So had the opportunity to finally watch a piece of classic American cinema (thank you Netflix), 12 Angry Men. Amazingly, I had not seen this film before and as a self declared cinephile, I am slightly ashamed of that fact. But it was such a good movie. And not just for its time or place. Instead, it is a film that could, and probably will, stand the tests of time, space, and culture.
Above is just the trailer, but it is enough to give the general idea of the movie without ruining it for anyone; unlike many modern trailers. If you want to see the full movie, you can watch it here. A choice I highly recommend. I was thoroughly impressed with the film and of course tried to find a few choice nuggets to gleam off it. As always SPOILERS ahead.
The first thing that caught my attention about this extraordinary movie was its lack of pomp and circumstance. Seriously, I am trying to think of the last movie I saw, much less enjoyed, that was so simple and unassuming in its approach; even for a drama. There were no fancy cuts or secondary story lines or big movements at any point throughout this film. In fact, it was pretty much a single, small set. And the film could have used different sets like when the men are discussing the scene of the crime or the train or witnesses that spoke. Instead, we, the audience, are stuck with the jury in this single room with no distraction or chance of escape until the terminus. This is the first lesson: Simplicity is best, especially with great narrative, characters, and actors.
Bells and whistles are just that and ultimately and little to nothing. Basically, you can make a piece of shit look as nice as you want but at the end of the day, it is still a piece of shit. More importantly, the great artists work within their limitations to draw in an audience to a deeper connection and understanding of the work. (It is a technique used primarily in visual mediums)
In the film, the audience is stuck with the jury and never exits the limited space of the jury room. There are several opportunities where other actors/characters could be shown or new settings could be presented. However, that never happens. Instead, the audience feels the pressure mounting and the limited space of the room further encroaching. The emotional outburst and hot tempers are better understood as the audience experiences those same claustrophobic emotions and tensions; which brings us to the next lesson: Use your resources, no matter how limited, to their full potential.
There is a great scene that fully exemplifies this notion involving the fan. Throughout the film, the jury is suffering from the heat with their only relief (a fan) is seemingly broken. It however begins to miraculously work, thus providing relief from the unforgiving heat, only after the jury reaches a fifty-fifty split and the verdict begins to change. Not many movies pay attention to the little tricks anymore.
Beyond the film techniques, what caught me about 12 Angry Men was the content of the narrative. It deals with issues of racism, justice, duty, anger, immigration, and more universal issues that still plague us to this day. But what works about the film is that even for its time, it is never ham-fisted or overly preachy. Instead, it focuses on developing the characters and making the story play off their interactions and development. The issues the film discusses are not stories from a particular group or person but universal ideas that everyone deals with at some point, if not their entire lives. If you create, don’t create for a specific time or person or event. Instead make something with an emotion, idea, or concept you are trying to express. Those creations are the ones that touch people and remain with us for ages.
12 Angry Men was an exceptional film that demonstrates why, even in a visual medium, narrative matters most in storytelling and how certain themes and ideas will always be worth examining. While there have been many reimaginings and interpretations, this film is one of the best. I highly recommend you watch it.
Thus endeth today’s lesson(s).