47. 12 Angry Men (1957)

Director: Sidney Lumet

Starring: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Martin Balsam, Jack Warden, John Fiedler, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec, Robert Webber

In the American justice system, a man is innocent until proven guilty. The burden falls upon the prosecution to prove that he/she is guilty, and then upon the jury to deliberate amongst themselves whether to deliver a “guilty” or “not guilty” verdict based on the evidence presented. If they decide upon a “not guilty” verdict, it can be because they either legitimately believe the defendant did not commit the crime of which they stand accused, or because the prosecution’s case has left room for reasonable doubt. In any event, the jurors are there to act as dispassionate arbiters. That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway.

“12 Angry Men” tells the story of one such case. An 18-year old boy is on trial having been accused of murdering his father with a switchblade knife. If he is found guilty, the boy faces the electric chair. As the jury deliberations begin, the vote is 11 guilty, 1 not guilty. The lone “not guilty” vote is Juror #8 (Henry Fonda). He expresses reasonable doubt. The most vocal of the other 11 can only express frustration.

They’ve all been called to “perform their civic duty,” but it’s clear that some want to get this thing over with ASAP. Jurors #3 (Lee J. Cobb) and #10 (Ed Begley) have clearly come in with certain prejudices, and seem more interested in labeling the kid a criminal based on his background and where he happens to live. Juror #7 (Jack Warden) would rather be at a baseball game than a sweaty jury room. Juror #4 (E.G. Marshall), although he is stubborn in his belief that the prosecution’s case is sound, at least is able to offer an explanation for his “guilty” vote without getting emotional about it. It falls to the two sides to convince the other where they might be wrong.

“12 Angry Men” carries out like a stage play, and that’s no accident. I took drama in high school and, if ever there was a play we didn’t perform that I wish we had, it would have been “12 Angry Men.” I would have cherished the role of Juror #8. One aspect that makes “12 Angry Men” stand out as a classic film that deserves to be studied for years to come is that all twelve of the jurors are equally well-acted, and each are given fleshed-out backgrounds. I’m particularly fond of Jurors #3, #4, #7 and (of course) #8. Add to that the genius choices of having the characters remain unnamed as well as the guilt/innocence of the defendant remaining unanswered. These are completely irrelevant to the heart of the story, not to mention contrary to the purpose of a jury. Those twelve men are not there to “find the real killer.” All they have to do is decide if the man on trial is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

  1. Ian says:

    Makes me wanna see the movie!

  2. Niejan says:

    I really enjoyed watching this one. Nice review.

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