Classic Review: Twelve Angry Men

Summary: An absolutely boiling drama that has stood the test of time, and goes to show that great cinema thrives under limitations.

Review: Great films don’t stand only as examples of what films can or should be; they stand also to condemn every film produced with venal intentions for apathetic audiences.  This is not because a great film would attract audiences if it were released instead, but because far too often lesser material is rewarded while exceptional work is ignored.  What matters, however, is the pictures’ enduring memory.  ‘Twelve Angry Men’, the first film directed by Sidney Lumet, was released in April 1957 to critical acclaim but box office disappointment.  I ask you, what else came out on the thirteenth of that month in that year that is as enduring as this film?  Why would a screenplay this electric with a cast this matchless go without popular response?  I have no clue.  The good news is that popular and critical reaction would soon match up.  The bad news, at least for whatever stood in competition for its box office dollars, is that apparently only ‘Twelve Angry Men’ survived.

Some films demand spectacle, action, sexual chemistry and endless stanzas of visual poetry.  They need these things to exist.  What ‘Twelve Angry Men’ proves is that the most essential dramatic element, stakes that create suspense, can thrive in a visual environment as small as a single room.  The story doesn’t demand more, but it puts other stories that have more but lack legitimate tension to shame.  ‘Twelve Angry Men’ is nothing but dialog, but it has more impact than a dozen car crashes in a brainless, gutless action movie.  With actions as simple as frowns and glances, a war wages in this single room that captivates the viewer, with compelling moral, logical arguments and severe emotional consequences.  Every character is challenged, so that everyone in the audience is challenged.  You will question yourself, your prejudices, and your approach to justice.  The screenplay almost guarantees that.

And perhaps this is why it was not a box office success.  We like to pretend that audiences have grown more or less sophisticated over the years, depending on the arguments we are making at the moment, but in fact people have not changed.  By and large, sophisticated stories are ignored, only for word-of-mouth to redeem them at a later time when it is too late to reward the producers for their financial risk.  While it is true that filmmakers are getting their money back from home video sales, producers still view the box office as the measure of a film’s worth.  This is changing, but the push for 3D and IMAX technologies shows that filmmakers want theatrical vindication of their investment.  So many, arguably most, future classics are small features, like ants carrying many times their own weight.  Truly exceptional movies that also make hundreds of millions in box office are rare.  Most hits are, ironically, forgettable.

But I digress.  The reason for my tangents is that it is difficult to say more about ‘Twelve Angry Men’ than has already been said by much sharper analysts.  What I can say is this: the cast and crew worked with a smaller toolbox than are afforded most projects, and they delivered something truly special.  Its intimacy and emphasis on character gives an immersion that 3D technology can never match.  It is so true to life and so damn engaging that there is nothing left to improve, except perhaps removing the superfluous musical score, which intrudes a couple of times and doesn’t add anything of substance.  This makes for an ironic flaw in contrast to other films and their poor use of musical resources; ‘Twelve Angry Men’ had a limited toolbox, and ended up with just one tool too many!  The harmony between Sidney Lumet’s direction and Reginald Rose’s screenplay makes the real music here.

This movie should be required viewing for up-and-coming filmmakers.  If you’re interested in writing screenplays, I urge you to watch this film and study the most insignificant details.  This is a taut, perfectly calibrated symphony of cinema.  If you can do as well, do so, and don’t compromise.  History will vindicate you.

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