I recently sat down and shared a rite of passage with my 11 year old son. It’s something every father should do, but not nearly enough of them take the time.
He loved as of course most anyone watching the film would. It’s always been an important film for me in prodding me along the path to the lover of films from every era that sits before you today.
However, as great as 12 Angry Men is and as much as people praise it, one thing that always troubles me is the lack of attention given to its near perfect opening and final shots.
Sure, we all remember Henry Fonda pulling the knife from his pocket. Lee J. Cobb’s emotional outburst (insert your favorite here). The constant heat of the jury room. E.G. Marshall’s slow realization that he may have been wrong.
But how many even remember that the film doesn’t start in that jury room? Or that it doesn’t even start in the courtroom? The movie starts and ends outside the courthouse. The meticulousness of Lumet’s camerawork here in establishing all that is to come is worthy of a second look.
We start with a low shot looking up the steps of the courthouse. As the point of view moves up, the building becomes imposing. Formidable. The camera cranes up until we can barely start to see the sun. This is not a place to be entered lightly.
We move inside to one of my favorite shots in the film. We start looking down from the second floor into the large atrium. People shuttle back and forth only a couple acknowledging one another. They are ants. There is nothing at stake. Then the camera follows a man with a briefcase as he approaches a courtroom. He has the look of merely going about his job, the way any one of us might. Just as he reaches the door, another man exits and he has the look of one defeated. Whatever just happened in that room, it did not go his way. He’s working to maintain his composure but…
Before we can spend more than a few seconds with him, our perspective shifts again to a man joyously emerging from a phone booth. He rushes down the hall to a group celebrating their victory that morning. The moment is again fleeting as we see a policeman attempting to quiet the group before our gaze settles on Room 228 on a door old enough that “Room” is hardly legible.
In these moments we see a million stories. For some, the courtroom represents a job. For others it may be some small victory or defeat. For others, it’s life or death. We could walk into any one of those doors and there would be a story. There would be drama, but we are settling into Room 228.
The judge is giving the jury their instructions before retiring to deliberate. And frankly he couldn’t seem more bored. Despite the fact that he is charging 12 men with the ability to sentence a boy to die. It’s not callous. It’s simply his job and he rattles off the instructions with an indifference that only comes from repetition. He’s seen this tale before.
Then we get the shot of the jury itself. The efficiency of the moment with the knowledge of what happens over the course of the rest of the movie is nothing short of remarkable. There’s Juror #1 (Martin Balsam) looking the way he thinks he’s supposed to look. Juror #7 (Jack Warden) already looking at his watch to make sure he’s going to make the baseball game. Juror #2 with laser-like focus on the judge. Juror #8 (Fonda) already formulating his strategy as he half listens to the judge. Juror #3 (Cobb) not even looking at the judge as he stares off angrily.
And on it goes. Juror #10 Ed Begley fidgets in his chair, waiting to put away one of “them.” Juror #12 Robert Webber looks around the room, clearly bored by what’s happening. If you pay close enough attention, you can almost work out the order the juror’s opinions are going to change.
We go back to the judge looking even more bored as he wraps things up. The bailiff excuses the alternate jurors (we never really see #13 and #14) and announces “the jury will now retire.”
Again, what happens next builds character in so many subtle ways. Who is the first to stand? Juror #3 of course. He wants in that room. Badly. He has things to work out and that is where it is going to happen. As our perspective changes from the judge’s bench to over the shoulder of the accused, #3 stares back at the boy like a predator sizing up his meal. Jurors #5, #6 and #11 take one last look at the defendant. Then #12 does as well, but only because he noticed other people doing it.
Then comes the last shot before we are in the jury room for most of the film. We see a closeup, looking down on the accused. His eyes are wide and sorrowful as he stares after the 12 men who will decide his fate as they disappear behind a door. The audience will never see this man again. He’s played by an uncredited John Savoca who will never be in another film, but everything you need to know about what is at stake is written on his face.
You can do much the same exercise at the end of the film as you watch how the men leave the courthouse. Some have not changed at all. Juror #7 rushes down the stairs, looking for his ride to the game. For some, nothing will be the same. Juror #3 slowly descends the stairs, the last to leave, lost in what he has been forced to confront about himself.
I love 12 Angry Men more than I love almost any film in this world. Lumet and his actors pay so much attention to detail from the first to last frame, it remains one of the most remarkable achievements in cinema.