How 12 Angry Men works – in 25 frames

This is how Sidney Lumet takes a talky, enclosed drama and makes a masterful exercise in screen tension.

Leigh Singer

12 Angry Men (1957)

12 Angry Men (1957)

When critics talk about films being ‘uncinematic’, one of the go-to examples to cite are dialogue-heavy films in limited, interior locations. It’s a set-up that lends itself more to the stage and therefore could be seen as the antithesis of a ‘good movie’: a static rather than moving picture. 

The counter argument, for over 60 years, has been Sidney Lumet’s 1957 debut feature 12 Angry Men. Set almost entirely in a jury room where the eponymous dozen deliberate, attack one another and expose their own prejudices over the fate of a young man accused of murder – and facing the death penalty if found guilty – it’s a textbook example of how to exploit supposedly limited resources and use camera, lighting, framing and editing to make a classic film.

  • This feature gives away the film’s plot

1. Our introduction to the jury actually comes in the courtroom: a simple tracking shot, right to left, watching them listen as the judge sums up their upcoming responsibilities.

1. Our introduction to the jury actually comes in the courtroom: a simple tracking shot, right to left, watching them listen as the judge sums up their upcoming responsibilities.

2. It’s a deft but effective piece of democratic filmmaking, blending in leading man (and producer) Henry Fonda and powerhouse star Lee J. Cobb among a group of little-known television and stage actors, some of whom (Martin Balsam, Jack Warden) would go on to great acclaim.

2. It’s a deft but effective piece of democratic filmmaking, blending in leading man (and producer) Henry Fonda and powerhouse star Lee J. Cobb among a group of little-known television and stage actors, some of whom (Martin Balsam, Jack Warden) would go on to great acclaim.

3. The point is to establish not 12 angry men, but 12 everymen.

3. The point is to establish not 12 angry men, but 12 everymen.

4. The one facial shot of the scared, vulnerable – and never heard – accused boy…

4. The one facial shot of the scared, vulnerable – and never heard – accused boy…

5. … cross fades into Lumet’s five-minute-plus opening jury deliberation room shot that sets up the individual members and certain relationships over the credits and beyond.

5. … cross fades into Lumet’s five-minute-plus opening jury deliberation room shot that sets up the individual members and certain relationships over the credits and beyond.

6. The first cut is on Juror 8, Fonda’s initially lone voice of ‘not guilty’, appropriately isolating him from the rest of the group.

6. The first cut is on Juror 8, Fonda’s initially lone voice of ‘not guilty’, appropriately isolating him from the rest of the group.

7. Lumet’s initial stylistic choice, like the opening shot, is a wide-angle lens angled downwards that gives the whole jury focus and the room ample space to clearly show 11 hands raised in near-unanimous agreement of a guilty verdict.

7. Lumet’s initial stylistic choice, like the opening shot, is a wide-angle lens angled downwards that gives the whole jury focus and the room ample space to clearly show 11 hands raised in near-unanimous agreement of a guilty verdict.

8. Throughout the film Lumet uses close-ups judiciously and wisely, to maximise impact, like the revelation that a second jury member now votes ‘not guilty’…

8. Throughout the film Lumet uses close-ups judiciously and wisely, to maximise impact, like the revelation that a second jury member now votes ‘not guilty’…

9. … or later when other changed minds are revealed by their raised hands.

9. … or later when other changed minds are revealed by their raised hands.

10. The camera is an ever-dynamic presence, continuous shots changing emphasis, mood and tone. Here it starts on a medium shot of Juror 8 seated in serious contemplation…

10. The camera is an ever-dynamic presence, continuous shots changing emphasis, mood and tone. Here it starts on a medium shot of Juror 8 seated in serious contemplation…

11. … following him around the room into a shared medium close-up with antagonistic Juror 7…

11. … following him around the room into a shared medium close-up with antagonistic Juror 7…

12. … now tracking with Juror 7 as he makes flippant comments…

12. … now tracking with Juror 7 as he makes flippant comments…

13. … and once he leaves the shot, settling on various reactions to 7’s remarks, from amusement to indignation. Supple, unshowy filmmaking without a single cut.

13. … and once he leaves the shot, settling on various reactions to 7’s remarks, from amusement to indignation. Supple, unshowy filmmaking without a single cut.

14. The script cleverly uses the passing of time for additional visual drama. Juror 8 makes his case in daylight seen through the one wall with windows…

14. The script cleverly uses the passing of time for additional visual drama. Juror 8 makes his case in daylight seen through the one wall with windows…

15. … the evening rain adds intensity to the jury’s debate, with the camera also positioned lower to cramp the frame…

15. … the evening rain adds intensity to the jury’s debate, with the camera also positioned lower to cramp the frame…

16. … and the artificial lights as darkness falls evokes a foreboding mood to the action, the threat of violence now very real. Tilting the camera up to reveal the ceiling also exaggerates the feeling of the men boxed in by their surroundings.

16. … and the artificial lights as darkness falls evokes a foreboding mood to the action, the threat of violence now very real. Tilting the camera up to reveal the ceiling also exaggerates the feeling of the men boxed in by their surroundings.

17. And whereas before the men, even in grouped shots, had more individual freedom, now figures encroach into their personal space, raising the tension.

17. And whereas before the men, even in grouped shots, had more individual freedom, now figures encroach into their personal space, raising the tension.

18. Compare this shot to Image 7. We still see all 12 men around the table, but the lower camera position and cramped framing now makes the room feel as if it has closed in on them.

18. Compare this shot to Image 7. We still see all 12 men around the table, but the lower camera position and cramped framing now makes the room feel as if it has closed in on them.

19. Lumet still knows to vary his technique when it best serves the scene’s emotion. Juror 10’s racist rant starts close on his tirade, then slowly pulls out…

19. Lumet still knows to vary his technique when it best serves the scene’s emotion. Juror 10’s racist rant starts close on his tirade, then slowly pulls out…

20. … to reveal his fellow jurors one by one distancing themselves from, and turning their back on him, until he has no choice but shamed silence.

20. … to reveal his fellow jurors one by one distancing themselves from, and turning their back on him, until he has no choice but shamed silence.

21. There’s a simple but effective visual scheme to shots of individuals. The camera starts above eye-level, almost dispassionately observing them, then gradually moves to a more confrontational eye-level (and here Fonda almost looks as if he’s appealing to the watching audience as much as his fellow jurors)…

21. There’s a simple but effective visual scheme to shots of individuals. The camera starts above eye-level, almost dispassionately observing them, then gradually moves to a more confrontational eye-level (and here Fonda almost looks as if he’s appealing to the watching audience as much as his fellow jurors)…

22. … until finally it shoots below eye-level on a longer lens that blurs the background…

22. … until finally it shoots below eye-level on a longer lens that blurs the background…

23. … and by going even closer in and almost distorting their faces, actually hones in on their true, sometimes ugly emotions…

23. … and by going even closer in and almost distorting their faces, actually hones in on their true, sometimes ugly emotions…

24. … until there are no more words left. No hiding place. The faces see – and say – everything. And a man’s life has been saved.

24. … until there are no more words left. No hiding place. The faces see – and say – everything. And a man’s life has been saved.

25. It’s a huge relief then, and a release of claustrophobic tension, that the film’s final shot is its widest, highest vantage point, taking us outside and watching the 12 men gradually disperse and go their separate ways. And… breathe!

25. It’s a huge relief then, and a release of claustrophobic tension, that the film’s final shot is its widest, highest vantage point, taking us outside and watching the 12 men gradually disperse and go their separate ways. And… breathe!

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