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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.