A young man is accused of stabbing his abusive father to death. 12 jurors assemble in a room to vote and discuss whether he is guilty or not. The verdict must be unanimous. If there is any reasonable doubt, the men must return a verdict of not guilty. If the young man is found guilty he will be executed by electric chair. The men hold a preliminary vote in which everyone states that they think the young man is guilty- except one. Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) states that he would like to discuss the crime and the events surrounding it with the other jurors.
12 Angry Men is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking. It was originally performed as a teleplay of the same name and then adapted for the stage and then this feature film production. The cast here is flawless and includes such luminaries as Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall and Jack Warden.
Regarding the men on the jury, there is such a diversity of social class, opinion and experience. We have the blue-collar worker rubbing shoulders with an architect and advertising executive. We also have a wide range of ages.
It feels like all of life is here. We have the jurors who have let their prejudices regarding class and race cloud their objectivity and hence why they think he is guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt. We also have those who have the strength to hold their own opinions in the face of opposition or at least are willing to discuss them with the other jurors even though everyone else thinks that the accused is guilty. There are also the jurors who have the strength to change their opinion from guilty to not guilty. Finally, we have those who go with the majority no matter what. They just want to fit in with no thought of their own. I couldn’t help but think of social media comment sections on news stories when I watched 12 Angry Men.
Through logic and by using his intellect, Juror 8 demonstrates how the accused could very well be not guilty. Juror 8 is akin to a saint in a white suit. This is in stark contrast to Juror 10 (Ed Begley) and his vile out-and-out lynch-mob racism and the loud-mouthed rage-consumed tirades of Juror 3 (J Lee Cobb) who is ready to send the young man to the electric chair and will relish it when it happens. In fact, it’s this character who goes through the biggest character arc by the end of the film as it’s obvious that he is projecting his estranged relationship with his son onto the young man who stands accused. This final scene with this character is extremely powerful as is the aftermath with Fonda helping him put on his suit jacket as the men leave the room.
The fact that all of the action mostly takes place in one room but never feels tired or monotonous is another reason why director Sidney Lumet did such a sterling job. I love the fact that it’s a sweltering day when all of the action takes place. These are the perfect conditions for such a tinderbox of a movie. You can almost feel the heat.
In fact one of the scenes that doesn’t take place in this room is at the very start of the movie when we see the jurors leaving the courtroom. Powerfully, we also see the young man whose life hangs in the balance.
I also love that for most of the film, there are no character names but just juror numbers. Earlier on in the film when a juror’s name is asked to be verified on a list, the character doesn’t state his name but points to it on a checklist. Only two names are revealed and this is during the film’s conclusion.
12 Angry Men was remade in 1997 by William Friedkin. In anyone else’s hands, this remake would have felt unnecessary and a pale imitation. In Friedkin’s hands, it’s amazing and well worth checking out.
But the original is the best. It would sound like a hackneyed cliche to state that 12 Angry Men is just as relevant now as it was when it was made. But it’s true.