• Jamie Morris

One to Watch: 12 Angry Men

65 years later, this Old Hollywood classic is still a firm favourite among many a film fan – here’s why…

There’s much to be said for a good single-location film, and 12 Angry Men is one of the earliest and greatest of them all. Adapted for the screen by writer Reginald Rose – who penned the original play three years prior – this legal drama boasts one of the sharpest scripts in Hollywood history.

The film follows the deliberations of a jury in real time over 90 minutes, in a murder trial where all but one of the jurors are convinced of the 18-year-old defendant’s guilt. It’s the hottest day of the year, and none of them feel particularly keen to spend it cooped up in a tiny chamber, but a nagging doubt in the mind of this single dissenting voice (Henry Fonda) stops him from voting to send the young man to the electric chair.

Rose’s script is brought to life by a dozen impassioned performances guided by exemplary direction from Sidney Lumet, in his first cinematic feature after a career directing TV. In an era where Hollywood was gradually accepting colour pictures as the norm, the black and white cinematography accentuates the beads of sweat on the increasingly agitated juror’s brows, and the film’s 16:9 aspect ratio captures multiple perspectives at once while still simulating the room’s claustrophobic feel.

12 Angry Men forces us to ask ourselves a challenging question: would I be brave enough?

Despite centring around a murder case, this is no whodunnit – rather, 12 Angry Men focuses on the concept of reasonable doubt. Fonda’s character doesn’t seek to prove the defendant’s innocence outright, but to disprove the notion that he is definitely guilty. Beneath these arguments lies an indictment of the death penalty, raising the question as to whether you can ever really be sure enough of someone’s guilt to sentence them to death.

Each of the twelve jurors is a believable, fully-fleshed character with their own temperament and background and, as the narrative progresses, we learn more about how the prejudices they hold may have played a part in their initial assumptions of the defendant’s guilt. Their performances are naturalistic – and enhanced by Lumet’s long takes – with the vitriolic Lee J. Cobb and the diffident Jack Klugman being the standouts among a truly robust ensemble.

Fonda’s character is given the least backstory, leaving room for the viewer to place themselves in his shoes. Perhaps that’s why, in spite of its initial box-office disappointment, 12 Angry Men remains so beloved among critics and general audiences alike – it forces us to ask ourselves a challenging question: would I be brave enough?

12 Angry Men is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video