I am not a man who generally pines for the past. You’ll rarely hear me tell of things were better way back when. I think we’re genuinely lucky to be around at a time when so much choice and exciting new artists, representing previously unseen cultures and ideas, are abundant.
I will however freely admit that as an industry, Hollywood has a problem with the past. It mines it for the same ideas over and over again, without seeing the potential that exists if they were to think outside the box. If you look at the usual Hollywood release list in any given year, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d accidentally entered a time warp and travelled backwards; given how many films are remade and ideas regurgitated, but there exists a rarer form of film also. The kind of film from a bygone age that has yet to be remade of a large scale but seems so ripe for a refresh.
The film I am covering today is now my prime leading example of a film that, although great in its own right (make no mistake it is great), is crying out for a modern retelling.
The one thing that was starkly clear to me throughout the films duration is how well it stands up to modern scrutiny, and how the social commentary is still as sharp as it once was in 1957, when the film was first released, which is depressing from a social standpoint, but from a filmmaking standpoint, the film still packs the same punch as it did all those years ago.
In order to understand this point, I should give a brief synopsis of the films plot, to those unaware of it.
On the hottest day of the year, twelve jurors must decide the fate of a man suspected of first-degree murder. A guilty verdict carries a mandatory death sentence, and only a unanimous jury verdict will stand. An initial vote sees eleven vote guilty, and one not guilty, as this one juror holds onto ‘reasonable doubt’ the twelve jurors have to sweat it out, and shout it out, to come to a unanimous decision.
It’s certainly an intriguing premise, the film carries with it a real sense of purpose, and a sense of drive. It leaves the moral aspect of the death sentence to one side and asks the question of how easily a group of men can condemn another to death, without scrutinising everything they’ve heard first.
Another aspect of the plot is prejudice, the accused is a POC, this much we can gain from the conversation, it is left ambiguous as to what race he is, a brief glimpse of him in court gives us no clues, as the film is in black-and-white, I think to intentionally leave this detail unclear, although it is clear that he is some sort of minority; and this plays a key part in proceedings.
While we would like to think that social attitudes and their legal implications have changed substantially since 1957; the truth is, we haven’t really moved as much as we’d like to think. There are prejudiced diatribes in the film that still seem all-too-familiar even now, and even in the real-life justice system, odds are that you’re more likely to be convicted if you’re a minority (at least that is, in the UK according to a government-commissioned report, the problem is likely more prevalent in the US, which has the highest number of prison inmates in the world).
So, how does this translate into the film? Well, very interestingly, it is seen in many different reactions from the jurors. Some had assumed his guilt on sight, and were further convinced by the presented evidence, no matter how circumstantial, some were led purely by the evidence, while another group just seemed to be going along with the rest, some personalities leading and some following, in other terms.
All it took, in this instance, was one detractor to set off a chain reaction of tension, which bubbles away constantly throughout the runtime.
The sweeping realisation that all may not be as it seems is a joy to behold, and masterfully executed. As one jurors voice soon convinces more and more to his way of thinking, with each point and counterpoint hitting with expert precision.
There’s a real feeling that these are indeed twelve characters, all of different opinions, and all with differing agendas and traits. For a 90-minute film that needs to focus so heavily on a broad pool of critical characters, not a second is wasted. We get a feel for each individual man, what it is that makes him tick, and what he might be motivated by. All of this is achieved through tightly scripted dialogue and developments, all while taking place in a singular room, with the heat rising both literally, and figuratively as we go on.
It was indeed a clever trick of the screenwriter to place this narrative on the ‘hottest day of the year’ as it literally shows us these twelve characters sweat it out over the fine details, their conversations and deliberations taking place in real-time, in front of our eyes.
This is, without doubt, a character driven narrative, in fact, we quickly find out that in terms of the narrative, whether or not the accused did the crime or not is irrelevant. What interests us is WHY these people think he is guilty or not, and that, at least in my opinion, is what the film is really about. It makes no difference to the plot whether or not he is found guilty or innocent, it only matters that he is found guilty or innocent for the right reasons.
Truth is, I could go on and on about the ins-and-outs of character motivation and what each character represents and brings to the table, but that is not why we’re here, I’m here to tell you whether this film is any good or not, and in the context of the wider scale of my point, whether it holds up to modern standards. The answer on both fronts is a resounding yes.
Not only does the film manage to be engrossing, and unbelievably tense, it manages this with unwavering focus. Spending only 3 on-screen minutes outside the jury room, and using this surrounding, as well as some clever use of camerawork, to ramp up the tension as time goes by.
In an industry that seems to believe that nobody would be interested in a film if it doesn’t have an eight-figure budget and the best special effects money can buy, it’s refreshing to look back on a film from many moons ago that proves this thinking wrong. All it took was 90 minutes, twelve men, and one room to put me on the edge of my seat, watching these people literally decide the fate of a man’s life, and see the case be deconstructed detail by detail was more thrilling to me than any number of explosions and CG-rendered worlds.
It shows that sometimes, a films magic lies in its simplicity, in it having one goal that it focuses on, getting every aspect of it right.
It’s also an example of a story that is crying out to be retold, a rare film in many respects, in that it stands the test of time as a true classic, yet one that is overdue a retelling, with modern sensibilities. It’s message still resonates as loudly now; it just needs the right voice to deliver it.