dialogue is not uncinematic

Last night our screenwriting group watched the black and white classic 12 Angry Men (1957)–which was directed by Sidney Lumet, and written by Reginald Rose. Afterwards we had a great discussion about a variety of subjects, including what makes one project work for television but not for cinema, and vice versa.

What’s lovely about our group is that when we don’t have material to assess we like to mix things up. So we can watch a film, or examine a topic of interest, or, as in the case of our next meeting, go to the theatre to see a play. As I’ve said before, being able to spend time in the company of writers who are actively pursuing their careers is fantastic.

Lumet’s 12 Angry Men is an excellent film to watch if you’re a screenwriter because there are aspects of the film that popular opinion warns writers against.

* 90% of the film takes place in one room.
* There are no jump cuts, quirky editing, or action scenes.
* There are twelve characters for the audience to follow.
* There’s a lot of dialogue.

The film revolves around twelve men who deliberate over the evidence in a murder case. The judicial system, and their prejudices and opinions come under review in the film.

Yet, the film is engaging. Part of this comes from the fact that 12 Angry Men is full of conflict. The characters butt heads all the time, as you would expect in a room full of random strangers. So, even though there is no obvious action, there is always drama. Plus, the stakes are very high: a boy’s life.

There are several elements added to heighten the tension. It’s a sweltering hot day, so tempers are short. Everyone has reasons to leave early. As the film progresses, just as the vote swings to half in favour of guilty and not guilty, the light dims as a thunderstorm breaks and torrential rain streams down. By the end of the film nearly every person has sweat circles in their clothing.

The characters move around the room. Often they’re never all sitting down. There is a restless quality to the jurors, as if they are caged with a truth they do not wish to face. As the tension gathers and the vote swings towards not guilty, Lumet favours tighter shots and close-ups to generate a feeling of claustrophobia. It’s an excellent example of what you can create with a limited budget as long as you have a fine script, an inventive director and great actors.

Before watching the film I read a couple of chapters in Lumet’s Making Movies. One of the instructors for my M.A. recommended it very highly. I’d forgotten that the book is a gem. If you want to make films it is a fantastic resource.

I was struck this time by a couple of comments that Lumet makes about dialogue–which is a big feature in 12 Angry Men, and several of his other films.

In particular he says: “Dialogue is not uncinematic.” Which is the kind of phrase that imprints on your brain as an essential truth. Later, he states: “The point is there’s no war between the visual and the aural. Why not the best of both? I’ll go further. I love long speeches.”

Yet, Lumet does not advocate speaking for the sake of it. Like all good film-makers Lumet understands that a character should be explicit from his/her actions. He knows that if another character has to explain someone else in the film then something is wrong. As he adds: “Dialogue is like anything else in movies. It can be a crutch, or when used well, it can deepen, enhance and reveal.”

12 Angry Men is a wonderful example of character revealed through action, and deepened via dialogue. Imagine, next year this film will be 50 years old, and it still grips our attention completely.

If my writing gets even close to being as multi-functional as the script of 12 Angry Men I’ll be delighted.

One Comment

  • adam

    It’s been forever since I’ve seen 12AM. Thanks for the tip, though. I’m moving it to the top of my list.

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