12 Angry Men

(USA 1957)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Jack Klugman, Ed Binns, Joseph Sweeney, George Voskovec, Robert Webber
Genre: Drama
Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Reginald Rose
Cinematography: Boris Kaufman
Composer: Kenyon Hopkins
Runtime: 96 minutes

Sidney Lumet earned the first of five Best Director Oscar nominations in his debut feature film. 12 Angry Men was not only one of the best debuts ever, but would in many ways set the tone for the career of one of the best directors. The focus on various aspects and sides of the law would dominate his body of work and deliver most of his best pictures. Although his career has its highs (Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City, Serpico, Network) and lows (Gloria, A Stranger Among Us), almost all his films are complex, intelligent, and emotional without forcing reaction from the viewer. In addition, his films boast top if not career performances from the actors.

12 Angry Men is a unique trial movie because we don't see even a second of testimony. 99.5% of the film takes place in the small, steamy room (Lumet likes to create a feeling of claustrophobia) where the jurors are deliberating over the verdict. This seems like recipe for failure in the eyes of most people. I mean, here you have a movie featuring old men in (virtually) real time with no action, effects, settings, and so on, but all Lumet does is show how amazing a film can be if the script and performances are top notch.

The jurors are trying to decide whether to execute an 18-year-old boy of stabbing his father to death. The film is not really about this boy, who is seen only in a brief shot at the outset. It's about what leads twelve unique men to feel and act the way they do. In order for this film to work, 12 distinct jurors are developed. Although we only learn two of their names, and this doesn't occur until the final seconds of the movie, we get inside their heads and eventually feel we know these men, their psyche, and the reason behind their vote intimately.

What makes 12 Angry Men fascinating is how the plot unravels like a mystery. As we learn more and more about the worldview of the jurors, we see that their vote is filtered through it if not out and out based on it. Initially, the feeling among the jurors is they aren't related to the boy or the case. All the evidence is stacked against him, so it's got to be open and shut. One of the key themes of the film is peer pressure. In the initial public vote, everyone votes guilty except Juror #8 (Henry Fonda). #8 doesn't necessarily believe the kid is innocent, but values human life enough to discuss the possibility. There are several things that bother him about the case though, most of which don't come out initially, almost all coming back to the defense attorney doing an inexcusable job of failing to cast any doubt on the prosecutions evidence. Still, the boy would have been hanged very early on (a questionable gamble by #8 considering he hadn't touched on most of his points of contention) if not for a secret vote among the other 11 where Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney) essentially sides with #8 because he respects the guts he showed by not simply raising his hand guilty like everyone else.

As the film progresses, going with the flow remains a key, but also the way the jurors relate their own experiences to the discussion opens their eyes to the fact that the case is less and less clear-cut than they wanted to believe. The way Juror #8 goes about turning the other jurors is masterful. He leads the opposition into biting their tongue, puts them in the position where they say the wrong thing then have to change their vote or go back on their word. As #8 forces the men to reevaluate their understanding of the case, we too reevaluate the way we make our judgements.

There is much social commentary to be found in 12 Angry Men. The boy on trial has been dealt a bad hand, growing up in a lousy neighborhood with an abusive father. The big question the film asks is has society shaped the boy into a killer or molded the jurors minds into associating poor, not particularly bright kid from the mean streets with murder? Even if he did commit the crime, the idea is that we need to look beyond the stereotypes and our experiences with "similar" people and judge each person as an individual based on what we know or can learn about them.

One thing I liked about the film is that we never find out what really happened. The film is never about the boy actually being innocent; it's always about the way our legal system works. There's a key scene where Juror #11 (George Voskovec) questions whether Juror #7 (Jack Warden) understands the term reasonable doubt, which leads to #7 going off on a tirade because #11 immigrated to the country. The key point the film makes is the verdict will be based on prejudices and preconceived notions unless the evidence is thoroughly examined.

Guilty or innocent isn't the heart of the film. The heart of the film is a democratic concept of right and wrong that allows not just the court to function, but the society as a whole. This is a film based in the constitution starting right from free speech. We start out with individuals thinking about themselves, most notably Juror #7 who is only concerned with getting out of there so he can make it to the Yankees game, but through debate we get closer and closer to some kind of justice. It might not be the right decision because there usually isn't a way of ever knowing for sure, but through enough discussion you can cut through the b.s. and use common sense to come to a decision that seems reasonable.

The acting is outstanding. There's no hiding. Everyone is trapped in this room and forced to react to virtually everything that's said. There are several occasions where they nearly come to blows, and it's the hostility that goes a long way toward keeping the audience on edge, but it's more about the subtlety. It's about what's burning inside these characters that effects them on the outside. It's hard to say one performer was really better than another was because they all did exactly what their role dictated. I liked how Martin Balsam's external performance as the uneasy foreman trying to hide the fact that he's in over his head contrasted to Henry Fonda's internal performance as the juror who is always thinking ahead so he can prove his point. Jack Warden is the most entertaining character, constantly forwarding opinions he doesn't believe in hopes of getting the hell out of there. I hate to put great in the same sentence with racist and bigot, but in some memorable tirades Ed Begley does nothing to hide the fact that he's voting guilty solely because of the boy's background (which is ironic since he's only a cut above the boy on the totem pole). Lee J Cobb gives one of the most convincing violently emotional performances I've ever seen. He is so loud. However, it's the credibility (to the performance not necessarily what he's saying) and conviction rather than sheer volume that makes him intimidating and infuriating. Perhaps the most fascinating character is the stockbroker played by E.G. Marshall because he's the one character who is truly convinced the boy is guilty for the sole reason that the evidence supports it. The thing is, he believes he's more astute than the other jurors are and almost above being wrong.

The camera work is great. It's easy to get caught up in bragging about lengthy shots with 15 different moves, and in many cases they are worthy of more praise than they get, but we shouldn't neglect work done in a basic setting. The camera here is like the 13th man. It rarely focuses on the obvious; we don't get a bunch of monologues where we get a close-up of one person talking while the rest of the cast is at lunch or being made up. Instead, we get a very spacious view of the tight quarters. This makes you feel like you are there as an objective onlooker, glancing wherever you want to see how people are reacting while listening to the speaker and sometimes watching him to see if he's ready to fold or explode. Of course, sometimes the camera has to know more than the observer, but what's important is the camera never screams "look here something important is going to happen," we always get smooth transitions between perspectives. 12 Angry Men was a play, but the technique prevents it from falling flat like many that try to make this transition to film.

12 Angry Men is one of those movies that you just have to see. It's kind of like David Mamet (whose script Lumet used for another of his trial movies, The Verdict) dialogue, very ordinary on paper but so lively with an underlying tension when brought to life. It's like a John Sayles film, you are glued to the set not so much by what happens but because of the way layer by layer is peeled away until there are no more. Unlike a Sayles movie, you know how 12 Angry Men will end, but there are such polar opposites on the jury that the intrigue is in what could possibly cause one of them to change his vote. It's not only that you should see it because it's good, you should see it because it teaches, reminds, and/or reinforces very important lessons on morality and how society should function. It's a timeless film that should be mandatory viewing in all high schools.



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