12 Angry Men (1957)

12 Angry Men (1957) – For decades upon decades we have seen courtroom drama after courtroom drama. There’s something compelling about our justice system (well… in movies anyway). Coutnless movies and even more TV shows have taken us into the courtroom to watch lawyers do their thing to defend or prosecute some defendant (or in less critical cases, just sue someone). So we’re all pretty familiar with the process, at least as far as movies go. However there have not been many movies that have shown us the men and women (in this case, only men) who actually make the decision concerning one person’s future. 12 Angry Men is a cinema classic that takes the audience into the jurors’ deliberation room as they decide the fate of a young man accused of murdering his father. It’s the first feature film of director Sidney Lumet who went on to direct such classics as Network and Dog Day Afternoon. (Though Lumet already had extensive experience shooting live teleplays so he wasn’t exactly a novice.)

The beginning of the film takes us from the street into the courthouse and into the courtroom where a trial has just concluded. The judge instructs the jurors to consider all the evidence presented and only convict if convinced beyond a reasonable doubt. The only sentence for the young Hispanic defendant if found guilty is death. A man’s life is in their hands. The jurors are played by a top notch cast: Martin Balsam, John Fiedler (Piglet from Winnie the Pooh!), Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Henry Fonda, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec, and Robert Webber. The foreman (Balsam) decides to call a vote early, and all but one juror vote guilty. Juror #8 (Fonda) has doubts. He isn’t sure the defendant is innocent, but he can’t send a man to die with uncertainty. The jurors go over the evidence again and again, questioning everything. Soon enough, Juror #8 is not the only “not guilty” vote.

Firstly I need to point out (as others have) that this is not actually how juries are supposed to work and that in real life Juror #8 could have been kicked off the jury and a mistrial declared. Secondly I need to point out that I don’t care. It’s a movie, and a damn compelling one. If I may get on my soapbox for a minute, in recent years I’ve come to oppose the death penalty. Not because I believe it’s wrong. On the contrary I believe that some people really deserve it (rapists, pederasts, and people guilty of particularly heinous murders). The problem is I don’t trust the judicial system to make that call. Hell, it’s been proven that they’ve sent innocent men to their deaths before. Anyway, circling back to the movie, the idea of reasonable doubt is a key one. We never see the crime. We never see the trial. We really only hear the evidence as recounted by the jurors.

The acting across the board is fantastic. Every character is developed. We don’t necessarily know a lot about them. We don’t even know their names (except for two who exchange names at the end of the film). We do however get a sense of who they are. 8 is an architect and someone who sticks up for the underdog (also evidence by the fact he’s played by Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath). 3 (Cobb) is an angry man (shocking!) who’s own feelings on father-son relationships might be complicating things. 10 (Begley) is just a flat-out racist. 5 (Klugman) is from the same kind of neighborhood as the defendant and can sympathize. 11 (Voskovec) is an immigrant watch-maker. 12 (Webber) is a slick ad man. 7 (Warden) just wants to get out of there to go to a baseball game. Lumet was an actor’s director and it shows in the caliber of performance that he gets from all 12 actors. Except for a short bit at the beginning and a short bit at the end, the entire movie takes place in one room and is dependent on those performances. Lumet’s camera creates a sense of claustrophobia as the deliberation gets tenser. It’s an electrifying hour and half and well worth checking out. Some films are classics for a reason.

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