12 Angry Men (1957)

When you hear that stakes are life-and-death, typically you might image high action, chase sequences and ticking clocks and the like. If your characters are struggling against death, you image they’re going to fight against it in a physical way – physicality allows for close calls and narrow scrapes, it’s kinetic and explosive and momentous, and it is most certainly not boring. Boring would be the opposite – people sitting in one place, just talking, not even with any time limit on how long they had to talk for before they needed to act. There’s a reason that exciting films with life-and-death stakes are full of running and jumping and detonating and things breaking: you can’t make people sitting around talking as exciting.

Flying in the face of that assertion is 12 Angry Men, set almost completely in a jury room as a jury on a murder trial is turned from a near-unanimous guilty vote to one of unequivocal innocence by a lone dissenter (Henry Fonda). This is about as stripped-down as a film can get – all of the action takes place on a single set, the characters are never given names and only the briefest of backstories, even the specifics of the case aren’t completely outlined before the jury begins deliberating. The situation is totally divorced from social context, cleverly introducing prejudice against the nameless defendant as being one of “Them” without needing to specify just who They are and how they are different from the Us that make up the jury; even far into the future when the specific pieces of evidence and testimonies are no longer relevant pieces of technology, they could be easily substituted for the devices of the day and the story could be preserved intact. It’s a blank slate, and it allows for nothing to distract from the character interaction – like each member of the jury, we the audience meet the major players first as complete strangers, seeing only glimpses of their personality by the way they hold themselves and react to others, with no cheap film shortcuts of establishing who will act which way beside a couple of hints from the way they dress. It’s an extremely pure experience, the kind of thing that appeals on a level of appreciating what skill it takes to craft such an intricate situation, showing the tide of opinion turning and prejudice being overthrown, out of basically nothing to begin with.

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