Summary: A jury deliberates in a murder trial of a teenager accused of killing his father.
Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men is a remarkable piece of cinema in spite of itself. It’s a sudsy liberal social drama and it telegraphs its emotions, and it’s talky as hell, but it’s a riveting 90 minutes, all the more so when you realise you’re not simply watching a civics lesson disguised as a drama. Sure, it’s about democracy and justice and what it means to hold a person’s life in your hands (it’s a death penalty case), but it’s also about class and education and prejudice, about the things that hold communities together and the things that can tear them apart. And the title is accurate: Twelve Slightly Irritable Men wouldn’t exactly draw the crowds.
The action takes place in one room in real time, and yet at no point does it feel like you’re watching a filmed piece of theatre. In fact, it was a television play before it was a movie, but the film is superbly acted, directed (and photographed) with a great deal of skill.
The sweaty, smoke-filled jury room is not large; this is a claustrophobic film, and the crisp black and white cinematography by Boris Kaufman uses deep focus to keep all twelve men equal in the frame. For is that not the point? Although Henry Fonda is the hero in a part that seems tailored for him (at the beginning he’s the only one who votes Not Guilty; the others harangue him), each of the twelve men gets equal time, a back-story and a chance to explain himself. The film’s great strength is that any one of the twelve could be the protagonist. No one has a monopoly on the truth (I think that’s actually a line in the film), and it is the sole immigrant who points out to the others how wonderful democracy is; to decide the guilt or innocence of a stranger.
The twelve are all types: liberal, reactionary, intellectual, joker, and so on. Archetypes generally don’t work well in modern drama: it’s too clunky a device, but they work very well here, probably because the twelve are so well-cast with brilliant character actors, and over the course of the film the characters become more detailed. Nobody is named (until the end: more on that later), and how each wears his clothes and how he smokes and how he talks marks class and education differences, as well as telling us where they’re from. This is a New York story, so rough and broad Queens and Brooklyn accents mingle with the more refined voices of the Upper East Side.
The twelve are:
- Martin Balsam, eager to follow procedure about calling for votes and so on, just a little too satisfied that he’s the foreman. There’s a very subtle moment when we learn that he’s an assistant coach at a high school.
- The diminutive John Fiedler as a fussy, nervous bank clerk, a man who’s probably been bullied his whole life.
- Lee J. Cobb, with five o clock shadow and his tie askew, as the chief antagonist – a brutal reactionary, the most aggressive juror, and the most convinced that the defendant is guilty.. He’s fallen out with his adult son – “Kids! You work your whole life” – and relishes delivering a guilty verdict.
- E.G. Marshall as a pompous stockbroker, a smug, clever superior type who presents himself as a rational intellectual. He doesn’t even sweat in the heat (it’s probably beneath him).
- A young Jack Klugman (my God, Quincy!), a quiet man who has risen out of the slums. “Maybe you can still smell the garbage on me.” He knows how to use a switchblade but they terrify him.
- Edward Binns as a working stiff, not given to thinking much – “my boss does the supposing” – but quick to defend the underdog.
- Jack Warden, a crass salesman, a loudmouth joker – “you ought to be in Atlantic City at the Hairsplitters Convention” – who wants to hurry things up so he can catch the ball game.
- Henry Fonda, an architect in an apparently unwrinkable white suit, not at all comfortable with the idea of sending a kid to the chair without giving some time to talk about the matter. “I just want to talk … I feel we owe him a few words.”
- Joseph Sweeney as a canny, very observant old man; the first to change his vote. “This gentleman has been standing alone against us … It`s not easy to stand alone against the ridicule of others, so he gambled for support, and I gave it to him.“
- Ed Begley as a virulent racist. “You know how these people lie; it`s born in them … they get drunk, they`re real big drinkers, you know that, and bam! someone`s lying in the gutter … human life don`t mean as much to them as it does to us!“
- George Voskovec, a polite, soft-spoken immigrant watchmaker. “I don’t have to defend my decision to you.”
- Robert Webber as a shallow Madison Avenue advertising man. “Let’s throw this idea out on the stoop and see if the cat licks it up.“
What maintains the tension is that the twelve are locked in the room suffering in the heat, and the fan doesn’t work. The very good script by Reginald Rose has a a couple of moments that are a little weak and theatrical, mostly involving Begley and Cobb, who both give the broadest performances. When Begley goes on a racist tirade, the others turn their backs on him: it`s the stagiest- and for me, the weakest – moment of the film. Cobb`s breakdown at the end is a melodramatic piece of scenery-chewing.
And the film has a near-fatal error in the beginning. There’s a quick shot of the young defendant in the courtroom: how could this child with the big eyes be a killer? I think if those five seconds were trimmed from the film, the debate among the jurors would be stronger because the audience could imagine what the kid looks like (or, to put it a different way, you could bring your own prejudice to the occasion).
Still, though, there many some wonderful moments as the jurors argue the evidence: the switchblade, the debate about how long it took an old man to get to his door, how well you can hear over the roar of an El-train.
And there are some great exchanges.
When Cobb abuses Sweeney, Binns defends the old man
Binns: A guy talks like that to an old man really out to get stepped on, you know? You ought to have more respect, Mister. If you say stuff like that to him again, I’m gonna lay you out. To Sweeney: Now, you go ahead … you say anything you like.
Begley goes over the evidence of an eye-witness
Begley: What about the woman across the street? … here`s a woman lying in bed; she can`t sleep. She looks out the window and sees the kid stick the knife right into his father …
Fonda: You don’t believe the boy’s story. How come you believe the woman`s? She’s one of them, isn`t she?
After Fonda accuses Cobb of being a sadist, and Cobb lunges at him, Cobb tries to excuse his outburst
Cobb: Where does he call off calling me a public avenger? A sadist? Anyone in his right mind would have blown his stack. He was just trying to bait me.
Marshall: He did an excellent job.
Begley’s assessment of the defendant
Begley: He’s a common ignorant slob. He don’t even speak good English.
Voskovec: He doesn’t even speak good English.
12 Angry Men is a feast for those who relish great ensemble acting, and it might make you question just how blind justice can be. The final shot shows the twelve strangers (and there`s little doubt that they are still strangers to each other) slowly walking down the courtroom steps and disperse, never to meet again. You have the sense that if any of these men ever bumped into each other again, they’d be embarrassed. Nobody is going for a drink together afterwards.
The story has been revived on stage many times, and remade as a TV movie with Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott in the Fonda and Cobb roles.
I have one more reason for liking the film. At the end, Fonda and Sweeney shake hands outside the courtroom.
Sweeney: What’s your name?
Sweeney: My name’s McArdle.
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