Should I Watch..? '12 Angry Men' (1957)
What's the big deal?
12 Angry Men is a courtroom drama film released in 1957 and was adapted from the television play of the same name by Reginald Rose. The debut feature film by director Sidney Lumet, the film follows the discussions between twelve jurors arguing whether a defendant is innocent or guilty. The film stars Henry Fonda (who also acted as co-producer alongside Rose), Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, EG Marshall and Jack Warden. The film is notable for largely only using one set for its entire duration as well as the in-depth examination of both the legal process in America and the role prejudice and experience plays on each member of the jury as they struggle with the facts of the case. Despite critical praise when it was released, the film was a box office failure at the time. However, the film's reputation grew after it appeared on TV and is now considered one of the best films in history - it has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has remained within the top 10 on IMDb for years.
What's it about?
In a New York courthouse in the 1950's, a murder trial nears its conclusion. The judge instructs the members of the jury to deliberate the case of a 18-year-old accused of stabbing his father to death - they must be unanimous in their verdict and if they decide that the accused is guilty, the death sentence will be enforced. However, if anyone of them have any reasonable doubt then they must acquit the accused. As the jurors shuffle into their room on the hottest day of the year, an initial vote finds that only Juror No. 8 finds the accused 'not guilty' in this seemingly open-and-shut case.
The reason behind No. 8's doubts are the reliability of the two witnesses to the murder as well as the assertion that the murder weapon - a switchblade knife with an ornate handle - is rare, as No. 8 produces another identical knife he bought from a pawn shop for just $6. As he starts to press his case, the members of the jury start to listen and slowly, this once simple case now pits jurors against each other. And as tempers flare, the life of the accused hangs in the balance...
Juror No. 1, foreman
Juror No. 2
Lee J. Cobb
Juror No. 3
Juror No. 4
Juror No. 5
Juror No. 6
Juror No. 7
Juror No. 8
Juror No. 9
Juror No. 10
Juror No. 11
Juror No. 12
Release Date (US)
10th April, 1957
Academy Award Nominations
Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay
What's to like?
The film is one of those that you are somehow aware of, regardless of how much you are into cinema. But watching a film of the sheer class of 12 Angry Men is a lesson in understanding why films such as these are held in high regard. Every member of the cast delivers an astonishing performance in roles that are fully fleshed out, not just caricatures composed of stereotypes. Like the case itself, we only hear snippets that reveal these characters in clips but it's enough for us to understand what's going on. We get and fully understand the context and as the film progresses, the information we glean about the jurors becomes as important as the evidence of the trial.
Fonda is utterly bewitching as the angel of mercy, the lone juror who is unconvinced of the defendant's guilt in the beginning. It's refreshing to see a film rely solely on dialogue and the actor's performance to tell the story and the setting of the cramped and uncomfortable jury room keeps the film's drama in one place so it rarely dissipates. It becomes Hitchcock-ian as the camera homes in on each member of the jury as things get ever more heated. Compare Fonda's calm and measured performance against the explosive temper of Cobb as a resolute juror convinced of the defendant's guilt or the repugnant prejudices of Begley's character that are silently and powerfully dismissed by all. The only other film that comes close to the absorbing drama at the heart of the film are the courtroom scenes of Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird which also reflect the nature of justice versus the law in America and note the quiet dignity and similarity of Atticus Finch alongside Fonda's Juror No. 8.
- Fonda disliked watching himself on screen so he never watched it in full in the screening room. However, as he quietly slipped out of the screening, he told Lumet that the film was "magnificent". Fonda rated the film as one of the best three he ever made alongside The Grapes Of Wrath and The Ox-Bow Incident but because the film tanked at the box office, Fonda wasn't even paid for the film.
- The film is set entirely in the jury's room with the exception of three minutes - these were set in the jury's restroom, a fleeting prologue in the courtroom itself and an even briefer epilogue on the step of the courthouse.
- The film lost all three of its Oscar nominations to Bridge On The River Kwai. However, the film did win the Golden Bear award at the 1957 Berlin Film Festival and also inspired US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayer to pursue a career in law.
What's not to like?
Another film that I was reminded of was the Hitchcock drama Rope which was also primarily set on a single set - it was even intended to be a single continuous shot, although this proved too much to pull off. But Rope suffered from being a little stagey and this also affects 12 Angry Men although this isn't so much of an issue here. The film benefits from the claustrophobia of the jury room, which not only refuses to release the tension but also acts as a microscope for each juror's flaws. There is literally no escape from the discussion, even as the jurors make their way to the restroom.
Aside from an obvious ending, I am struggling to pick holes in this film which is both superbly written and wonderfully performed. I can't even think of anybody who wouldn't enjoy the film - it should be shown in schools to children to show how discrimination can be insidious as much as it is wrong. Only people who dismiss black-and-white films out of ignorance or snobbery will miss out on this stunning film which keeps things simple but fascinating. For cinephiles, the film is still required viewing.
Should I watch it?
12 Angry Men might not have the snappiest special effects or the most universe-shattering storyline but it is absolutely one of the finest dramas ever filmed. With a simple set-up, blistering performances from the small cast and a bullet-proof script, this film is just essential viewing for anyone who believes in doing what is right and sticking to your guns in the face of resistance and even violence. To some extent, the guilt of the accused is irrelevant - this is the story of twelve men facing up to themselves and their own views and it's utterly unmissable.
Great For: students of any subject - legal, film, English and high school students especially, legal scholars, liberals
Not So Great For: trigger-happy Republicans, extremists, members of a jury
What else should I watch?
I'm not normally one for courtroom dramas as I usually find them rather dry and dull affairs. But the best ones are often fantastic - To Kill A Mockingbird might be a tale of growing up in rural Depression-era Alabama but the film is rightly noted for its performance by Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, a lawyer charged with defending an African-American man against a rape charge. He delivers an impassioned speech about the inherent belief that all men are created equal and are innocent before proven guilty. It is a scene of incredible power and nobility and one that rightfully won Peck his Best Actor Oscar.
Another, less obvious, candidate for a great courtroom film is the comedy My Cousin Vinny which has been praised for its accuracy depicting courtroom procedure and trial strategy. Less enjoyable but no less well-made, The Accused is a stark reflection of a legal system opposed to the victim of a gang rape. However, courtrooms aren't the most exciting of places to set a film so often, film-makers introduce other elements such as Satan himself hiring a hot-shot lawyer in The Devil's Advocate or Madonna grinding against Willem Dafoe (sorry for the mental image) in Body Of Evidence.
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© 2019 Benjamin Cox