In 2007, the American Film Institute revised their previous 1998 list of the 100 best American films of all time. This weekly column will explore my thoughts on select films from this list, mostly following along with the Unspooled Podcast, which inspired my journey to complete the AFI Top 100. You can also follow my progress with my ranking and watchlist. This week’s film is 12 Angry Men (1957), #87 on the list.
Let’s just get this out of the way right at the top: 12 Angry Men is a perfect film. It’s so immediately and relentlessly gripping that its 96 minutes may be the shortest in the history of film. Every element is brilliantly designed, developed, and executed: the claustrophobic cinematography, the array of characters each with their own distinct personality, the taut and engaging writing, the pitch-perfect performances which never teeter into melodrama, and then, of course, there’s Lumet’s extraordinary direction which perfectly balances the film’s overt theatricality with a grounded and austere formal approach. It’s incredible that this was Lumet’s debut feature film—though his background in television certainly helped him adapt this teleplay, the film is unmistakably cinematic.
What’s so striking about watching 12 Angry Men all these years later is that it hasn’t lost an ounce of relevance. It’s essentially about a man’s efforts in convincing a ravenous mob to listen to reason and realize that their own prejudices and preconceptions are driving them to convict someone who may be innocent. The film’s message calling for compassion over convenience is timeless, universal, and inspiring.
Does It Belong on the List?
Yes, it’s the best film on the list.