by Widya Chen Huijing
12 Angry Men (1957), was Sidney Lumet’s first feature film and the beginning of a luminous filmmaking career. A respected director with highly lauded films such as Serpico and Murder on the Orient Express under his belt, he has without a doubt, played a critical role in shaping the history of American Cinema.
To begin writing about one of his best films, one must first trace his theatrical roots back to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Having studied theater in Columbia University, he went on to direct tele-movies and drama series, which were so remarkable that they were adapted as feature films, of which 12 Angry Men earned him the respect as a highly skilled director (Lumet, & Rapft, 2006). The story revolves around 12 jury members of different backgrounds, brought together by an unusual case of murder. The film was made entirely in real time and shot in one room – no mean feat. However, Sidney Lumet managed to create a psychological and intriguing masterpiece that remains classic and fresh till today. This essay will cover aspects of the film, which I feel were pertinent to its success.
12 Angry Men has all the makings of a classical Hollywood film — goal-oriented characters that dictate causality and spliced with seamless editing; classical Hollywood cinema is known for it’s unobtrusive storytelling. The film opens with a wide shot of the towering magistrate court led by a flight of stairs. Lumet chooses a low angled shot, which skims the majestic pillars of the building, finally coming to a stop at the engraving brandishing the quote “Administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good”. The low angled shot places the American Justice system in an irreproachable light as the pillars are framed solemnly in shot, ending with the quote as mentioned. The opening shot establishes the thematic context for the entire film before continuing to the next metaphysical construct – doors.Elsaesser (Elsaesser & Hagener, 2010) writes about the usage of doors as tools to engage the audience with the protagonist or story, “Doors do not reveal, but acts as passages […] we become privileged over the characters who have to wait in the anteroom, while we are already inside, thus setting up a fairly complex structure relative to the spectator’s position of knowledge vis a vis the character.” This theory can be applied to Lumet’s direction of the opening scene, in which the camera tracks through the halls of the Supreme Court and leads the viewer to a hearing behind closed doors. The camera’s entry into the court room marks the spectator’s entry into the narrative.
Lumet emphasizes the spatial and temporal continuity
The camera pans across the room, revealing all twelve men seated solemnly in two rows as the nonchalant judge discloses facts about the trial. The death of a man begins the domino effect of cause-and-effect sequences, with the deceased’s son up for murder. Twelve men are summoned to court to decide the young boy’s fate, with nothing to gain, nor lose. Holed up in a stuffy room on a hot day, nobody is able to leave till they have come to an agreement. The camera circles around the room in a fluid sweep, beginning from a high-angle shot of the men filling into the room. Employing a long take, Lumet emphasizes the spatial and temporal continuity, thereby making the narrative unobtrusive. Viewers acquaint themselves with the characters as the camera moves across the room and identifies the different characters through snippets of conversation, learning backgrounds and investing empathy accordingly.
The unrestricted camera movement eclipses the spatial limitations of the scene, yet successfully transfers the spectator’s attention between different characters, before settling on the main protagonist of the story – Juror 8, played by Henry Fonda.
“The use of space and time does not willfully obscure, nor does it have a symbolic function in the narrative. Rather, it suggests a different relationship among space, time, and narrative logic than exists in the classical film. Space and time no longer simply function unobtrusively to create a clear narrative line. This allows other stylistic devices to exist independently alongside narrative. The result is that the viewer is invited to look at the film in a new way, to participate in a play of space and time.” (Bordwell, 1985)
Being the sole person to object the culpability of the accused, his desires are at odds with society. Within ten minutes into the film, Juror 8 establishes the enigma of the film – what if they are wrong? This structure employs Todorov’s (Elsaesser & Hagener, 2010) narrative structure and is built upon a sequence beginning with a steady state, equilibrium and a balance. In this sense, Juror 8’s uncertainty brings upon a progression in the story, disguised as an interruption to the steady equilibrium.
“In classical fabula construction, causality is the prime unifying principle. Analogies between characters, settings, and situations are certainly present, but a the denotative level any parallelism is subordinated to the movement of cause and effect.” (Bordwell, Staiger, & Thompson, 1985)
Juror 8 in this sense, acts out to achieve his goal and influences the psychological causality. Being the only one at odds with the rest of the jury, he presents the question of the accused, being innocent. This is a clear example of a classical Hollywood cinema construct, where the overarching goals of a character intensifies a story and becomes an agent of causality. If Juror 8 had not objected, the story would have ended with the accused being sentenced hastily, and the jury leaving the claustrophobic room – a cause for an eventual effect (causality).
The narrative remains restricted throughout the film, allowing audiences to align themselves with characters, as the syuzhet imparts them with knowledge, thoughts and feelings of the major characters. The result is a gradual unfolding of events through the experience of characters, without the use of an explicit narrator, thereby absorbing viewers further into the narrative. Bordwell notes on the characters,
“If characters are to become agents of causality, their traits must be affirmed in speech and physical behavior, the observable projections of personality. While films can do entirely without people, Hollywood cinema relies upon a distinction between movement and action… Hollywood cinema, however, emphasizes action, ‘the outward expression of inner feeling,’ the litmus test of character consistency. Even a simple physical reaction – a gesture, an expression a widening of the eyes – constructs character psychology in accordance with other information.. Hollywood cinema reinforces the individuality and consistency of each character by means of recurrent motifs… For major characters, the motif serves to mark significant stages of story action.” (Bordwell, Staiger, & Thompson, 1985)
In 12 Angry Men, the obvious main agent of causality as mentioned, is Juror 8. Being a major character, he retains character consistency in this case, by his body language, and traits formed by his background in career. Henry Fonda plays the calm and cool-headed Juror 8, with an uneasy gleam in his eye and a careful concentration seen in every wrinkle and frown. Being an architect (as revealed later in the film), these characteristic traits lie consistent with his background. In successfully doing so, spectators are treated to a sense of continuity. Continuity being one of the basic building blocks of classical Hollywood cinema, is reinforced in other aspects of the film (besides through the characters as mentioned), such as spatial and temporal units, which brings us to the next point of the essay. (Bordwell, Staiger, & Thompson, 1985)
The temporal entity in 12 Angry Men is the most imminent prospect as the men are presented with a deadline to work upon. The deadline cooperates with the narrative causality and set a limit for the characters to unfold the chain of cause and effect within the given time span. Once again, adding to the consistency of the temporal deadline, are the characters’ gestures and actions. Juror 7, a baseball fan, has tickets to see a baseball game and rushes the jury members in order to meet this impending deadline. Another deadline would be the courtroom’s patient wait for the outcome of the jury, disallowing any member to leave until so. Finally, in my opinion, the diegetic use of the hot weather pushes the deadline even tighter as all twelve men begin to get frustrated by the intense weather. Not failing to reinforce this diegetic, the characters maintain consistency in their actions – sweating, moaning, and shuffling around the cramped and poorly ventilated room.
The omniscient moving camera successfully fools the eye into assuming spatial quality with the camera panning a character dead center as he crosses over the room or clothes hanger. A simple gesture such as Juror 2’s need for a lozenge, sees the camera leaving the cramped table to an empty clothes rack, where his lozenges lie in his coat. By giving the spectator room to breathe every now and then, one is fooled into thinking there is movement, and with movement there is “space”. Lumet employs another technique to further expand the spatial entity of the film – windows.
The windows serves as a reminder of off-screen space that exists within the world of the story, but may not be explicitly shown. Juror 12 strikes up a conversation with Juror 8 at the start of the film, “Isn’t that funny, I’ve lived here all my life but I never knew the metro building was just over there.” This dialogue serves as a diegetic tool to imply a homogeniety of which viewers will be able to accept in the vein of realism.
The narration further reasserts its omniscience by camera movements, highlighting the character’s causal chains. The classical scene typically ends on only a part of the total space – usually a character. Just as narrative causality impels us to look forward to the next scene, so does the decoupage carries us to the heart of the space, the site of the character interaction, and leaves us there to anticipate the dangling cause will be taken up later. The end of each scene “hooks” onto the next and thus has a continuous and seamless transition between shots.
Apart from the off-screen space and diegetic tools, space is also created through mise-en- scene in the sense of depth. Sidney Lumet further enhances the emotional depth beyond the confines of the room by “blocking” actors. In the middle of the film, Juror 10 loses his temper and flares up, much to the dismay of the other jurors. One by one, each juror leaves the table in an orchestrated manner, ignoring the ill-tempered juror.
By staging the actors to form a wall around Juror 10, Lumet created tension and discomfort without the use of dialogue. Lumet also uses the window to enhance the juror’s self- acknowledgement and responsibility by blocking Juror 10 at the window, as he realises the consequences of acting as a foreman and uses the window as a form of awareness. Figure placement broadens the psychological depth and reinforces consistency in characters. The effect is a powerful compositional cue, as the viewer is engaged and further drawn into the dilemma and conflict risen from a particular subject. (Cunningham 2001)
Another powerful compositional cue is clearly illustrated when Henry Fonda, the doubtful character, is seen wearing a white coat, contrasting the other 11 men drabbed in dark and morose colors. The spectator’s attention shifts from the darker areas towards the brighter areas, which in this case, is Henry Fonda’s white coat as he stands in the sea of dark coats. Bordwell notes on the mise-en-scene of black-and-white films
“Black-and-white films use color in a different but comparable way. The colors register on the film as brighter or darker areas, and these in turn provide cues for us as we scan the image. Here whiter shapes will come forward, darker ones recede… We will most likely shift our attention back and forth, and the same holds for a cluttered composition with many bright elements. Dark shapes may become quite prominent as well, if they are clearly defined and placed against a light background.” (Bordwell, 1985)
Although the narration remains overt for the entirety of the film, montage sequences were carefully embedded in certain scenes such as close ups to encourage viewers to sympathize with characters, or further illustrate the temporal continuity. An example of a close up shot used to engage viewers. The lack of space and tight framing implies intimacy, thus allowing viewers to fully comprehend character feelings and thoughts.
Maintaining an unobtrusive narration, Lumet ensures his camera movements remain subtle, but does not compromise the psychological depth of the narration. A good example would be in the scene where Juror 3, played by Lee J. Cobb, confronts Fonda. After going through the testament made by the old man who claimed to have heard the accused shouting “I’ll kill you!”, Cob walks towards the water cooler and around the table of jury members, creating a continuous stream of overlapping planes. He looks into a photograph and reveals in a voice- over that it is a photograph of his estranged son. Looking up from the photograph, the camera cuts a close up of the now wordless Juror 3 subtlely, striking the emotional front at it’s hardest. (Cunningham, 2001)
“It never occurred to me that shooting an entire picture in one room was a problem. In fact, I felt I could turn it into an advantage. One of the most important dramatic elements for me was the sense of entrapment those men must have felt in that room…. As the picture unfolded, I wanted the room to seem smaller and smaller. That meant I could slowly shift to longer lenses as the picture continued…In addition, I shot the first third of the movie above eye level, and then, by lowering the camera, shot the second third at eye level, and the last third from below eye level. In that way, toward the end, the ceiling began to appear. Not only were the walls closing in, but the ceilings as well…On the final shot, an exterior that showed the jurors leaving the courtroom, I used a wide-angle lens, wider than any lens that had been used in the entire picture. I also raised the camera to the highest above-eye-level position. The intention was to literally give us all air, to let us finally breathe, after two increasingly confined hours.” (Lumet, 1995)
Further into the mise-en-scene, Lumet plays with 2 different types of lighting in the film to strengthen the realism of the world in which the story exists. The beginning of the film has the characters doused in natural key lighting, and the second part of the film in artificial light (when it begins to rain). The latter results in a darker room and adds to the intensity of the jurors’ emotional state. At the end of the film, Lumet opens the shot, which has been kept to tight close ups, to a wide shot of the men leaving the court house in a sun drenched open space, giving the viewer “breathing space”. (Lumet, & Rapft, 2006)
12 Angry Men is one of the few films that has influenced the lives of many and displays a level of ingenuity in camera techniques. Sidney Lumet’s recent passing is a huge blow to the world of film, whose works will remain talked about for years to come; forever classic. As this essay comes to an end, I would like to leave a valuable quote from the man himself,
“My job is to care about and be responsible for every frame of every movie I make. I know that all over the world there are young people borrowing from relatives and saving their allowances to buy their first cameras and put together their first student movies, some of them dreaming of becoming famous and making a fortune. But a few are dreaming of finding out what matters to them, of saying to themselves and to anyone who will listen, “I care.” A few of them want to make good movies.” (Lumet, 1995)
Widya Chen is a Level Two student. This essay was part of the Critical Film Studies module, Narrative in Film.
* H. Weiler of the New York Times of the film, 12 Angry Men.
Bordwell, David. (1985). Narration in the fiction film. Britain: Methuen & Co. Ltd. Bordwell, David, Staiger, Janet, & Thompson, Kristin. (1985). The classical Hollywood cinema. London & New York: Routledge.
Cunningham, Frank R. (2001). Sidney Lumet: film and literary vision. Lexington:University Press of Kentucky.
Elsaesser, Thomas & Hagener, Malte. (2010). Film theory: an introduction through the senses. London: Taylor & Francis.
Lumet, Sidney. (1995). Making movies. Michigan: A.A. Knopf.
Lumet, Sidney, & Rapft, Joanna E. (2006). Sidney Lumet: interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.