Sidney Lumet | 96 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | USA / English | U
Twelve people sit around in two rooms and talk for an hour and a half in more or less real time — sounds like a recipe for dull pretension, and yet 12 Angry Men is anything but. In fact, it’s probably one of the most gripping thrillers ever made.
The men in question are jurors in a trial we never see — we join the narrative as they retire to the jury room to debate their verdict. Except no debate is necessary: the kid in the dock, charged with murdering his father, is definitely guilty and destined for the electric chair. Or so eleven of the men think, because an initial count throws up one objector: Juror Eight, Henry Fonda. He doesn’t think the boy is innocent, he just thinks they should do their duty and discuss the evidence.
So discuss they do, much to the chagrin of the other men. It’s a burning hot day in New York City, we’re in an era before ubiquitous AC, and the cramped room they’re shut in doesn’t even have a working fan. The men want to get home, or to events they have tickets for, or what have you. But they have no choice, because Fonda won’t just change his vote. It’s through their deliberations that we begin to learn the facts of the case, though really these are neither here nor there: this isn’t really a trial of some minority teenager, but instead of the American justice system and these twelve men.
As the ghost of 82 discusses so well in his review, this is a film filled with first-rate performances. Fonda may be the only ‘name’, but there’s a host of recognisable faces, and every one of them is an essential cog in the film’s well-oiled machine. Screenwriter Reginald Rose has nearly doubled the length of his 51-minute teleplay*, but seems to have accomplished the extension effortlessly. The movie doesn’t feel padded, as other films with limited characters in a limited space can do, but like it’s precisely the correct length for the amount of material it needs to cover.
Slowly, steadily, surely, Fonda’s juror leads a recap of the evidence, analysing it, picking it apart, challenging presumptions and suppositions. Gradually, other jury members begin to be won over. This could be trite — of course our hero has to start convincing the others — but this is where the writing and cast shine again, because even men who seemed unswayable have their minds changed in a plausible fashion. Even then, the outcome rarely seems certain, each victory hard won, so that the film holds you rapt, desperate for sense and reason to prevail. There are moments of tension which may literally push you to the edge of your seat; moments of exultant success which may elicit an exclamation of approval similar to a point scored in a sports match.
In his Criterion essay “Lumet’s Faces” (online here), law professor Thane Rosenbaum discusses the film’s groundbreaking and unique perspective on the legal system (how many other jury-room thrillers can you think of, before or since? Not many, I bet). The film has been seen by some as a defence of the jury system: even when a defendant has a poor defender in the courtroom (as, it seems, has been the case here), or an exceptionally gifted prosecutor, the truth will out among the jury. Rosenbaum disagrees:
The presumption that jurors are impartial is dashed within the first ten minutes of the film. … The virtues of the legal system are presented through the prism of its dark side. A jury is empowered to remedy the mistakes made by the defense… but will the jurors be able to overcome the imperfections of their own humanity[?] 12 Angry Men sends a warning to be careful in courtrooms. The custodians of the system make mistakes, and the corrective possibilities may be no better than a crapshoot.
For all that 12 Angry Men seems to show justice being served in the face of adversity, what it actually shows is justice being served thanks to blind luck: if Juror Eight had been a weaker-willed man, or another who was just as prejudiced as his eleven compatriots, then the debate would never have occurred, the teenager condemned to death in the blink of an eye. What are the odds on every jury room containing a Henry Fonda? I don’t fancy them myself.
Whatever (truthful) messages the film carries about the flaws of the legal system, there’s no denying its power as a thriller. You don’t have to debate its significance to the process it depicts, you can just be engrossed by the twists and turns of its story, be captivated by the twelve three-dimensional people it presents, complete with their own ideas, desires, and prejudices. Legal dramas are a dime a dozen on TV, but most still avoid the jury room. The unbetterableness of 12 Angry Men is probably why.
12 Angry Men placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.
* Trivia time! Sidney Lumet directed over 40 episodes of television before this, his debut feature, but the original 12 Angry Men wasn’t among them. That was helmed by Franklin Schaffner. A lesser-known name than the acclaimed Lumet, I’d say, Schaffner went on to direct Planet of the Apes and Patton, and for the latter won a Best Director Oscar — something that, despite four nominations, Lumet never managed. ^