The story about twelve jurors who debated on a question of the young man’s guilt is one of the most repetitive in the history of cinematography. The plot of the movie 12 Angry Men (1957) directed by Sidney Lumet is based on the plot of the play written for television by Reginald Rose. Starring Henry Fonda, 12 Angry Men did not attract the audience, but it received the critical acclaim because of the topics discussed in the movie and because of the director’s specific approach to representing the aspects of the human nature in the certain context and limited space (Cunningham, 2001).
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Referring to the topic of the juror system in the USA, Lumet discusses such problems as the personal responsibility, fair trial, justice, and reasonable doubt; and the director emphasizes the importance and controversy of the discussion with the help of spatial restriction, the definite play of shots, and specific camera work.
In 12 Angry Men, Lumet focuses on the aspects of the work of the juror system in the USA and pays attention to its imperfectness because of humans’ ability to make mistakes and draw wrong conclusions. Thus, such mistakes in the court can lead to breaking the person’s life. The movie presents twelve jurors who discuss the case of a young man belonging to the ethnic minority who is accused of killing his father.
Twelve jurors gather in the jury room in order to provide a certain verdict. In spite of the fact the majority of jurors insist on the guilty verdict, one juror does not agree with the point because they did not discuss all the aspects of the problem. Thus, twelve jurors who have different views on the problem, various backgrounds, and life experiences are isolated in the jury room in order to act according to their personal responsibility and confirm the principles of the fair trial. Much discussion results in the non-guilty verdict and breaking the personality barriers for many jurors (Lumet & Fonda, 1957).
The readiness of eleven jurors to state the guilty of a person without any discussion is associated with such issues as reasonable doubt and presumption of innocence. To accentuate the controversy of the situation, Lumet uses such elements of the plot as atmosphere and mood. Thus, eleven jurors feel no doubts to accuse the young man and state his guilty with the exception of Juror # 8 who can be discussed as the indirect protagonist of the story. Juror # 8 states “We’re talking about somebody’s life here. We can’t decide in five minutes. Supposing we’re wrong?” (Lumet & Fonda, 1957). The impossibility to stop the process of discussing the issue in several minutes leads to increasing the tension between jurors whose main goal is to escape from the jury room as quickly as possible (Lumet & Fonda, 1957).
The director creates the oppressive and tense atmosphere of debates where the conflict is increasing with each moment. The jurors’ readiness to reject the principles of fair trial and justice is reflected with the help of creating the atmosphere of ignorance. Moreover, jurors experience not only tensions while being involved in controversial debates but also moral tensions because their visions change significantly during the discussion. From this point, focusing on the atmosphere of tension, Lumet also accentuates the mood of opposition typical for jurors who are in conflicting relations not only with each other but also with their inner worlds.
Lumet uses the specific approach to represent the conflict in the movie, and he emphasizes the open conflicts between the jurors, and provides hints to accentuate such indirect conflicts as the person vs. self in relation to jurors who change their opinion and the person vs. the society in relation to the young man whose life depends on the decision of the jurors. To provide the just and relevant verdict, jurors should overcome all the stages of the conflicts which develop in the isolated space, and which are influenced by Juror # 8. The conflicts develop according to several stages, and they are based on the fact that jurors are prejudiced in relation to the young man because of their inner problems.
The fact of prejudice is stated by Juror # 8, “It’s always difficult to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth. I don’t really know what the truth is” (Lumet & Fonda, 1957). Lumet concentrates on the conflicts as the ways to accentuate the appropriateness of the ideas claimed by Juror # 8. In spite of the fact the viewer has the ability to see the conflicts as the observer, the director’s focus on the reaction and actions of Juror # 8 makes the viewer share the juror’s views and concentrate on the concept of personal responsibility and fair trial.
Moral tensions and conflicts which emphasize the controversy of the movie’s main idea are depicted with references to the specific setting. The whole story develops in the environments of the jury room. The first and final movie’s sequences present the other settings of the court, but the main plot is closely connected with the jury room. Thus, in his movie, Lumet “exploits and emphasizes the restricted space of the film to underline the tensions and clashes caused by the opposing viewpoints and personalities of the characters” (Petrie, 1968, p. 11).
The spatial restriction is one of the most remarkable features of the movie. Although the limited space does not provide many opportunities to present the diverse picture and accentuate the variety of settings and events, the whole complex story with a lot of conflicts and problematic situations is framed in the isolated space of the jury room. It is possible to state that the action in the movie is rather dynamic because of the emphasized emotions of the characters. Thus, restricting the space, Lumet highlights persons’ emotions and feelings which are rather diverse because of the necessity to overcome certain conflicts.
Moreover, the certain atmosphere of tension and conflicts can be created successfully with the help of effective camera work and experimentation with shots. Focusing on the restricted space, Lumet uses a lot of techniques to accentuate dynamism and diversity and emphasize the main ideas. According to Petrie, Lumet focuses on the rhythm of shots in order to underline the characters’ emotions and conflict’s development, and it is through “a brilliant manipulation of this kind of cinematic rhythm that Lumet obtains his effects, creating an unforgettable atmosphere of tension, hatred, fear, prejudice, and exhaustion” (Petrie, 1968, p. 11).
The director uses different shots in their unique combination in order to produce definite effects on the audience. Thus, close-ups representing opposing characters are used to make accents on tensions and conflicts between these jurors. Middle shots are used to represent the reactions of the other jurors to the situation. The camera often follows the juror who declares his point of view, and some shots depict the reaction of the other characters as the reaction to the development of the opinion. Furthermore, the tension decreases along with changing the angle of the camera and providing more general shots which seem to expand the restricted space.
It is also important to focus on the dynamic characters which personalities are revealed with the help of emotional monologues, vivid dialogues with the other jurors, and accentuated reactions to the situation. The plot of the movie allows Lumet exploring the personal background of each juror who is present in the room. Thus, the direct develop the opportunity to discuss the problem of fair trial and presumption of innocence from the perspective of each character with references to their background.
The decisions of the jurors to discuss the young man as guilty are based on different reasons which are not directly connected with the case (Cunningham, 2001). For instance, Juror # 10 is ready to reject the idea of presumption of innocence demonstrates because of his prejudice in relation to racial and ethnic minorities (Lumet & Fonda, 1957). The focus on this fact makes the other jurors revise their own visions regarding the defendant and assess the reasonability of their conclusions.
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In this case, it is important to focus on the character of Juror # 8 who is represented as the wisest person in the room. Using a lot of close-ups while depicting Juror # 8, the director emphasizes the character’s words, making the viewer pay more attention to them and even agree with the position of the character which can be discussed as the protagonist in the story. Thus, the director’s position is more correlated with the visions of Juror # 8 who is the leader in the room in spite of the fact the other jurors can reject this opinion (Cunningham, 2001). From this perspective, the main argument of the movie is presented through the opposition of the views provided by Juror # 8 and the other jurors responsible for the life of the young man.
The movie as art provides directors with a lot of opportunities to represent their opinions and beliefs with the help of the motion picture and a variety of cinematic techniques. In his 12 Angry Men, Lumet uses the necessity to focus on the limited space as the advantage and creates the incredibly emotional movie with the unique tense atmosphere which makes the viewer be interested in the plot and wait for the denouement. Lumet discusses the controversial problem of justice and the effectiveness of the juror system with the help of focusing on twelve jurors who are responsible for the life of the young defendant. Using the specific rhythm of shots, the limited space, the effect of isolation, and the effective camera work, the director creates the inimitable atmosphere of tension, prejudice, and fear. The characters are focused on their own problems without paying any attention to the personality of the defendant. Thus, the idea of the juror system is discussed with references to the controversy of human nature.
Cunningham, F. (2001). Sidney Lumet: Film and literary vision. USA: University Press of Kentucky.
Lumet, S. (Director), & Fonda, H. (Producer). (1957). 12 Angry Men [Motion picture]. United States: Metro–Goldwyn–Mayer Pictures.
Petrie, G. (1968). The films of Sidney Lumet: Adaptation as art. Film Quarterly, 21(2), 9-18.