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Paul’s 27 Dirtiest Movies of All Time – Numeric Entry: 12 Angry Men

A single man challenges an all-male jury hellbent on sending a defendant to the electric chair, forcing them to scrutinise the evidence as well as their own hidden motivations - this is the first one of Paul's 27 Dirtiest Movies of All Time

This is an alphabetic list of the dirtiest movies ever made, as carefully selected by this humble film critic. I’ve whittled down over a century of films and assigned each one of them to a letter of the English alphabet, plus a numeric one. The order of the 27 films goes like this: 12 (as in 12 Angry Men), A, B, C, D,… all the way to Z!

After all, what would film titles be without numbers? There would be no 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957), (Federico Fellini, 1963), or even 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrcik, 1968) to consider. Therein, the alphabet series begins with a numerical twist.

I’ve always looked at cinema as being like a kid in a sweet shop. There’s an abundance of choice – multiple lifetimes worth. In keeping with this metaphor, this series will include cinema from each decade of film history, and from across the world. I inevitably have my personal preferences: cinema from the 1970s, Martin Scorsese, and Europe, but these won’t prevent me from creating a genuinely universal list. This is a partially critical, partially emotional undertaking!

I will run an entry on the first Monday of each month. This means that the series will be finished in the first half of 2024, just as DMovies celebrates its 10th anniversary with a website relaunch.

Let’s begin this 27-month long odyssey with a claustrophobic drama set in a searing New York jury room.

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One of the great American films, 12 Angry Men (1957) remains a powerful experience more than six decades after its release. Sidney Lumet’s direction is a masterclass in dramatic tension. The opening shot walks the audience into the courthouse, around it, seeing and feeling the buzz from working journalists, before winding up in the locked jury room with twelve men whose names we never learn. They’re only known by their jury number.

There’s a contradictory vibe between the impersonal and personal. In how much the audience appropriate the camera’s gaze, is an intriguing interrogation of critical thought because of the opening sequence’s point-of-view gaze, and Lumet’s reluctance to frame the jurors in close-up.

A reason 12 Angry Men has endured is that it’s an immersive drama in which a young man’s life is at stake. It’s also a film that lends itself to critical inquiry, observing the construction through the writing, characterisation, cinematography and editing. Its premise allows it to sneak upon us as a deceptively simple film, that becomes complicated in the jurors’ deliberations and the emotional conflicts it provokes.

12 Angry Men is perhaps Lumet’s maiden ‘great’ film or ‘masterpiece’, who demonstrated the ability to stay relevant and evolve with cinema. It feels the odd one out when considered alongside his other notable films including, The Offence (1973), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976) and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), yet its importance cannot be understated. These other dark and gritty films spoke to changing sensibilities that Lumet embraced as a filmmaker. His jury drama might not make or break his reputation, but it elevates him.

It’s comparable to Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate film, Frenzy (1972), which saw ‘the master of suspense’ finally break from his reliance in shooting on studio sets. By this time, his reputation had been long cemented, but his tale of violent murder in London elevated his reputation. The Nouvelle Vague director François Truffaut even described it as having the energy of a film directed by a young filmmaker.

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The rise of a star

In much the same way, 12 Angry Men bridges Lumet’s presence in modern and classic American cinema, heightening this sense of versatility and artistic growth.

As important a role as it plays in its director’s career, the image of the empathetic and critical thinker in a white suit would help underpin Fonda’s shocking heel turn in Sergio Leone’s, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). It’s often discussed in the context of Leone taking one of John Ford’s western heroes, and turning the blue-eyed, noble Fonda into a villain. It’s perfect for Leone’s agenda of wanting to subvert American romanticism of its own myth-building, but Fonda’s heroic character in 12 Angry Men is as important as his western heroics.

The use of the white suit is telling, an echo of the Western genre’s iconographic colour coding of heroes in white and villains in black. It speaks to the actor’s view of himself, appropriating the heroic archetype in cinema that contrasts to Fonda’s darker nature in real life. Now, 12 Angry Men might be watched through a revisionist lens, of an actor’s attempts at myth-building. More broadly, it addresses the artistic space as an act of myth-building for filmmakers and actors, which the studio system itself was implicit in.

An intriguing aspect of the film is how its strong masculine presence conceals a gender nuance. Fonda alongside other characters, represents a type of thoughtful and emotionally secure masculinity, yet the interpersonal dynamics allow broader gender politics and identity to emerge. Fonda’s gentle, humble and empathetic thoughtful presence, as well as his voice and his movement, contrasts with the loud and aggressive recriminations and snide comments from some in the group. This allows the feminine to emerge within this masculine-dominated space.

12 Angry Men may superficially age as a consequence of its black and white cinematography, but it remains young at heart and full of curious wisdom. It’s as relevant today as it was in 1957, addressing the theme of ‘unconscious bias,’ and how what we see and hear is selective. The story is about whether we can be self-aware enough to recognise these shortcomings.

There’s an optimistic spirit to the film as we watch conversation bring out the best in people, but there’s also a cynicism, or disappointed idealism – happenstance good fortune, that this young man wound up with this jury. It’s both optimistic and fearful of the American justice system, whose values must be upheld by flawed human beings. In the end, 12 Angry Men shares something in common with the darker and grittier sensibilities of Lumet’s later films.

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This is the first one in the series of Paul’s 27 Dirtiest Movies of All Time (one for each letter of the alphabet, plus a numeric film)


By Paul Risker - 04-03-2024

While technically an English-based film critic and interviewer, Paul shows his political disgruntlement towards his homeland by identifying instead as a European writer. You’ll often find him agree...

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