April 23, 2022 12 Angry Men: 65 Years In The Jury
Viewed by many as one of the greatest films of all time, 12 Angry Men is a humble courtroom drama that spends most of its 96-min runtime in one room. Most of the cast are more famous for their TV roles (The Twilight Zone! Star Trek! Quincy!) than their silver screen ones, with Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath 1940, On Golden Pond 1981) as its biggest name. However, its critical reception has kept the film going much longer than its fancier contemporaries. Long enough to be commemorated for reaching 65 years since its original release on April 10, 1957.
In it, 12 members of a jury are tasked with delivering a verdict in a murder trial. A young boy, barely 18 years old, is accused of stabbing his father to death. If he is found guilty, he is certain to get the death penalty. Which is why the judge presses upon them the importance of their verdict. If there is a speck of doubt towards the boy’s guilt, they must deliver a not guilty verdict. Any guilty verdict must be unanimous. At first, it looks like all members are sure of the case. On the surface anyway.
But each juror has their issues. Juror 7 (Jack Warden: Heaven Can Wait 1978, While You Were Sleeping 1995) is more worried about baseball and his business, Juror 2 (John Fiedler: The Odd Couple 1968, True Grit 1969) is easily swayed, Juror 10 (Ed Begley Snr: Sweet Bird of Youth 1962, Hang ‘Em High 1968) has a xenophobic bias against the defendant, etc. However, one particular juror, Juror 8 (Fonda) has his doubts and is the one member keeping the jury from a unanimous verdict. The others, notably Juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb: On the Waterfront 1958, Exodus 1960), think they can change his mind. Though perhaps Juror 8 could change theirs instead.
The film was originally written by Reginald Rose (The Wild Geese 1978, Who Dares Wins 1982) as a teleplay for the 1954 CBS series Studio One. Its success on TV led to it receiving the first of several stage adaptations in 1955. When a film version was considered, United Artists got in touch with Fonda and offered the position of lead actor and co-producer alongside Rose. It would be his first and last time as a producer. Largely because the job involved watching himself on screen during rushes, and he did not like watching himself in his own movies. According to the film’s director, as soon as the first shot came up, Fonda said, “It’s brilliant” and then left the room.
That director being Sidney Lumet (Serpico 1973, Dog Day Afternoon 1975), and this would be his first feature-length flick. Previously, he had only worked on the Studio One series and The Alcoa Hour series for NBC. It would go on to win the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, as well as 3 Academy Award nominations, 4 Golden Globe nominations, and be rated as the second best courtroom drama, after 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird, by the American Film Institute. Not a bad start for a cinematic career.
So, is it really that good? There is not a lot of action, beyond dramatically presented evidence. No, its strengths are all in the basics; writing, acting and camerawork. The latter seems fairly pedestrian at first, as its cuts and shots appear more like its TV origins. However, the way the shots are put together aid the ramping drama. For example, in the first half, the camera tends to give the audience a wider view of the room with bright lighting. Then, as things get tense, the camera closes in tighter and the room gets darker. This heavy atmosphere does not let up until the very end, when the sun and wider shots return.
Then there is the writing. Each juror comes off as a distinct person, and they each bounce off each other in a variety of ways. Juror 10’s xenophobia angers Juror 5 (Jack Klugman: Days of Wine and Roses 1962. Challenge of the Tiger 1980), and European immigrant Juror 11 (George Voskovec: Your Money or Your Life 1932, Somewhere in Time 1980) cuts through Juror 7’s indifference to the case. While Juror 4 (E.G Marshall: Tora Tora Tora! 1970, Creepshow 1982)- a no-nonsense type- proves particularly formidable for Juror 8 because he needs something more than scenarios (“I’m just saying it’s possible!” “But not probable!”).
Usually, Juror 8 notices one small detail or another that introduces an element of doubt. But sometimes the other jurors find the issues at hand- notably Klugman’s Juror 5 showing how one actually holds a knife in a fight. These scenes give each actor their time to shine, without one dominating the proceedings over the other. Still, Cobb puts in a particularly notable performance as Juror 3, as his insistence that the defendant is guilty is strong and emotional. It really shows the character’s shifting balance from outrage at what he perceives as ignorance before each revelation exposes the real reason why he wants the accused to be sentenced. With no more facts left, all that is left is rage and regret.
The film even ends on an ambiguous note. Maybe the defendant was guilty to begin with, or he was innocent all along. But by then that is not the point. The point is how sure one has to be before sentencing someone to death. Even in milder trials, jurors might lean one way or another without bothering to pay attention. Whatever gets them out of court faster. Without at least one person being attentive to the facts and willing to argue them, the defendant could have gotten the death penalty because of the jury’s separate, personal problems.
That is what makes 12 Angry Men a powerful drama even 65 years later. It shows that one does not need fancy effects or stunts to make a great film. Nor do they need multiple sets or wide-spanning landscapes. Sometimes, all it takes is one room, a strong script, a solid cast, and effective camerawork. The film’s presentation and its ideas still ring true today, and make it a worthy watch for anyone, be they a cinephile or an average moviegoer.