12 Angry Men
US (1957) Dir. Sidney Lumet
It’s tough being the odd one out in any situation but when it is matter of tremendous import and gravity, that lone person needs to be able to stand their ground and explain their stance. You never know, you may be able to get the others on your side.
That is the simple premise of this classic film which began life as a live TV drama in the US written by Reginald Rose, who adapted it for the screenplay of Sidney Lumet’s directorial debut. Set in a court in New York, the trial concerning an 18 year-old boy from the slums accused of murdering his father has concluded and the jury of twelve white men retire to consider their verdict – eleven say guilty, one says not guilty.
Standing alone is Juror #8 (Henry Fonda), hesitant to commit to a guilty verdict because he isn’t satisfied with the facts of the case. US law insists that the jury can call for acquittal on the grounds of “reasonable doubt” and it is this that compels this dissenting opinion. As the others want to quickly end this apparent “open and shut case”, they give #8 a chance to air his doubts, winning them over one by one.
I must confess I watched this film was because of the famous episode of Hancock’s Half Hour which beautifully parodied it, as Tony Hancock, sought to convince his peers to find a convicted thief not guilty. It is a very funny episode and worth checking out if you’ve not seen it, if only for Hancock’s deluded self-importance and confused speeches (“Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?”).
Perhaps what is most potent about the story is how #8 doesn’t act out of spite for the others or for any sort of personal gain – he is simply someone who needs greater convincing that sending this kid to the electric chair is just in this instance. It’s a heavy burden to bear and many of us won’t know such pressure since we no longer have the death penalty but 1950’s America is a different place (hence the lack of female jurors too).
The conceit of the script is in the “reasonable doubt” loophole which #8 exploits perfectly in the face of heated adversity, as the title suggests. Twelve men of differing age, backgrounds, vocations and personalities are stuck in a single room on the hottest day of the year after six days of hearing evidence and testimonies. For eleven men, this was sufficient to form a definite opinion but over the course of 90 minutes, #8 and those who follow him, dissect every bit of evidence and expose the flaws within.
Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney), an observant retiree, is the first to change his vote because he too wants to explore the various alternatives to the evidence, and proves to be a vital force in debunking many of the testimonies. The most outspoken and intransigent juror is #3 (Lee J. Cobb), prone to shouting his views and getting most het up at the others changing their votes.
What writer Reginald Rose is revealing here is not just the weakness of the judicial system but the prejudices and foibles of humankind through these characters. Juror #3 has a hang up about “these kids”, the foundation of which comes to light early on, whilst #10 (Ed Begley) is a flat out bigot who manages to alienate the others with his “those kind” rant, most notably #5 (Jack Klugman), who grew up in the slums but turned his life around.
Elsewhere #8 laments that the kid didn’t stand a chance because his defence lawyer made no effort to properly cross examine the so-called witnesses, explaining that as a court appointed lawyer, there was no glory or lucrative pay packet at the end of this case. I doubt Rose wasn’t suggesting that courts are corrupt enough to deliberately work a case against someone, but he does stress the importance of being mindful of what isn’t being said as to what is.
One of the more fascinating jurors is #11 (George Voskovec), a European watchmaker who shows more class and empathy towards the case than the upstanding Americans he is outnumbered by, despite his modest language skills, he articulates many a valid point with intelligence and calm. Meanwhile #7 (Jack Warden) is miffed because he has a baseball game he wants to attend which is more important to him than a man’s life.
Rounding off the jury are foreman #1 (Martin Balsam), meek bank clerk #2 (John Fiedler), stoic stockbroker #4 (E. G. Marshall), house painter #6 (Edward Binns) and ad exec #12 (Robert Webber), who changes mind too often. Some may have more screen time than others but everyone gets their moment to shine and it would take a very brave person to say that this wasn’t the definitive casting for the numerous parodies and remakes that followed.
The idea of watching twelve sweaty men arguing for 90 minutes in one room may not sound like captivating entertainment but it is exactly that. Lumet doesn’t waste any time in getting down to business and indeed only two jurors reveal their names at the end of the film, hooking us from the onset. It is through the power and conviction of the performances that has us riveted to our seats and fully immersed in the discussion.
As each piece of evidence is dissected and debated, one finds themselves making their deductions and posing questions, hoping someone on screen brings them up too. The camerawork is crucial to the experience, starting of wide, but slowly creeping in unnoticed until the uncomfortable claustrophobia of the faces dominating the screen hits us.
From the smallest acorn the mightiest oaks will grow and 12 Angry Men is a prime example of that, the simplest story providing one of the most intense and absorbing human studies captured on film. A cinematic classic? Guilty as charged!