12 Angry Men (1957)

“This is a film where tension comes from personality conflict, dialogue and body language, not action; where the defendant has been glimpsed only in a single brief shot; where logic, emotion and prejudice struggle to control the field. It is a masterpiece of stylized realism–the style coming in the way the photography and editing comment on the bare bones of the content. Released in 1957, when Technicolor and lush production values were common, “12 Angry Men” was lean and mean.” Roger Ebert, 12 Angry Men (Great Movies Review)

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We learn only a few personal details about each juror in Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, yet by the end of the movie, I felt like I had met each of them:

12angrymen_coverJuror #1 (Martin Balsam)– the genial foreman who is primarily concerned with keeping the debates friendly and organized

Juror #2 (John Fiedler)– physically small but big-hearted (it’s not his fault he has a squeaky voice!)

Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb)– pathetic and hateful

Juror #4 (E.G. Marshall)– the most logical and analytic of the bunch

Juror #5 (Jack Klugman)– soft-spoken with roots in the lower class

Juror #6 (Edward Binns)– shopkeeper, not the type to be pushed around by loudmouths like Juror #3

Juror #7 (Jack Warden)– brash and clad in an outrageous checkered jacket

Juror #8 (Henry Fonda)– white knight

Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney)– the oldest juror, has a knack for noticing what others miss

Juror #10 (Ed Begley)– not very intelligent, hiding some racist views

Juror #11 (George Voskovec)– the only foreign-born juror

Juror #12 (Robert Webber)– an advertising exec who behaves like a proto-Pete Campbell

I may not know everything about these men, but I know enough to understand why they make the choices they do in this film. That is what differentiates 12 Angry Men from lesser films– the quality of the writing and acting is such that even the brief amount of time each individual receives in this film is enough to establish their backgrounds and motivations.

12angrymen_fondaThe spirit of 12 Angry Men (1957) is perhaps best expressed in the physicality of its one A-lister, the late Henry Fonda. He is an imposing figure onscreen without a scrap of extra flesh on his bones; his cheekbones in particular seem best fit for the shadows of a black and white feature. His eyes are intelligent and kind but fierce. That balance of intellect and ferocity define his portrayal of Juror #8. In this story of a twelve man jury debating the fate of a young man accused of murdering his father, Fonda expresses most articulately the ideals at the heart of the American judicial system: the accused are innocent until proven guilty, it is on the prosecution to prove the guilt of the accused and if there is reasonable doubt that the accused did not commit the crime they must be acquitted by a jury of their peers.

Besides Fonda (who helped secure funding for the film), the other stand-out is Lee J. Cobb. He seems friendly enough at first–maybe a little loud– but as Fonda’s Juror #8 begins to persuade the others to reconsider their guilty votes, he erupts into a loathsome vendetta. Having driven away his own child years ago, he now seeks a terrible revenge with the accused boy as a scapegoat. It is fascinating how even as he spews out his hateful speech, Cobb shows that Juror #3 has not consciously drawn the connection between the kid charged with murder and his own son. He is so lost in his pain and anger that, like a wounded animal, he strikes out at the nearest stand-in.

Recently I was indulging in a reread of my childhood favorite Matilda when I came across this description of the wretched Miss Trunchbull:

Miss Trunchbull, the Headmistress, was something else altogether. She was a gigantic holy terror, a fierce tyrannical monster who frightened the life out of pupils and teachers alike. There was aura of menace about her even at a distance, and when she came up close you could almost feel the dangerous heat radiating from her as from a red-hot rod of metal. . . . Thank goodness we don’t meet many people like her in this world, although they do exist and all of us are likely to come across at least one of them in a lifetime. If you ever do, you should behave as you would if you met an enraged rhinoceros out in the bush–climb up the nearest tree and stay there until it has gone away. (p. 67)

That is what I think of when I think of Lee J. Cobb’s Juror #3.

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12 Angry Men is a remarkably intelligent film. Yes, the script spells out the definition of reasonable doubt several times for the audience, but it trusts that we will decide on our own what we think about the characters.

Fonda’s Juror #8 understands the American judicial system better than anyone else in the film, but after listening to him preach for an hour, I became frustrated. From the first moments of the movie, he seeks to prove to his fellow jurors (and the audience) that there is enough reasonable doubt in this case to prevent a guilty verdict. He argues so passionately that it is easy to forget that he is arguing for a reasonable doubt verdict rather than a full-out innocent verdict. He says at one point, “I know this boy. He wouldn’t have done it.”

Except he doesn’t know this boy. In fact, one of his methods of proving the young man’s innocence–going to the neighborhood of the crime to see if he could purchase a switch blade similar to the one allegedly used by the boy to kill his father– is illegal. After a while, it seems that this juror is projecting an awful lot on the alleged murderer.

Of course, Fonda’s Juror #8 is the most admirable (our white knight even wears a white jacket for much of the film); however in the end I found other characters more sympathetic. For example Juror #5 (Jack Klugman of TV’s The Odd Couple) has same ideals as Juror #8 but has some insecurities arising from his lower class background which prevent him from being an outspoken proponent of justice.

Likewise, Juror #4 (E.G. Marshall) is lizard-like in his chilly demeanor and clipped tone, but he is not indifferent to the fate of the boy they are about to convict. He simply relies on facts above idealism. This juror is at the heart of the most interesting conflict in the film.

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It is Marshall’s Juror #4 who brings up the most cogent arguments as to why the boy is guilty. The boy says he was at the movies during the time of the murder, but he couldn’t remember the film he saw and there were no witnesses. Juror #8 tries to point a hole in this by pointing out that Juror #4 can’t remember what he did only a few days earlier, but that doesn’t change the fact that there were no witnesses to the boy going to the movies. In fact, as this A.V. club review points out, there is actually a lot of solid evidence against him. It would be extraordinary if the young man was innocent.

What a fascinating possibility– that a movie all about justice could end with an unjust not guilty verdict. But of course the film isn’t really about whether or not the boy committed the crime. It is about what bubbles up when several humans are placed in a constrained situation and forced to debate on matters of right and wrong. In the case of Juror #10, the stress causes him to deliver a speech which perfectly encapsulates the “us vs. them” mindset behind racism. As he speaks the other jurors one by one stand up and turn their back on them until at last he collapses, overcome by self-loathing. It is a stagey moment (reflecting Lumet’s background in theatre), but it works.

12angrymen_group12 Angry Men deserves to be rescued from high school required viewing lists everywhere. Perhaps we should remake it every decade. Imagine a version with a young Middle Eastern or African-American man as the accused. Think of all the nerves that would hit.

Because today more than ever we need to reminded of our constitutional rights.

Have you seen 12 Angry Men? What did you think? I would love to hear from you!

(I own nothing related to 12 Angry Men or Matilda.)

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3 thoughts on “12 Angry Men (1957)

    • I agree! Sometimes I feel like intelligent dialogue and well rounded characters disqualifies a film for box office success. We seem hell bent on romanticizing violence and cliches at the expense of tense drama.

      Thanks so much for commenting! If you like great movies, I will be working my way (slowly) through Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list. Check back for my review of 2001: A Space Odyssey!

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