Sidney Lumet’s 12 ANGRY MEN is a bit of a phenomenon. It was nominated for three Academy Awards at the time of its release – though it won zero – and is ranked by IMDB as the fifth highest-rated film ever, but there are no thrilling chase or action scenes, no riotous acts or hilarious pratfalls, no scenes of murder or mayhem or romance, no sultry bombshells dropping innuendos like bad habits, no explosions even, just – as the title tells you – 12 angry white guys in a single room talking. That’s it. It’s like a theatrical play in its construction, and cinema is supposed to be the antithesis of that sort of storytelling, or at least a narrative liberator that takes stories out of confined spaces like one room and lets them move around the big, beautiful, colorized world.
The allure of 12 ANGRY MEN comes from its intense interpersonal drama, and from Lumet’s clever visual storytelling techniques that first rope we the audience into a position of objectivity before, as the film advances, shifting to a style that causes doubt, caution, concern, and mistrust pertaining to the characters. This is accomplished, basically, by the adoption of two different camera angles, high and low. When Lumet wants us to believe we are watching from an objective standpoint, the camera is placed high overhead and often wide-angle shots are employed to give the impression we are above the story, removed from it, mere observers. But as the deliberations go on and each man in his turns frays, unravels, or fortifies himself against those opposed to him, the camera shifts to below the subject and the frame narrows from wide to more intimate close-up shots that are designed to put us in the minds of the characters, the most subjective position of all.
Don’t take my word for it though, check out the following brief video essay from Screen Prism that eruditely and succinctly summarizes and illustrates Lumet’s technique, the though-process behind it, and the now legendary results.