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How does “12 Angry Men” use cinematography to build tension during the film?

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12 Angry Men (1957) is minimalist filmmaking at its finest. The feature debut of filmmaker Sidney Lumet takes place entirely in one room with the exception of a couple minutes, yet creates some of the highest drama tension of any film in history. It does this partially through the wonderful dialogue and heated performances of its twelve players, but also through keen use of Boris Kaufman’s cinematography that assists in crafting the slowly-boiling atmosphere of the film.

The opening shot of 12 Angry Men is one of grandeur; a low-angle shot of a neo-classical courthouse, with steps and columns and Roman lettering that amplifies the projected boldness of the democratic system for which it stands, and harkens back to its origins. The camera swoops through the building, following people, and eventually lands in a chamber where a jury is tasked with deciding the fate of someone barely of adult age who is on trial for murder. The jury then enters their chamber, where the rest of the film takes place. One of the 1957 posters for the film reads “It explodes like twelve sticks of dynamite!” and in many ways it does, over the course of 80 minutes of conversation, shouting, prejudice, testimony re-enactments, fact-finding, and fantastic camerawork that puts all of it under a magnifying glass.

When the jurors enter the room, they’re shot with high camera angles that reveal big chunks of the chamber. It’s established early on that it’s an extremely hot day, and the building doesn’t have any air conditioning. Nonetheless, the gentlemen open the windows and take their seats, sitting in order by juror number. Everyone seems fairly civil. Only Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) is dressed in a white suit, while the rest of the men wear dark clothes. As it turns out, he’s the lone juror representing a “not guilty” stance.

The first third of the film is shot above eye level, somewhat looking down at all the men as they deliberate. Walls are visible and the setting has a pad of air around it. Throughout the picture, Juror #8 brings forth evidence that speaks to the accused man’s innocence. The other men slowly become convinced, with the most prejudiced holdouts hanging on until the end. Tension mounts slowly throughout the entire picture as the accused’s guilt becomes more unclear. The second third of the film is shot at eye level, closing in the atmosphere of the room. The heat becomes more intense as the day goes on, and the men sweat more profusely. As each man removes his jacket and outer layers to become more comfortable with the heat, he so transitions from a ‘guilty’ stance to ‘not guilty,’ joining the light costuming of Juror #8.

The final third of the film was shot below eye level, with frequent close-up shots of the jurors’ faces, and lenses that suck the viewer into the scene as though they’ve taken their own seat at the table. The ceiling becomes visible in many shots and the walls close in, exaggerating the claustrophobia of the environment and increasing the tension. The men are massively sweaty and almost always shouting, and every nuanced moment of their performances are captured with frame-filling facial shots. One can almost smell the sweat and confusion in the room by the conclusion, where all the film’s points and arguments are tied and brought to light. As the final holdouts reveal their true reasons for maintaining a guilty verdict in the presence of vast reasonable doubt, the film hits its climax and the men break down.

The very last shot in 12 Angry Men is a wide-angle lens on the exterior of the courthouse, where Jurors #8 and #9 (Joseph Sweeney) become the only two to reveal their actual names: Davis and McCardle. The wide-angle lens is perfect closure; a verdict has been reached, the men are dispersed, and everyone can finally breathe again.

12 Angry Men is one of the best examples to prove cinema doesn’t have to be flashy to be a masterpiece. The film has an unshakeable presence in many cinematic “Top 10” lists, and its superb cinematography is a chief reason why its material is so effective.