12 Angry Men

12 Angry Men (1957)Synopsis: 12 Angry Men, by Sidney Lumet , may be the most radical big-screen courtroom drama in cinema history. A behind-closed-doors look at the American legal system as riveting as it is spare, the iconic adaptation of Reginald Rose’s teleplay stars Henry Fonda as the initially dissenting foreman on a jury of white men ready to pass judgment on a Puerto Rican teenager charged with murdering his father. What results is a saga of epic proportions that plays out in real time over ninety minutes in one sweltering room. Lumet’s electrifying snapshot of 1950s America on the verge of change is one of the great feature-film debuts.

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12 Angry Men 9.0

eyelights: the plot. the development. the dialogues. the direction. Henry Fonda. Jack Warden.
eyesores: the last few moments in the jury room.

“One man is dead, another man’s life is at stake, if there’s a reasonable doubt in your minds as to the guilt of the accused, uh, a reasonable doubt, then you must bring me a verdict of “Not Guilty”. If, however, there’s no reasonable doubt, then you must, in good conscience, find the accused “Guilty”. However you decide, your verdict must be unanimous.”

’12 Angry Men’  is a 1957 motion picture adapted from a 1954 homonymous teleplay which was also brought to the stage in 1955. The author, Reginald Rose, adapted it for the screen and produced the picture with lead actor Henry Fonda, who would end up producing only this one film in his entire career. It was nominated for three Academy Awards, but lost all three to ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’.

Although the film did not turn a profit at the time of its release, it is now considered a masterpiece of American cinema, a classic that has been remade a few times, including a 1997 TV movie featuring Jack Lemmon, a 2007 Russian film called ’12’ and even a Japanese spoof called ‘Juninin no yasashii nihonjin’. And that’s just for starters. To say that it has had a cultural impact is an understatement.

’12 Angry Men’ takes places in a jury room, where the twelve titular jurors are assembled to reach a verdict in a murder case. All Caucasian men of various cultural background, most of them are convinced that the accused, a non-Caucasian boy (whose ethnicity is never actually established), is guilty of stabbing his father to death. Only one dissenting voice is heard: Juror #8, played here by Henry Fonda.

“It’s always difficult to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth. I don’t really know what the truth is.”

Juror #8 doesn’t necessarily think that the accused is innocent. He just doesn’t know. And, since he believes that a person’s life deserves the ultimate consideration, he refuses to allow the boy to get a death sentence unless he’s absolutely convinced of his guilt. And so he begins to question the evidence that had been laid before them by the prosecution, a process that would take hours and rattle that stuffy room.

’12 Angry Men’ consists of twelve men arguing and counter-arguing for the most of the film’s 96-minute runtime (only 3 minutes of the picture takes place outside that jury room, leaving us caught in the growing tensions with the jurors). While that might seem dull to some, the point-counterpoint aspect of the exchanges are, frankly, utterly gripping; from an intellectual standpoint, it was of the utmost satisfaction.

It’s also significant to anyone who even remotely cares about justice and the process by which we attempt to bring justice in our society. The fact remains that justice isn’t always blind because we are all human and bring about our various biases to the table. These truly distinct individuals all had their own beliefs and voices and had to arrive to unanimous consent. How would they go about it? How can they possibly make it work?

What helps the whole affair go down as smoothly as it does, of course, is that Rose penned the dialogues in a relatively naturalistic, credible fashion; none of his characters make pretentious or inflated speeches about prejudice, justice, human dignity or any such stuff. He has a message to deliver, for sure, but he does it in a more reflective manner, forcing the viewer to question themselves instead of being told what to think.

The actors helped him tremendously. Although this is a pre-method acting crowd, most of the performances are credible, removed just enough from the theatrics of their generation to make flesh and blood out of their characters. I was particularly impressed with Martin Balsam, Jack Klugman E.G. Marshall and Jack Warden. Especially Warden, whom I usually don’t think much of. I think that he sold his part the best.

Unlike many of his peers, Henry Fonda didn’t exactly play his part in an entirely realistic fashion. Of course, I rarely find him the most naturalistic actor, something that’s always been a challenge when I watch his films. Having said this, there was a unique advantage to his style of acting because it made Juror #8 somewhat alien, thereby making him stand out from the rest a little bit – something I find quite apt, given that he is the black sheep of the lot.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

He does deliver his lines well, though, frequently pausing in mid-sentence to show that his character has doubts and/or is considering his words. And Fonda was entirely convincing in imbuing Juror #8 with the ability to sway the others, or at least sow some doubt; he transformed his character into a force of nature. He was so good that we would laugh with satisfaction at the cleverness with which Juror #8 got someone to finally change their vote.

If the movie has any weakness, any weakness at all, it’s in the way that he convinces the last two jurors. Whereas Juror #8 spent a lot of time going over the minutia in this case and prodded his colleagues, only gradually bringing about shifts in the room, the final two were moved from the opposing corner to his camp in far too drastic steps. As sticklers, one would have thought that a wholesale 360 would be impossible for them.

But it wasn’t. And I felt cheated. After having watched these twelve men wrangle with their consciences, with their beliefs, with their hearts, for well over ninety minutes, it felt like a cop out to have these two men give in completely that way; it felt expedient. And by that point, when one considers that they’d been locked up for hours, it seems to me that time shouldn’t have been a factor. Another 10-15 minutes to soften them slowly would have been ideal.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

One thing that I really loved about ’12 Angry Men’ is that no character has a name: they’re all numbers to us and themselves. In that way, they become more relatable, as character types only, people we either connect with or don’t.  They’re all very different though, both personality-wise and physically, which makes it extremely easy to remember them and position them in the room. They’re juxtaposed around the table perfectly, too, so that none of them cancel each other out.

Sidney Lumet did a marvelous job of directing this film. While some may think that filming in one room should be a cinch, there is more to it. For instance, Lumet had the actors repeat their lines over and over again without filming them, to force them to know what it felt like to be isolated in a room with the same people all day. No doubt the frustration that some of the characters expressed wasn’t difficult for the actors to emulate.

Another thing that Lumet did was that he changed the lenses as the film progresses so that the walls subtly seem to be closing in on the characters, creating a feeling of claustrophobia. Personally I didn’t notice it, but it would partly explain why the tension builds the way that it does. I did, however, notice the way he positioned the camera for full effect, using every possible angle he could, and placing his actors in such a way as to enhance the drama.

It’s genius work. Not bad for a first time film director (until then, he had been a stage and TV director).

’12 Angry Men’ is powerful stuff: it’s gripping, it’s thought-provoking, it’s provocative, and it’s put together extremely well by its cast and crew. How this film failed at the time is beyond me, quite frankly. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a phenomenal film. I would even have given it a 9.25 if not for the facile way in which the film wraps up; that didn’t seem realistic to me at all, and it deflated the tension a little too easily for my tastes.

But, until that point, ‘!2 Angry Men’ served up some of the most potent and essential cinema of the last century. My verdict: this is a must-see motion picture. There’s no deliberation needed here.

“Well, what’s there to talk about? Eleven men in here think he’s guilty. No one had to think about it twice except you.”

Date of viewing: September 21, 2013

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