12 Angry Men (1957) Director: Sydney Lumet
“It’s very hard to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And no matter where you run into it, prejudice obscures the truth.”
12 Angry Men is a wonderful and compelling courtroom drama -almost the entirety of the film was shot inside a courtroom while a jury deliberates. The film was based on the earlier teleplay by Reginald Rose for the drama television program Studio One (it won him an Emmy). The film features an all-star cast of some of the greatest actors of the 1950s and 1960s. While it was hailed as a critical masterpiece of Hollywood courtroom drama, 12 Angry Men was a box office flop.
12 Angry Men uniquely explores notions of groupthink and consensus-building as well as the nature of reasonable doubt in our justice system. Throughout the film keen students of cinematography will notice as the camera angles get lower and the lens angles change the further the film progresses. The effect is powerful. As Roger Ebert notes: “As the film begins we look down on the characters, and the angle suggests they can be comprehended and mastered. By the end, they loom over us, and we feel overwhelmed by the force of their passion.”
It is a scorching hot day in New York City as a jury of twelve men prepares a verdict regarding a poor 18-year old boy who is accused of stabbing his father to death. The nature of the verdict necessitates unanimity. The men run through the evidence against the boy (the jurors names are not given, rather they are identified only by their numbers). Per the evidence: two neighbors claim to have heard a ruckus, the boy has a history of violence, and he recently purchased a switchblade like the one used in the murder. With all the evidence in place Juror 1 calls for a vote because he is eager to get to a baseball game. All men vote guilty except Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) who doubts the neighbors’ testimony and suggests purchasing a switchblade is not particularly unusual -he produces an exact match to the switchblade from his own pocket.
An argument ensues and Juror 8 promises to acquiesce if a secret ballot is issued and all other jurors vote guilty, but when the secret ballot occurs it comes back with one “not guilty” vote. Accusations fly but Juror 9 comes forward stating that he would like further discussion of Juror 8’s concerns. As the evidence is reviewed several jurors change their opinion due to the sound of a passing train during the murder, and the unlikelihood that the boy would have returned to the scene of the crime several hours later to retrieve his weapon. Recollections are tested, the angle of the alleged stabbing is scrutinized, and even a witness’s eyeglasses are questioned until every juror changes his vote save for the macho and defiant Juror 3. Cornered, he begins fanatically raving about the alleged criminal until he breaks down sobbing over his own strained relationship with his son. He relents to a vote of “not guilty” while tearing up a photograph of his son.
The verdict is read in court off-screen. in a brief epilogue (the only scene that occurs outside the room of jury deliberations) Juror 8 and Juror 9 introduce themselves to one another while Juror 3 quietly leaves the courthouse alone.
The actors who play the “12 Angry Men” in the film are listed below:
- Martin Balsam: Juror 1, the jury foreman; a calm and methodical assistant high school football coach.
- John Fiedler: Juror 2, a meek and unpretentious bank worker who is initially dominated by the other men until he stands up for himself.
- Lee J. Cobb: Juror 3, a hot-tempered, courier business owner who is estranged from his son. He is the most passionate advocate of a guilty verdict.
- E. G. Marshall: Juror 4, an unflappable and analytical stock broker who is concerned with the facts of the case.
- Jack Klugman: Juror 5, a man who grew up in a slum who is sensitive to insults about his upbringing.
- Edward Binns: Juror 6, a tough but principled house painter who consistently speaks up when others are verbally disrespected, especially the elderly.
- Jack Warden: Juror 7, a wisecracking salesman who expresses indifference to the case.
- Henry Fonda: Juror 8, a humane, justice-seeking architect; initially the only one to vote “not guilty” and openly question the seemingly clear evidence presented. We latter find out his name is “Davis.” Fonda co-produced the film.
- Joseph Sweeney: Juror 9, a wise and intelligent senior who is highly observant of the witnesses’ behaviors and their possible motivations. we later find out his name is “McGirdle.”
- Ed Begley: Juror 10, a pushy, loud-mouthed, and xenophobic garage owner.
- George Voscovec: Juror 11, a European watchmaker and naturalized American citizen who demonstrates strong respect for democratic values such as due process.
- Robert Webber: Juror 12, an indecisive and distractible advertising executive.
As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor notes, much of the evidence introduced by the jurors in this film is impermissible and would likely yield a mistrial. Nevertheless she credits the film with inspiring her legal career and rightly praises its merits. 12 Angry Men is indeed an inspiring film and a rare glimpse into the difficult hurdle needed to cross from “not guilty” to “guilty” within the framework of our justice system.