First attempt, first success.
In 1957 "12 Angry Men" was released and met with little success but was awarded the Golden Bear in Berlin, the special prize in Locarno, was nominated for the Oscars and Henry Fonda was declared the best actor at the British Awards. Since then it has become an absolute classic !
It is a trial movie, a genre which counts numerous great movies from "The Paradine case" by Alfred Hitchcock, from "Anatomy of a Murder" by Otto Preminger, to "Witness for the Prosecution" by Billy Wilder. But whereas all these movies focus on the trial in itself, debates, witnesses, interrogations, the lawyers speeches, until the suspense of the verdict, this film is set in a single room, behind closed doors, during the jury's deliberation. An interesting challenge for stage directing.
A teenager from a violent neighborhood is charged with his father's murder. All evidence is against him. The twelve jurors expect a quick deliberation leading to an obvious verdict. Surprisingly, after a vote, one of them finds the defendent non-guilty. They have to debate, whether they want it or not.
The script is terribly efficient, like a clock's gears. All the proofs are examined, one after the other, and proved false with an undeniable logic. Roles are reversed : justice is here accused, as well as those who condemn blindly, out of prejudices.
The movie has many opponents. They find the scenario too simplistic, too « black and white ». They object that the jury is only composed of white men, but wasn't it the case at that time ? Yes Henry Fonda is the only one dressed in white ! Objection sustained, your honor !
Nevertheless, the film is thrilling and works perfectly. The staging if not revolutionary, is dynamic and inventive and makes the most of the situation. Lumet puts rythm in the debate, which could be boring otherwise. There are small interruptions, pauses, which enable us to get to know the jurors better, their life, families, jobs, dramas. This little « escapes » are like the breathing of the movie and the closed room is cut into a geography of micro spaces : the end of the table, the bathroom, a window sill...
Moments of tension alternate with calmer instants or funny ones. Lumet manages to turn every vote into a grasping suspense. All the prejudices that plague any society are exposed one by one which makes the movie so modern.
All the jurors correspond to well-defined categories and social backgrounds. They are well-scripted and the actors are great which is finally the greatest asset of the film.
Of course Lumet will direct other great movies, such as Serpico or Dog day afternoon but his first try is definitely worth seeing again and again.