For any movie fan, picking a single favorite movie is a daunting task given the sheer volume of movies that are worthy of this distinction. Many pedestrian movie lovers and self-proclaimed film buffs will look to the American Film Institute’s Top 100 list for guidance on the movies they *should* like, but let’s face it, taste in movies is the same as personal taste in anything else; it’s highly subjective and highly personal. As someone who has been in love with movies from a young age and has studied it academically, I have been exposed to every genre, era, style and nationality put to film, and have seen what is considered to be the very best, and consequently the very worst, that the filmmaking medium has to offer. So what is my favorite movie of all time, my “desert island” movie if you will? Sidney Lument’s 1957 masterpiece “12 Angry Men” and I shall explain further.
Everyone has a different idea of what makes a movie great, be it the acting, the writing, the action or the special effects. For me, the most compelling movies have the perfect combination of two things; powerful dialogue delivered by powerful acting. Dialogue that makes the characters believable and the acting ability of the cast that makes us care what happens to them in the end, this is what elicits the strongest emotional response from me when watching the movie. “12 Angry Men” has a deceptively premise, with 12 jury members deliberating over the murder trial of a young man who, by all appearance, is as guilty as a dog sitting next to a pile of poop. The jury, made up of people from various walks of life, must decide if the boy is innocent or guilty, the latter determination carrying a death sentence. In spite of this, eleven of the twelve jury members take barely a few seconds to declare the boy guilty, while the last man standing (Henry Fonda) has a crisis of conscience and decides to vote “not guilty”, leaving them to talk it out. This does not sit well with the other jury members, however he eventually helps get other jury members on his side. None of the jurors are ever referred to by name, but aspects of their lives and character are revealed over the course of the movie, clearly marking who is the protagonist, antagonist(s) and the in-betweeners are.
What makes “12 Angry Men” stand out to me is the fact that the entire movie is pushed forward by dialogue. Save for the court scene in the very beginning, the entire movie takes place in the jury deliberation room and there is no real action to speak of. Under these conditions, expository dialogue helps flesh out the plot for the viewer and we are given a clear picture of both their own stories and the overlapping story of the murder they are presiding over. Outside of Fonda, the eleven principal actors are first rate. Among others, E.G. Marshall plays a rational and level-headed stockbroker, Jack Warden plays a wisecracking salesman, Joseph Sweeny plays a wise elderly man who we underestimate from the beginning and George Voskovec plays a proud European immigrant with a strong appreciation for the American justice system. The two antagonists are equally compelling, with Lee J. Cobb playing a stubborn and opinionated father with an estranged son, and Ed Begley plays a garage owner with deeply rooter prejudice. Fonda’s character is the most rational of the bunch and he spends the entire movie trying, against the ridicule of others, to help them see his points and where they are wrong.
On the surface, this movie might not sound all that compelling, but the underlying themes really elevate the story and the characters. The most obvious theme is standing up for your beliefs even against insurmountable opposition. Fonda’s character is chastised from the beginning for doubting the defendant’s guilt, however he is unflappable in his belief that the boy might be innocent and he never wavers from this. The second, which is equally powerful, is separating personal prejudice from logic and truth. Cobb’s character is enraged at his son’s lack of desire to speak with him and he views the defendant in the same light, an ungrateful kid who deserves to be punished. Begley’s character likewise has a prejudicial view of today’s youth and he feels the boy is guilty because of the stereotypes that surround them, such as the tendency for drinking, stealing and fighting. Truth means little to these people because they have their own motives for wanting justice. The third theme I picked up on what that truth is not always appearance. The elderly man on the jury who turns out to be the wisest and most observant, the immigrant who may possess a better understanding of justice than the Americans on the jury and the defendant himself, an 18 year old boy who might not be the hooligan others think him to be. All of these characters appear as one thing on the surface but we discover something totally different as the movie progresses.
“12 Angry Men” started as a stage play in the early 1950’s and it has since seen three film adaptations and a recent touring stage production, however Sidney Lument’s 1957 film version remains the definitive version in my opinion. Is it the best movie ever made? Perhaps not, but there is no single grading criteria that can determine which film gets that distinction. For me, the true test of a great movie is one that grabs you, makes you care, makes you think, and it sustains its strength over repeated viewings. For me, “12 Angry Men” is the one film I have watched repeatedly and I am always enthralled as I was when I first saw it. With first-rate acting, stellar writing and themes and story motifs that still hold up today, this is a movie I recommend everyone see at least once in their lives.