In addition to being a master class in how to be a sweaty character actor, Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men is also a prime example of how to shoot a film dynamically when you have limited resources at your disposal. The entirety of the 90-minute feature takes place in the confines of a stuffy jury room and its adjacent bathroom, and while this setting is meant to feel claustrophobic for the characters, the audience never feels like its view is limited. A new video from The Royal Ocean Film Society takes a look at how Lumet used expert framing and staging to get the most out of not only his actors but also his setting.
While other dramas, especially recent ones, rely heavily on capturing their actors in a two-shot or alternating between over-the-shoulder angles during dialogue, Lumet gives his actors a freedom of movement that allows for sustained single shots. Characters move from the background to the foreground and vice versa. The camera follows an actor around the room, framing him in multiple ways as he delivers a monologue. Close-ups are used sparingly and with well-defined intention. All of these factors result in a film that’s both engaging and dynamic without being obtrusive.
Lumet’s direction, in conjunction with the choices made by the actors, is likely what made the film so easily translatable to a stage production, where making due with a limited set is the name of the game. It’s part of what makes the film inspirational and worthy of analysis 60 years after its release.