Ranking: #22/111

Director: Sidney Lumet    

Genre: Courtroom Drama

Sometimes, outstanding cinematography and a gritty screenplay lie behind the success of a great movie, as with John Ford’s The Searchers. Other movies build up a compelling atmosphere and tone, with superb mise-en-scène work, as with Hitchcock’s Psycho and Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp. Some great movies effectively evoke monumental, or historic, themes or subjects, like Billy Wilder’s The Spirit of St. Louis, Polanski’s The Pianist and John Houston’s The Bible in the Beginning. Or other films become powerful through amazing montage, or editing, like Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin or Pudovkin’s Mother. But the greatness of Twelve Angry Men is driven primarily through the sheer intensity of the acting, especially from the actors playing the parts of the twelve jurors in this unforgettable courtroom drama. The interplay between them in the group dynamics in the sweltering, claustrophobic jury room is phenomenal, spell-binding. It is acting – and directing – of the highest order.

Interestingly, the 95 minutes or so of screen time equates roughly to the time taken up by their deliberations. The film offers a fly-on-the-wall, inside look into a jury’s interrogation into the guilt or innocence of a teenage boy charged with murder.

In this time frame, not only does Lumet manage to develop twelve intriguing and contrasting characters, providing some in-depth psychological realism, he also creates a real interior setting which pulsates with heat and with tension between the men. During their discussions and argumentation, conducted under a mounting judicial pressure which brings issues deep within them to the surface, their real natures and values are exposed with forensic incisiveness. It’s not just the details of the alleged murder which are fascinating, showing conflicting evidence from various witnesses to the crime, it’s the underlying personalities and worldviews of the jurors which are so thought-provoking.

The true art of the film lies in how one cramped setting, the jury room of the New York County Courthouse, can come alive with so many significant issues and with such emotional power. 

French film and cultural critic, André Bazin, had high praise for Twelve Angry Men for this very reason: “The story is challenging since it takes place entirely in the confined space of a deliberation room in an American court. Twelve jurors are there to decide the fate of a young defendant…You can imagine the resources of dramatic imagination and of psychological realism that went into keeping this film exciting from start to finish while never departing from its subject.” (Bazin, A, 2014. Andre Bazin’s New Media, p. 169).

In 2007, the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the US National Film Registry because it is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Its greatness lies in its artistry, including, of course, the complementary arts of directing and acting.