Pound for pound, Sidney Lumet still has the finest filmography of all the New York giants (sorry, Marty), and to think he began his features career with this brilliant character study is to blanch at the man’s gifts. Set in a single jurors’ room over the course of a long summer’s day and evening, Reginald Rose’s scenario started off as a teleplay—just as Lumet himself came from the quick-fire world of live broadcast drama. But the director seized on the technical freedoms allowed him by an ace cameraman (On the Waterfront’s Boris Kaufman), ratcheting up the claustrophobia with every close-up. Often, these dozen jurors seem on the verge of blows; the movie, dealing with a murder trial, is about persuasion, but it also showcases New Yorkers’ distinct talent for coexisting in tight quarters.
Yet who would mind such company? Justly, 12 Angry Men is celebrated for its uniformly terrific cast, chiefly Henry Fonda’s soft-spoken advocate and Lee J. Cobb’s resistant blowhard, racked with daddy issues and not about to let an ungrateful teen go free. A closer look at the performances reveals a minimum of Method fussiness, the grace notes of Jack Warden’s jokey baseball fan and Robert Webber’s Mad Men–esque smoothy landing in quiet harmony. Meanwhile, too few films take on the art of arguing as a subject; we could certainly use more of them, but until then, Lumet’s window into strained civic duty will continue to serve mightily.
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