Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Two months ago the film industry lost one of its greatest artists, director Sidney Lumet. Passing at the age of 86, his busy career included some of the great films in American cinema history. Call it a commemoration of sorts, today I'd like to call some attention to one of my personal favorites - a true masterpiece - 12 Angry Men 

 12 Angry Men was Lumet's first feature length film and arguably his greatest. No student of cinema skips it. Lumet creates a drama of substance that is both gripping and important. He does this without special effects or indeed anything of visceral beauty. All but two minutes of the film take place in a closed jury room where 12 people sit, stand, pace, yell and talk. And yet Lumet here in his first film displays that great mastery and understanding of film that would stay with him throughout his career.

Much has been written and said about the subtle use of camera angles and blocking in 12 Angry Men, but these would hardly have brought the film to the powerhouse state it enjoys today if it weren't for the deft way it handles weighty social issues with ever becoming preachy propaganda. Prejudice, misunderstanding, social obligation and the US Constitution are effectively covered because they are pulled from true characters and real issues. The plot has no feel of being forced or manipulated because the drama comes from the choices and personalities of the 12 actors. This is something that "cinema preachers" such as Michael Moore or James Cameron seem to have very little understanding of. It is also proof that an audience can relate to performers that do not use Method techniques. There is no need for art forms to replace each other.

These aspects of the movie come from excellent performance and well paced dialogue, but 12 Angry Men is more than a play put to camera. Lumet exhibits a profound understanding of the ability to subtly use the camera to enhance drama and even replace exposition, but the camera never once calls attention to itself. We are allowed to focus intensely on the drama. The lighting and blocking are used in the same way.  This is what makes Lumet's debut a powerful and entertaining even today in a generation fed on high action, sweeping locations, fast-food plots.

This is Great Cinema.

Lumet is also the author of one of the best film making books ever written: Making Movies

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