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No. 14: “12 Angry Men” (1957)

“It’s always difficult to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth. I don’t really know what the truth is. I don’t suppose anybody will ever really know.”
~~Juror #8

For some men, it’s disturbingly simple to dismiss the full, oppressive weight a possibly innocent/possibly guilty defendant’s fate in the pursuit of fast, easy Jiffy Lube justice. Juror #8 (Henry Fonda), however, finds himself unwilling and unable to unload a “guilty” verdict because he’s got a pair of Yankees tickets in his pocket or dinner congealing on the table at home. His firm refusal to take facts at face value makes him the unwelcome voice of reason in Sidney Lumet’s taut, phenomenally acted “12 Angry Men,” a courtroom thriller that zeroes in on the ways petty grudges and prejudice cloud human judgment.

Perhaps, though, “courtroom thriller” isn’t quite the right phrase to describe “12 Angry Men,” since playwright/scriptwriter Reginald Rose sets nearly all the action outside the courtroom and inside the jury’s quarters.  This is a brilliantly strategic move, since it narrows our focus and enhances the claustrophobic atmosphere, forcing us inside a cramped room bursting with big egos, smart mouths and short tempers. These close quarters offer unusually, and often uncomfortably, intimate glimpses into the jurors’ lives — their professions, their children, even their thoughts, beliefs, hangups. Director Sidney Lumet’s close camera angles enhance the tension immeasurably, literally backing his actors (and us) into corners that offer no escape route. Lumet, it seems, understands that true human nature reveals itself best when suffocated by four walls.

Indeed, “12 Angry Men” is as much a character study as it is a legal procedural, and it’s a credit to the actors that there are no throwaway characters or forgettable ones. Their personalities emerge slowly inside the jury room, where they sit deliberating what seems to be a slam-dunk case: a disadvantaged teen (John Savoca) is accused of murdering his father. There are two witnesses, a knife wiped clean of fingerprints. The teen has an alibi he can’t back up with details, a long rap sheet and a volatile relationship with his old man. Then the 12-man jury retires to deliberate, and things get heated. Juror 8 dissents, urging his peers to question the case’s basis on circumstantial evidence. The remaining jurors, all convinced this young hood deserves the chair, include: 1 (Martin Balsam), the impatient foreman; 2 (John Fiedler), a shy bank clerk; 3 (Lee J. Cobb), a belligerent businessman with a runaway son; 4 (E.G. Marshall), a cool, impersonal stockbroker; 5 (Jack Klugman), who grew up in the same slums as the accused murderer; 6 (Edward Binns), a blue-collar man who abides his own moral code; 7 (Jack Warden), a slick, vain salesman; 9 (Joseph Sweeney), an elderly man who’s a keen observer of human behavior; confrontational bigot 10 (Ed Begley), a garage owner; 11 (George Voskovec), an immigrant who designs watches; and 12 (Robert Webber), a fickle ad exec. Initially united in their commitment to Jiffy Lube justice, they resist Juror 8’s arguments until his logic starts to make too much sense to ignore. Slowly, very slowly, they all — excluding 3 and 10 — begin to listen, reason out the prosecution’s points. They also begin to care about what they’re doing more than what they’re missing sitting in the jury chambers.

If this exposition makes “12 Angry Men” sound like a film that’s all talk and no action, that’s because it is. But with acting this accomplished and a script this polished, that’s hardly a criticism. Lumet’s direction is virtually perfect, both invasive and remarkably detached; his camera becomes a character itself, elevating the tension, then abating it, pushing the actors into corners, then letting them wriggle free. This approach lets us know the characters, and it coaxes, too, amazing and emotional performances from each of the 12 actors. Voskovec and Fiedler offer light comic relief, while Sweeney finds an unexpected shrewdness in elderly Juror 9. Fonda underplays Juror 8 to great effect, never overacting or aiming for melodrama. But nobody matches Cobb in terms of purely frightening intensity; as Juror 3, he holds back nothing. He lets us feel the knife twist of his disappointment — in his son, in himself. He is the voice that reminds us that life renders objectivity impossible.

21 Responses

  1. I haven’t since this movie since high school. I need to revisit it.

    • Saw this in Freshman Honors English (I think) and was blown away then. I’ve watched it several times since and continue to be impressed. Lee J. Cobb is fantastic.

      • Meaningless Trivia. In high school, my English did a dramatic reading of “12 Angry Men”. I was reading Juror 9.

      • So you were wise old McArdle? Awesome. I always wanted to be No. 3 so I could play against type.

  2. i was surprised by how much i liked this movie.

    my favorite scene is probably the initial vote where some people don’t raise their hand, then they see how many other people have theirs up, and only THEN decide to vote guilty, with the majority. such a simple way to say so much about human nature.

    • Good scene! I’m also fond of the expressions that play on Jack Klugman’s face when Juror 3 accuses him of changing his vote. Oh, and I LOVE both scenes where 8 tricks 3 into rebutting his own points.

  3. OMG I love this movie so much. Why is it when a courtroom drama is done well it’s more intense than anything? This film, Anatomy of a Murder, JFK (which is basically a courtroom film as action movie). They are the best.

    • Back in ninth grade I recall literally biting my fingernails throughout the movie, and I found myself doing it again the second time I watched it. So I answer your question with a question: Why don’t more directors wise up and realize that there’s nothing tenser than watching people butt heads with their own stupid prejudices?

  4. What a film. My favourite part is when Fonda produces the identical knife, it is just left stuck in the table as a constant reminder, you just know it is going to come into play again later in the film.

    • An iconic scene indeed. I also like the two where Juror 3 trips himself into making Juror 8’s points about how an old man can’t be trusted to remember anything correctly and how “I’ll kill ya!” isn’t always a serious exclamation.

  5. This is one of my favorites as well. I’ve seen it at least six or seven times. I remember the first time I was introduced to it was during a game of “Scene It,” and the clip that played was the one where Fonda pulls out the knife and slams it on the table. Right after I saw that I said to myself, “I have to see this movie”.

    The acting is so good and the tension between Cobb and Fonda is so powerful and the way the story develops is absolute genius.

  6. I watch this every night before I have to attend jury duty in the hopes that I will someday sit in a room with as many interesting characters as this amazing film contains (but to no avail).

    Powerful about sums up Fonda’s performance in this nailbiter, but I think it’s incredible what this movie says about perceptions and also how one man really can make difference. Awesome write up Mer…as if you would write anything but:)

  7. How could I have forgotten about his for my own list. I need to see it again.

  8. as exciting as any action movie and its just some guys in a room. perfect in every way, good call Carter.

    • A few heated arguments that almost come to blows, a pivotal scene with a knife — it’s like an action movie, but without all the messy explosions. No body parts to clean up.

  9. Something I forgot to mention in my previous comments, the cleverest thing about the plot; we never find out if the defendant is guilty or innocent. Any other film about a trail ends with the reveal. In real life that doesn’t happen we have to rely on the jury to make the right decision.

  10. This is one of my favorites too. Lumet’s a fabulous director – I saw Dog Day Afternoon before this, and have since visited most of his work; few of his films are less than very good. 12 Angry Men should be taught to film students wanting to learn the fundamentals of plot and character, and to the rest of the world as a tool to example moral value and the ills of cultural ignorance.

  11. […] More: M. Carter @ the Movies (Review) | RossvRoss.com – 12 Angry Men V A Few Good Men | Wonders In The Dark […]

  12. […] gaps in his life. Cobb,  so towering in his rage, suggests the unchecked menace he did in “12 Angry Men.” Nobody plays a villain with quite his mix of entitlement and menace. Malden provides an effective […]

  13. […] T is for “12 Angry Men” […]

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