12 Angry Men (1957)
Release Date: April 10th, 1957 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Sidney Lumet Actors: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Robert Webber
n courtroom 228, a procedural judge emotionlessly rattles off the basic responsibilities of the jury and the most prominent details of a six-day-long case. It’s a murder-in-the-first-degree trial, with premeditated murder being the most serious charge – and one that will be met with the death sentence if a guilty verdict is delivered. One man is dead; another’s life is in jeopardy. The judge then dismisses the twelve jurors to deliberate together in a locked, isolated room.
On seemingly the hottest day of the year, the dozen debaters sit down in order around the lone table and, thanks to the foreman (Martin Balsam), an initial vote is taken. Eleven return a decree of guilty, and only one votes not guilty. Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) is the holdout, and insists that due to the gravity of sending someone – in this case an eighteen-year-old, regularly abused boy – to the electric chair, a little discussion is owed. Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb) has a notebook with the facts, from which he synopsizes many of the key points and deciding factors. As they proceed around the room voicing their opinions, with details reviewed and evidence scrutinized, (reasonable) doubt starts to creep into the minds of the group. After all, it’s not a matter of guilty or not guilty, but rather guilty or not 100% certain. A second, now secret written ballot is proposed, and it returns with one more vote of not guilty. After further arguing and reasoning, a third juror changes his vote – and then another, and another …
“Boy oh boy, there’s always one,” says Juror #10 (Ed Begley). “You couldn’t change my mind if you talked for a hundred years,” agrees Juror #7 (Jack Warden). The film builds character development through small talk, demonstrating the great disparity between the men while commenting on lawyers that talk too much, the mediocrity of court-appointed counsel, the dullness of anything other than a murder case, and likening conversational persuasion to tricky salesmen gimmicks. It continues to analyze quick decisions versus slow ones and the repercussions of those choices; the minority versus the majority; the obvious versus the overlooked; old-fashioned behaviors versus contemporary conduct; timidity versus aggressiveness; chance versus certainty; organization versus chaos; and possible versus probable.
There’s also the investigation of the potential for lies, the necessity of a motive, personal prejudices, credibility on both sides of the case, racism, classism, circumstantial evidence, and coincidence – most famously demonstrated through the awe-inducing duplicate switchblade scene (which is one of several moments that would have arguably ignited a mistrial). The dialogue is incredibly genuine and convincingly delivered, with every angle and viewpoint presented. Much of it is innocently humorous, attributed to the honesty of the acting and the naturalness of the writing. It also features some of the most effective, emotional, and nearly claustrophobic close-ups, among other shrewd editing techniques, quite notable for being one of those rare productions set almost exclusively in a single room or location (like “Rope” and “Lifeboat”), with a fixed group of characters. Additionally, no role is given a name, though their backgrounds and jobs are briefly disclosed (primarily for those jurors whose hasty conclusions are influenced by such particulars). “12 Angry Men” is thought-provoking, continually riveting, and absolutely unforgettable – and surprisingly designed around a very simple, tightly budgeted, special-effects-free premise. It’s an astonishingly profound example of storytelling trumping spectacle.
– Mike Massie