post-war '50s, somewhat liberal-minded pieces (which no doubt rankled the McCarthyites running roughshod with their red-baiting antics at the time) that fed into America's genuine desire to behave as the high-minded purveyor of principle its citizens considered it to be. And while this may not have always realistically been the case, it was an ideal that was genuinely striven for, and films such as Stanley Kramer's Inherit the Wind and 12 Angry Men are prime examples of its expression in film.
This is a film about ideas, that isn't afraid to hash them out in depth and with very little in the way of "action". The action here is in the dialogue, in the interplay of the characters, and in the development of their differing opinions over the course of the plot. It's a very thoughtful film, but manages to engage viewers of each ensuing generation, continuing to be amongst the most popular of all "pre-modern" motion pictures, owing most likely to the intensity and authenticity of the performances.
Fonda's wide-eyed innocence is here put to its best use since his younger days in films like The Grapes of Wrath. He is the film's moral center, the one we're supposed to identify with. The film revolves around his own moral journey, his search for the truth amidst a room of fellow human beings who range from tentatively fair-minded, to apathetic, to downright hostile.
In opposition to him is the bigoted, loud-mouthed Cobb, at his very best here playing the part of a man whom we may vehemently disagree with, whom we may see for the dangerous ignoramus he is, yet whom we still identify with as a human being. Most importantly, he is still written and acted as a whole person with motivations and ideas, and not just a cartoon character. This is a testament to the greatness of 12 Angry Men.
To do justice to the rest of the performances would take a series of posts like this one. Suffice it to say that each man in that room distinguishes himself at one point or another in the film--whether it be a handful of key moments, or a consistent presence throughout the film. Whether it be Warden's flippant comic relief, Fiedler's earnestness, or the meek charm of George Voskovec, there is so much here to be thoroughly enjoyed.
12 Angry Men is a movie about truth, and about the natural instinct of people to seek it out, within themselves and others. It's a movie about justice, and whether or not it can exist within the American legal system. It's a film that's high-minded without being heavy-handed, and packed with drama despite the fact that its characters never leave the deliberation room. They say that small people talk about people, average people talk about things, and great people talk about ideas. The same can be said of movies. And 12 Angry Men is one of the latter.
NEXT UP: Witness for the Prosecution (1957)