In the history of great cinema directorial debuts, Sidney Lumet's 1957 classic 12 Angry Men may be the most iconic of them all.

Though only a minor success financially, it was a foreshadowing of events to come - the civil rights movements that would sweep America in the 1960s and the social and racial upheaval's that changed the face of what it could mean to be American. At the same time, the film captured the exact moment it was made: the cusp of the wave of change. 



The structure was different for a film of the 1950's. Predominantly set in one room, where 12 jurors -led by Henry Fonda's stoic Juror 8 and featuring an all-star cast of character actors including Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, E.G Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec, Robert Webber and perhaps most memorably a volcanic Lee J. Cobb as Juror 3 (the closest the film comes to having an antagonist) - must decide whether a young Puerto Rican male is guilty of murdering his own father: on the surface very little is happening. Twelve men take their turn in the sweltering heat of an early evening to deliberate over the facts they have just heard. We only see the final moments of the defense as the jury are sent to compose their thoughts, pausing for a few moments to see the face of the young man being discussed to remind us of the human life at stake.

Once into the room, the jurors sit in order and only refer to each other by the number assigned to them. No names are actually discussed, and initially it seems that they are all on the same page. This young man is guilty, and the vote they decide to take reflects this. Except for one lone holdout: Fonda's aforementioned Juror 8. Henry Fonda was the only real movie star within the cast and without him it may not have gotten made. A relatively low-budget production with a debut director, it may have been seen as better suited for television if it hadn't already been adapted for that format in 1954. Reginald Rose -the screenwriter of that and the theatrical version- would see his teleplay script nearly unchanged for cinema. The dialogue being especially key to a film that has, for the most part, only one location. All of it feels very natural and comes from internal conflict within the characters, that each of the actors perform admirably.

Fonda, notably and symbolically wearing a white suit throughout, is the films moral anchor point. To begin with, he's not certain that the young man is innocent. But there is sufficient doubt in his mind that he cannot let the rest of the jury convict the man and sentence him to execution. At first, everyone scoffs at the suggestion that the man could be innocent. The facts add up to them. But slowly, the individual upbringing and tolerances of each character rise to the surface. Some are bigoted and racially motivated. Others are reflective of social standing, judging each other on their surroundings. These are universal thoughts that sadly still resonate today. Lee J. Cobb's Juror 3 is the most complex of these personalities. With a fixed viewpoint and an agenda that goes beyond the technicalities of the case, he erupts frequently, loudly and occasionally, threatening physical violence to the other jurors. It's only when an element of his past is revealed, relating towards his son, that we feel some sympathy for him.

The cinematography by Boris Kaufman, who had previously been responsible for the look of Elia Kazan's influential realist drama On The Waterfront (1954) and saw himself rewarded with an Oscar for his efforts, makes the absolute most of the limited setting. Early on, the camera is fixed at a high level as we get used to the characters in the room. One lengthy pan gives us the reasoning behind the eyes of the men and wide angle lenses are deployed to highlight the space between the characters -and the differences in opinion. Slowly, close-ups and lower angles are introduced to let the dialogue and the actors’ performances take the plaudits. As the sweltering afternoon passes into evening, subtle lighting changes are made. Kaufman and Lumet's plaudits make it all feel very natural. It helps that there is no showboating from the actors as well: subtlety is stressed. Sometimes a glance is good enough to give you a feel of the tension in the room.

The film would go on to be nominated for three Academy Awards, Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, not winning in any category. History would be a better vindicator of Lumet's inaugural outing.

It all feels very modern, even today. The issues being discussed haven’t gone away and large swaths of the world are divided on political points. What 12 Angry Men shows us, regardless of the outcome of the court case, is that morally we shouldn't allow ourselves to be corrupted by exterior voices. We're all products of our environments, but we don't have to let that dictate our opinions of others. If twelve men can come together and make a decision without prejudice in a divided America -and a massively uplifting ending to an all-time great motion picture- maybe anything can be worked out.