12 Angry Men (1957)

Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenwriter: Reginald Rose
Adapted from: 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose
Cast: Henry Fonda, Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec, Robert Webber
Nominations: Picture, Director – Sidney Lumet, Adapted Screenplay

The greatness of 12 Angry Men cannot be overstated.  It is, with a doubt, an essential American film featuring the highest qualities of acting, writing, and directing.  Every aspect of the film could be a master class in filmmaking—just don’t use it as guide to serving on a jury, seeing as some of the arguments and actions made by Juror #8 are decidedly juror misconduct, which would most likely result in a mistrial with Juror #8 possibly suffering legal consequences for violating trial procedures.  But you know, if we can suspend disbelief to believe in sagas about galaxies far, far away and worlds populated by dwarfs and elves, we can afford the same privilege to an intimate courtroom drama.

There isn’t much I can add to the already rich scholarship and analyses of 12 Angry Men because it is such a cinematic touchstone.  The film’s mostly single setting of the jury room increases our connection to the jurors because we’re right there in the room with them.  Throughout the film, the camera descends from high angles with wide lenses to eye level to low angles with tight close-ups and telephoto lenses, symbolizing not just the increased intensity of the claustrophobic setting but also how the jurors are coming closer together with a unanimous verdict. 

What I find interesting about Juror #8’s position at the start of the film evolves greatly within the length of the first act.  Initially, he just wants to discuss the evidence, have a conversation about the trial—something you’d hope every jury does, right?  Then, about 28 minutes in, he reveals an identical knife used in the murder.  He’s gone from, “I just think we owe [the defendant] a few words, that’s all,” to a full-on crusade to convince the others that the defendant is not guilty.  The irony is by the end of the film, Juror #8 is not only in the same position as Juror #3 was at the beginning of the film, but he’s also attacking Juror #3 in the same way Juror #3 attacked him.  Really, the only difference is that Juror #8 took a more considered and reserved approach to his arguments; he didn’t try to intimidate the others like Juror #3, at least at first, so he’s better able to draw the other jurors to his side.  To further Juror #8’s intimidation of Juror #3, he’s standing, towering over the rest of the jurors, a metaphor of justice and righteousness—which is emphasized by the fact that he’s wearing white.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that Juror #8 isn’t worth admiring for his ideals or that his critical thinking is skewed.  Just try this thought experiment, though: what if the original vote was 11-1 not guilty and Juror #8 was the holdout?  Would we appreciate his efforts as much if he was able to persuade eleven others of the defendant’s guilt?  Would we value his arguments if he could demonstrate that the old man could walk the distance of the hall in 20 seconds, that the angle of the knife made sense, that the woman did put on her glasses and could see through the windows of the passing train? 

I don’t know if there are any good answers to those questions, but what an interesting movie that would be, but I have doubts it wouldn’t be as memorable or powerful as 12 Angry Men.  Of course, I’m open to hearing arguments.  Convince me.