What Went Right With… 12 Angry Men?

An image of 12 pieces of paper showing a jury's verdict in the 1957 film 12 Angry Men by

“12 Angry Men” is one of the greatest movies ever made and in my opinion it comes close to being a perfect film. The story centres around the twelve jurors of a murder case as they deliberate over the guilt or innocence of an eighteen year old boy charged with the murder of his father. Aside from the opening and closing scenes, the movie is confined to a single location (the jury room) and this makes watching it more like viewing a play, only more tense, more interesting, and more believable. We get a quick glimpse of the Latin boy accused of murder in the first degree, and it’s emphasized that sentencing him would send him to the Electric Chair. The importance of human life and the necessity of a carefully considered verdict rather than a rushed, biased and reactionary point of view (not to mention the problem with court-appointed Lawyers or public defenders giving an unfair advantage to the rich) makes for a very interesting plot. As the bored Judge explains the concept of Reasonable Doubt to the jury and says “you’re faced with a great responsibility” with a tired face and disinterested expression you’re shown that even the most important jobs can become routine. This moment as well as a few other lines in the film serve as a momentary light and humorous tone to make up for the potentially heavy and serious storyline.

The jurors are played by a selection of great classic Actors, some known and some unknown, it’s also quite entertaining to see younger incarnations of people who we know (perhaps unfairly) as “old Actors”. Martin Balsam plays Juror #1 the jury foreman with no real leadership skills, John Fiedler plays Juror #2 the wormy downtrodden man, Lee J. Cobb is fantastic as Juror #3 the juror whose opinion is shaped by his relationship with his son, and E.G. Marshall is great as Juror #4 the by-the-book, strict, pedantic character. There’s also Jack Klugman playing Juror #5 the ex-slum dweller who’s upbringing and background can’t be seen by his exterior, Edward Binns plays Juror #6 the average blue-collar worker, Jack Warden is simply amazing as Juror #7 the brash salesman who doesn’t really care about the case and just wants to get to a baseball ball game, and of course there’s Henry Fonda playing the lead character of Juror #8, the Architect and only juror to give a ‘not guilty’ verdict. Joseph Sweeney plays Juror #9 the old eagle-eyed man who is without any prejudicial hang-ups, Ed Begley plays Juror #10 the racist with hay-fever extremely well, George Voskovec plays Juror #11 the immigrant who hilariously corrects the bad grammar of one of the natives, and Robert Webber plays Juror #12 the stereotypically smarmy Ad Executive.

This taut Drama begins with 11 of the jurors thinking the boy is guilty, and it becomes clear that their opinion is a rushed decision based on personal opinions and the lack of a strong defence case. Then through some enthralling and dramatic conversation, the 12 jurors go through the various pieces of evidence as the lone character of Juror #8 played by Henry Fonda slowly tries to convince the others of his not guilty decision. He starts with an inkling of doubt surrounding the boy’s guilt rather than a definite claim of innocence, “the burden of proof is with the prosecution, that’s in the constitution” he says, but the rest of the group think differently and when quizzed about their guilty stance, we’re shown the reasoning behind their hasty decisions. Fiedler’s character says “I just think he’s guilty, that’s all” and Fonda even has to interrupt two of the jurors playing noughts and crosses instead of deliberating. Then through some absorbing conversation, arguments, and re-enactments they slowly mull over the evidence and shed new light on certain aspects of the case. This all works wonderfully considering the audience never sees the actual court case, and the discussions are never dull or boring. Not a single word uttered in the script is superfluous or unneeded, every line, every gesture, and every characters’ movements within the room add to the narrative.

Juror #9, the old man is the first to change his vote, and as the group re-examine the evidence; the partially sighted eye witness, the old and frail man who heard the crime, the unique weapon, the argument and fight between the accused and the victim, the lack of motive, the accused’s whereabouts during and after the murder, and even his history of committing petty crimes are all brought into the discussion. As they reconsider the evidence, the mood of the “guilty” jurors is shown through their quick decisions and personal situations, and the unfolding plot shows that it’s important to have a varied jury made of people without an axe to grind. Fonda asks Binns “supposing you were the one on trial?” which I’m sure not many people think about when they’re confronted with becoming a member of a jury. As the deliberation goes on, it’s clear that some of the jurors will be harder to convince than others of the boy’s innocence, and some characters are even relishing the idea of sending the accused to death. “Are you his executioner?” Fonda asks Cobb, one of the more difficult members of the group,“you’re acting like a self appointed public avenger, you want to see this boy die because you personally want it, not because of the facts”. Then after almost coming to blows, Cobb’s character shouts “I’ll kill you!” to which Fonda brilliantly responds “You don’t really mean ‘I’ll kill you’ do you?”. The film not only shows that words and phrases aren’t literal, it also highlights that personal bias always comes into play in a court case, regardless of jury selection. “We have a responsibility, that’s the remarkable thing about democracy” says Voskovec’s character, adding “we have nothing to gain or lose by our verdict… we should not make it a personal thing”.

Every Actor plays their part extremely well, the setting of a hot summer’s day makes the arguing more intense despite the film being shot in black and white (one of the reasons moviegoers shied away from the picture when it was first released). The fact that all the cast are white males is the only aspect of the film that has aged over the years, and although it was “updated” and remade with different races in the nineties, no other version comes close to the atmosphere created in the 1957 original. The fact that the entire jury and cast are white makes the scene where Ed Begley’s character delivers his final racial tirade (and the others jurors move away from him) more significant and meaningful in my opinion. In fact the movie shows that we as a society sadly haven’t moved on from the same prejudicial issues almost sixty years later.

The scene where Cobb’s character contradicts himself when he speaks of the elderly man’s testimony and the juror’s re-enactment of the infirm witness limping to his door are pivotal moments in the film. The scene of the duplicate switch-blade knife being jabbed into the table is just a great moment of any film, and yet despite “12 Angry Men” featuring some of the greatest scenes and finest performances from each of the Actors involved (not to mention the great script by Reginald Rose and the effortless direction by Sidney Lumet which is arguably his greatest work) surprise, surprise, like many classic movies, it was nominated for a paltry three Oscars but didn’t win a single one. In fact the film was a flop when it was first released, and this just goes to show that the masses are usually guilty of bad decisions. Similar to jury deliberations, it sometimes takes time for the truth to finally come out, and more than half a century later “12 Angry Men” is accepted as the classic movie it always was. The film itself has been referenced in many TV shows and has been remade a few times, once in the nineties and a few times internationally, although if it was remade by Hollywood today, some moron would probably tack on some twist about the boy being guilty at the end, such is the way of our fucked up society and despicable entertainment industry these days.

The film includes a line delivered by Fonda’s character “we have a reasonable doubt, and that’s something that’s very valuable in our system. No jury can declare a man guilty unless it’s sure”, but in our contemporary world of biased media, witch-hunting news networks, sheep-like social media followers and the general corruption of law, is that really the way our justice system works in our present day? Before people like Jay-Z destroyed the meaning by associating the term with guilt, ‘Reasonable Doubt’ was a tent-peg of the justice system. But with Probable Cause no longer needed for the issuing of warrants under certain circumstances, with the increasing amounts of private trials, or even no trial at all, the importance of having a non-biased and varied jury, sticking to the concepts of ‘Reasonable Doubt’, ‘innocent until proven guilty’, and even due process are now more prevalent than ever. Aside from being a riveting and highly entertaining film, “12 Angry Men” makes statements about law, immigration, class, and even race, and these are issues which are still relevant today, just like the film itself.

12 Talented Men.

Writing: 9/10

Directing: 8/10

Acting: 9/10

Overall: 9/10

4 replies »

  1. You are so right this is a brilliant watch, nice to see Netflix are showing it too. Love your articles by-the-way…always on the mark. You should publish them, I’d buy the book. Any publishers out there???? :)))))))))))))

  2. I was thinking more of a general type like the imdb top 250 but a shorter version. I think that’d b really great.

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