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A friend of mine recently showed me a list that had been compiled for him of films that everyone should watch before they die. Introducing films to people is one of my favourite things to do, so I get pretty excited by lists of that ilk. Most of it was spot on. Jaws was on there, damn right everyone should see Jaws. Ditto for Die Hard and The Godfather. Smokey and the Bandit was on the list! Not a film I expected to see. Wouldn’t be a film I’d think of when putting together my list, but I love that someone digs that film enough that they felt it should be on there.

What surprised me was not the films that made it, but some of what was left off. So I said to my friend that I would knock up a list of my own. I started jotting some movies down and then sort of zoned out. A couple of hours later my mind snapped back into focus and I realised that I had listed over two hundred films.

That is way too long. You hand someone a list of over 200 films to work through and they’ll see it as a chore. It’s too big a number. So I decided to change it up. Once a week I will post an article about one film (with some further viewing suggestions at the end if the viewer enjoyed the movie) and talk about why that film is a must see. One film a week hopefully isn’t too much trouble for anyone.

The first entry into our “Movies Everybody Should See” list is Sidney Lumet’s 1957 classic 12 Angry Men.

The premise is simple: following a murder trial (of which we see almost nothing) twelve jurors, the twelve men of the title, head into a sweltering jury room on the hottest day of the year to decided upon a verdict. A guilty verdict would mean the death penalty for the accused teenager. The men see it as an open and shut case and take a vote. All but one vote guilty.

And that is pretty much the whole film. It spends almost its entire run time locked up in that New York jury room with the men as they deliberate, argue and squabble as a man’s life rests in their hands.

It sounds like it could be overly wordy and a little dull, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It is in fact a masterclass in performance and direction, as well as a showcase for the power of going small.

The characters, who are only referred to as their juror numbers, are all expertly sketched in a matter of minutes. Much of this is thanks to the casting. The faces of these men tell eighty percent of their story. Every one of them has such an interesting face. Juror no.2 is small, balding, and bespectacled. When called on to speak we hear his stuttering, tiny voice and know exactly who he is. This is a man we’ve met. Many times. All of them are. The film takes a few minutes to introduce us to these men before they vote. We see them acting amicably. Then over the course of the next eighty five minutes Sidney Lumet turns the heat up on these characters (figuratively and literally) and we see what really drives them.

And all of the ugly prejudices of white 1950’s America comes bubbling up to the surface.

Even in 1957 it would be highly unlikely for a jury to be entirely comprised of white males, but the film (and the television play on which it is based) makes this choice for very specific reasons. It is looking at man’s reluctance to change ones mind after it is made up, even when presented with sufficient evidence. Even more specifically it is looking at that stubbornness and how it relates to race. That is why the men are all white, and that is why the men are all over a certain age. All of the jurors are of an age to believe they have a firm understanding of the world and how it works. Seeing many of these men proven wrong is highly satisfying, but the most fun is deliberating the evidence along with the characters.

The evidence is debated so thoroughly that we feel like we sat on the jury ourselves. Every time a character puts something together that proves or disproves a vital piece of evidence or testimony you genuinely feel that character’s eureka moment. They argue so vehemently that you can’t help but be drawn into the dispute. Admittedly, some of the conclusions are a little convenient, and some things come together a little too neatly, but these are things you realise after the fact. When watching in the moment all you feel is the drama.

And what drama it is. This is not about guilty or innocent. It is about life or death. All but one of these characters is at first happy to vote away a young man’s life after a few minutes of discussion. The more they talk the more the weight of their decision is felt. And this is where Lumet’s direction shines. For the first part of the film he shoots everything at eye level and from a distance. But as the argument rages on the camera gets lower and tighter. The characters seem closer together, uncomfortably so, and the walls feel like they are closing in. The tension rises until breaking point. He doesn’t cut away. We stay in that room, locked in tight with the characters. The only notable time we aren’t in that room is at the film’s opening. In the courtroom the judge lifelessly instructs the jury of their purpose and then they are lead out. As they walk away the camera moves in on the face of the boy who stands accused of murder. He stares at the jury, his big eyes unblinking, and many of them look back without compassion, having already made up their minds of his guilt. Then the jury room begins to fade in under the image of the boy. His face hangs over the scene, as his presence does the entire film. It is a subtle yet genius edit that instantly lets us know what is at stake here.

Cinema often goes big. Films can take us anywhere, distant worlds, fantasy lands, the front line of history shaping wars, but they can also go small, such as putting us uncomfortably close with a group of men and their prejudices. And it is that smallness, that intimacy, that makes 12 Angry Men such a classic.

Watched now, yes, at times it feels a little heavy handed. As said previously, some of the evidence falls together a little too conveniently, and some of the race stuff comes across as slightly partronising, but these are minor quibbles in what is still a groundbreaking film.

The performances are all fantastic, from Henry Fonda as the lone voice of reason and conscience, to Lee J Cobb as the juror of simmering fury. The direction is faultless, locking you in with the characters, making you feel that suffocating heat. There is a reason why Sidney Lumet will appear at least another two times in future “Movies Everybody Should See” articles. The man was a master, and 12 Angry Men is his first classic (and his actual first film!).


Further Viewing – If you like 12 Angry Men then you should check out…

The Verdict. Sidney Lumet returned to courtroom drama twenty five years after 12 Angry Men to provide Paul Newman with one of his finest roles. Newman plays a boozing, ambulance chasing lawyer who sees a chance to redeem himself during a hopeless medical malpractice suit. The film is solid, but it is Newman’s bravura performance that makes it worth your time.

Reservoir Dogs. Another dialogue heavy film about a group of angry white dudes who spend the majority of the movie locked in one room.

12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer. Not a film but an episode of TV. So many television shows have done an episode where they reference or flat rip off Lumet’s classic, from Veronica Mars to any sitcom that involved jury duty. But the hands down best appeared this year in season three of Inside Amy Schumer. The show sheds its usual short sketch format to devote its entire run time to recreating 12 Angry Men, but instead of trying to determine a man’s innocence, they are debating Amy’s fuckability. It is not so much a send up of the film as it is using the film to send up the male gaze. It is a perfect recreation with a wonderful cast, featuring John Hawkes (in the Henry Fonda role), Paul Giamatti, Vincent Kartheiser (of Angel, and Mad Men fame), Chris Gethard, and most joyously Jeff Goldblum. It is brilliant and I recommend watching this episode right after you’ve finished the film.

Enjoy, and I’ll see you next week for another edition of “Movies Everybody Should See”.

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