12 Angry Men (United States, 1957)

January 03, 2015
A movie review by James Berardinelli
12 Angry Men Poster

There have been two exceptional versions of Reginald Rose's teleplay, 12 Angry Men. The first (and better known) was the 1957 adaptation, which starred such luminaries as Henry Fonda, Jack Warden, E.G. Marshall, Martin Balsam, Jack Klugman, and Lee J. Cobb, and was directed by Sidney Lumet. The 1997 made-for-TV remake, helmed by William Friedkin, brought even more star power to the screen: George C. Scott, Jack Lemmon, James Gandolfini, Edward James Olmos, Ossie Davis, and Hume Cronyn (among others). It's a credit to Rose's writing that only minor updates were needed to bridge the 40 year gap between the two editions. Although the contributions made by Lumet and Friedkin shouldn't be overlooked (Lumet in particular left his brand), 12 Angry Men is primarily about acting and dialogue. It's a murder mystery wrapped around social commentary that simultaneously indicts and celebrates the American judicial process.

The movie, which plays out in real time, goes inside the deliberation room alongside a jury tasked with determining the guilt or innocence of an unnamed suspect accused of first-degree murder. 11 of the 12 men initially vote "guilty." The one holdout is Juror #8 (Henry Fonda); he harbors a reasonable doubt about the defendant's culpability and, as he lays out his case, others listen. Soon, Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney), an elderly man, changes his vote. As the movie progresses and the prosecution's case is examined, the tide shifts from "guilty" to "not guilty." Juror #7 (Jack Warden) is willing to vote for whichever side is most likely to get him to his 8 pm baseball game. Juror #10 (Ed Begley) is afflicted with a deeply rooted bigotry that colors his perception. And Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb) uses the yardstick of his own past to judge another man's present.

12 Angry Men is characterized by two distinct narrative elements. The first is a traditional murder mystery whodunit in which the jurors argue about physical evidence and testimony. The end goal is not to determine precisely what happened on the night in question but to lay out various possibilities. The film also explores the inner workings of what transpires in the jury room - how more goes into the determination of a verdict than whether an accused person is innocent or guilty of a crime. The film is more successful in its pursuit of the latter than the former. That's often the case with "detective story" movies, where time constraints demand that coincidence and contrivance become major factors in the resolution. There's some of that going on in 12 Angry Men although it helps that the story doesn't demand a definitive answer to the question of the defendant's guilt. The movie isn't really about the crime; it's about what goes on during the 90+ minutes when the jurors are analyzing it.

As the story unfolds we learn more about the personalities of jurors and the sometimes heated conflicts among the men are brought to the fore. Juror #8 is the voice of reason and moderation. He openly acknowledges that he doesn't know whether the defendant is guilty or innocent but he's unwilling to make a determination about whether a man should live or die without a thoughtful deliberation. Some of the jurors take their roles seriously including the foreman (Martin Balsam) and the purely logical Juror #4 (E.G. Marshall). Others, however, are compelled by concerns having nothing to do with jurisprudence. Juror #7 is more concerned about being able to make his baseball game then about whether justice is done. Jurors #3 and #10 are blinded by personal demons. They see not a man in the dock but a stereotype or a representative of something ugly from their own lives.

The issues that arise illustrate how guilt and innocence are determined. We would like to believe that verdicts result from the merits of the case but the actuality is more complex. O.J. Simpson was in part acquitted because of biases brought into the deliberation room by the jurors. This is one area in which 12 Angry Men provides compelling and on-target drama. The only instance in which it fails to ring true, and this is in large part because of how attitudes have changed since 1957, is the over-the-top bigotry displayed by Juror #10. His prejudice is so overt that, as seen by a 2015 audience, its believability is strained.

On the surface, it might seem that spending an hour and a half listening to men talking could provide a rather dull cinematic experience. However, the stakes of those deliberations are so high, the personalities of the jurors so forceful, and the arguments so pregnant with importance that there is no instance in which boredom threatens. We are told that this is the hottest day of summer. The fan isn't working. Sweat glistens on faces and drips from brows. Director Sidney Lumet uses this as one of several devices to enhance tension. The heat amplifies the sense of claustrophobia - something achieved through camera placement and shot selection. Lumet also ensures that the set is reflective of a real-life jury deliberation room. He shot the film sequentially - something permitted by the single room setting and the real time structure of 12 Angry Men.

At the time when Lumet made 12 Angry Men, he was a television director who had amassed a large number of small screen credits. This represented his feature film debut. It would be another five years before he would make the full transition from TV to movies. His biggest successes - Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict - were two decades in the future yet, in many ways, his earliest picture represents some of his best work. It's lean, tightly made, and as is often the case with small budget productions, relies strongly on the script and the performances. And what performances they are!

It's not strange that 12 Angry Men didn't win any Oscars at the 1958 ceremony. It was, after all, up against The Bridge on the River Kwai. What is surprising is that none of the 12 actors were nominated. Maybe they canceled each other out. Maybe it was difficult figuring out whether Henry Fonda should be considered in the Lead or Supporting category. Whatever the reason, several memorable portrayals were overlooked - most notably Fonda in the role he did so well as the Upright Man, Lee J. Cobb as the brash, aggressive juror whose relationship with his estranged son makes him all-too-willing to accept the defendant's guilt, and Jack Warden as the increasingly irritating wisecracker. Fonda's work is even more impressive when one considers that he wasn't overshadowed 40 years later when Jack Lemmon essayed Juror #8. (Cobb, however, met his match in George C. Scott, but there's certainly no shame in that.)

12 Angry Men isn't a perfect movie but, aside from the clich├ęd portrayal of Juror #10, which is more an indictment of the era when the film was made than the performance of Ed Begley, it has aged well. The issues addressed are as relevant today as they were in 1957 - could a "guilty" verdict be the result of a poor defense lawyer, how do racial attitudes and stereotypes fit into a juror's reaction, and are the people in the room more concerned about getting back to their own lives than arriving at the best decision? The 1997 remake is nearly as good as the 1957 iteration, although I prefer Lumet's version - the black-and-white lends a stark quality and there's a simple, economical quality to the way events unfold. As much as I enjoyed seeing different actors saying familiar lines, there was no need to update the 1957 film; it stands the test of time.

12 Angry Men (United States, 1957)

Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR"
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1