It has been an absolute delight getting to deliver a third round of film reviews for the Decades Blogathon! On behalf of my excellent co-host Mark, of Three Rows Back, I would like to give everyone another round of applause for taking the time to write something for our little event. You guys make it possible. With any luck we’ll be back again for another, so if you found yourself missing out this year, keep those eyes peeled. Without further ado, here is my take on Sidney Lumet’s 1957 courtroom drama, 12 Angry Men.
Release: Saturday, April 13, 1957 (limited)
Written by: Reginald Rose
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Something I didn’t expect to take away from Sidney Lumet’s astounding feature debut 12 Angry Men was just how much perspiration would be involved in the deliberations. An equally fitting title would have been 12 Sweaty Men. Of course, the drama here is in the details and without the pit-stains, malfunctioning fans and the regular employment of handkerchiefs and cough drops throughout, we’d have a much different movie.
It’s the summer of 1954. While humidity hangs in the air thick as molasses, the fate of an 18-year-old boy hangs in the balance. These 12 men have been summoned by the New York City public court system to determine whether the accused stands guilty of murdering his own father. Because this is a murder trial a unanimous decision must be reached.
Each juror is further reminded they must set aside personal judgment in order to render a fair verdict. Behold, the crux of this particular legal drama. One particular detail worth mentioning is that the boy’s ethnicity is never explicitly stated. It’s less of an accidental omission given the film’s position on the timeline of American history. Set several years prior to the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, 12 Angry Men sticks a thermometer into the waters we were treading prior to one of the darkest decades in American history. According to what we witness in the Jurors Room, that water was already boiling.
Lumet, adapting from the 1954 teleplay of the same name created by screenwriter Reginald Rose, cracks open the file with a simple but incredibly effective establishing shot that pans up the building’s exterior, its towering pillars of justice and the cavernous enclave inside. In these rare moments outside the Jurors Room there’s great reverence for the power of the American judicial system. The deliberate framing of the shot(s) a reminder of the weight that is placed upon anyone so lucky to have their number called upon for jury duty.
The brilliance of 12 Angry Men is — well duh, it’s the screenplay — but specifically, the way it crafts drama out of simple debate. Of course, the nature of the discussion itself is far from simple but the premise isn’t much more than finding a way to reach a unanimous decision on whether an 18-year-old non-Caucasian male should receive the death penalty for actions it has been presumed he has taken. In fact that’s the only thing we’re here to discuss: the presumption of guilt.
Or, at least Henry Fonda’s Juror #8 is wanting to talk about it. A lone sheep amongst wolves, he simply asks if there should at least be some discussion about the decision to send a kid to the electric chair. In an early vote, the majority of which assume will be the only one necessary, Juror #8 is the only one to cast a dissenting opinion. The film famously sets about exploring the myriad points of view that have gotten us to this point — where only one man considers otherwise and in so doing becomes the antagonist. What kind of justice is this? That’s a question Fonda would love to have answered.
12 Angry Men uses these jurors to offer a cross-section of the American public of the time. These are individuals from wildly varying walks of life and with different sets of skills, values and personal histories, and while each of them have an important part to play the real stand-outs boil down to a foursome, excluding Fonda’s pivotal Juror #8. Lee J. Cobb plays Juror #3, a loud-mouthed, self-made man who has estranged himself from his own son, perhaps fitting as he is the juror who is also the most resistant to reason and logic; Joseph Sweeney plays the elderly Juror #9, the first to change his vote after hearing #8 out; Jack Klugman as Juror #5 exudes a meek and mild personality but his rough upbringing helps the case immeasurably; and last but not least there’s E.G. Marshall as Juror #4, a man who prefers dispassionate, deductive reasoning over emotional gut-reactions.
As the debate intensifies, certain aspects of each juror’s lives prove influential in ways that are both helpful and distracting. Cobb’s bigoted Juror #3 is the biggest perpetrator of potential wrongdoing as his absolute certainty courses as a venom throughout his body. His views on the matter are both outspoken and dangerous. Other jurors of course have their reasons for holding their vote, but as we come to learn, some opinions are more shakable than others.
The performances, especially from Fonda, are magnetic. This is a film whose heart-pounding action is generated by the spirit of the discussion. Often its ferocity. 12 Angry Men is a movie about arguing, and it swallows your attention whole as it jumps dynamically and effortlessly from one consideration to another, maneuvering the minefield with deft precision you’d think this were actually written by someone with experience in case-building. But fundamentally the film isn’t as interested in the minutiae of legal proceedings as it is in finding the humanity, finding decency. Finding justice.
Recommendation: A scintillating, razor-sharp screenplay and some fine performances from a versatile and impressive ensemble make 12 Angry Men a legal drama for the ages. Hands down one of the best of its genre and one of the better movies from the ’50s in general. How it has taken me until the Decades Blogathon to watch this thing is beyond me, but am I glad that I have finally. An epic saga that unfolds in a single room and over the course of an hour and a half.
Running Time: 96 mins.
Quoted: “You don’t really mean you’ll kill me, do you?”
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