Hitchcock famously said that it takes three things to make a great film: a great script, a great script and a great script. Other directors would no doubt champion mise-en-scene, or the ‘look’ of the film.
‘12 Angry Men’ has a good script. Not a great one, but a good one. The main … I won’t say ‘problem’, that would be unfair. The main niggle with Reginald Rose’s script is how laboured it becomes as Henry Fonda’s Everyman lights upon one inconsistency in the prosecution’s case after another. In the last 20 minutes or so, the script lurches towards contrivance with an overcooked bit of business about whether a key witness might have been wearing glasses or not. (Thinking back, I’m tempted to wonder if a crucial moment in ‘My Cousin Vinny’, which hinges on a similar premise, isn’t a very sneaky send-up.)
‘12 Angry Men’ doesn’t have any particularly ‘look’ to it either, other than Boris Kaufman’s sharp, realistic black and white cinematography. Apart from brief scenes at the beginning and end – one in court, the other on the courthouse steps – the whole 90-minutes play out in a cramped jury room. Nor is there mise-en-scene (oops, I’m using pretentious-speak; what I mean is ‘set-pieces’), unless you count someone jumping up from their chair, shouting a lot and brandishing a big pointing finger.
What makes ‘12 Angry Men’ a great film – riveting, tense and deserving of its status as an evergreen classic – is the acting. Every single role is perfectly cast (Fonda’s top-billing and producer credit notwithstanding, this is a 12-man ensemble piece).
Fonda’s man-of-integrity image arguably achieves its apogee here. He’s calm, dignified; but resolute. He doesn’t care whether the other jurors like him or not – several repeatedly try to browbeat him – and he doesn’t care how long the deliberations take or that the city is sweltering in a heatwave and the jury room fan is broken. He “just wants to talk” – mainly about whether an 18 year old will go to the chair or not as a result of their verdict – while the others want to hand down a guilty verdict and go home.
But Fonda’s performance, as with any actor’s in a chamber piece, is dependent upon the ensemble as a whole. Here we have Martin Balsom as the much put-upon jury foreman, Jack Klugman as a man whose wrong-side-of-the-tracks background gives him an empathy with the accused, Eg Begley as an obstreperous ‘hard justice’ type and – Fonda’s most vocal antagonist of all – Lee J Cobb, who tears up the screen in his portrayal of a father whose issues with his own son are alarmingly transferred to the youth in the dock.
Begley and Cobb get the show-stopping roles, personifying the uglier aspects of human nature just as Fonda epitomises the good, and they deliver the goods and then some! But kudos to the other performers – John Fiedler, E.G. Marshall (watch his face the moment he realises the youth might be innocent: it’s a brilliantly controlled piece of acting), Ed Binns, Jack Warden, Joseph Sweeney, George Voskovec and Robert Webber. Everyone nails their part precisely, and everyone has their moment.
There may be nothing overt about Sidney Lumet’s direction – nothing that shows the director’s hand – but the sheer quality of performance he draws from his actors, the accomplishment of taking the stagiest of material and making it gripping, are the highest testament to his skills as a film-maker.