Oscar Vault Monday – 12 Angry Men, 1957 (dir. Sidney Lumet)
I thought it would be fitting to follow up my in memorium Sidney Lumet post with a more prolonged discussion of one of his greatest masterpieces. Like I said in that earlier post, I saw 12 Angry Men for the first time on PBS a few years ago. I couldn’t believe I’d never seen it before. Part of what makes this an undisputed masterpiece is how timeless it feels. Yes, it’s filmed in black and white, but it feels as fresh as if it were filmed today. Amazing, considering it was Lumet’s first feature film. The only other directorial debut I can think of that is equally as amazing is Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Surprisingly this film was only nominated for three Academy Awards and lost them all to The Bridge on the River Kwai (something tells me François Truffaut was not happy with the Academy’s decision that year; read his book The Films in My Life and you’ll see why I think this). The awards it was up for were Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture. The other films up for Best Picture that year were Peyton Place, Sayonara, Witness For The Prosecution and winner The Bridge on the River Kwai. Regardless of its Academy history, the film is ranked #7 on IMDb’s user-generation Top 250 and is generally considered one of the greatest films ever made.
12 Angry Men was the first of several collaborations between cinematographer Boris Kaufman and Lumet. Kaufman, who started out working with influential French director Jean Vigo, won an Academy Award for his cinematography on 1954 Best Picture winner On The Waterfront. In Lumet’s book Making Movies, the director discusses how he wanted to make the room feel smaller and smaller as the film progressed. To achieve this effect they shot the film starting with a 28mm lenses and as the shooting progressed they used 50mm, 75mm and eventually 100mm lenses. Lumet also started out shooting the first third of the film above eye-level, the second third at eye-level and by the end of the film he was shooting below eye-level. All of these techniques help enhance the film’s theme of entrapment, but at the same time they are done so subtly, that the viewer doesn’t even realize what is happening. Fabulous.
It would be near impossible to write about all twelve performances in this film so I’ve decided to talk about my four favorites.
Of course I have to start with Henry Fonda, who plays Juror #8. How Fonda was not nominated for Best Actor for this performance is just beyond me. This character was later listed by the American Film Institute as the 28th greatest American film hero of all time. What I love so much about this character is his courage. He is steady throughout the whole film. He doesn’t know if the accused is innocent or guilty, what he does know, and what he must convince his fellow jurors, is that there is a reasonable doubt. It’s an admirable performance and one of, if not, Fonda’s best. Fonda was first nominated for Best Actor for 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath and a second time for 1981’s On Golden Pond, winning his only competitive Oscar for the latter (he received an honorary award just a year earlier).
Lee J. Cobb is also phenomenal in this film. He is downright explosive as Juror #3. Cobb displays an amazing range of emotions in this film. It’s almost exhausting to watch him. Although he wasn’t nominated for this performance, he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor twice: for 1954’s On The Waterfront and 1958’s The Brother’s Karamazov.
I will always have a soft spot for Jack Klugman because he played Oscar in the television version of The Odd Couple and the main character on Quincy, M.E., both shows I used to watch a lot as a child. Which is why when I see him in films I can’t help but love him. As Juror #5 he is one of the first to join Juror #8. His scenes opposite Cobb are some of the best in the entire film.
Lastly, I wanted to talk about Jack Warden. Like Klugman, I love him for sentimental reasons from my childhood. One of my favorite films when I was younger (and, well, to this day) is While You Were Sleeping. He is so wonderful in that film. He’s great when he works with Warren Beatty, too (see: Shampoo and Heaven Can Wait, both Oscar-nominated performances). In this film he plays Juror #7, who at first is indifferent to the issue, but as the film progresses becomes an active participant.
I also wanted to share some of my favorite shots from the film. There are so many powerful images in this film, but I think the following three shots say more on their own than I ever could.
Lastly, I just want to leave you with the breathtaking closing shot.
If you’re interested in purchasing this film you can do so here.
Posted on April 11, 2011, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged 12 Angry Men, 1957, Henry Fonda, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Lee J. Cobb, Oscar Vault Monday, Sidney Lumet. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.