I first watched 12 Angry Men (1957) some 20-odd years ago and was delighted, as a callow teenager, to find it more than living up to its reputation. So, 20-odd years on, does it stand up to a second viewing?
Written by Reginald Rose and directed by Sidney Lumet, this story of a jury debating, on the hottest day of the year, the apparently open-and-shut guilt of an 18 year-old accused of stabbing his father to death is played out in real time and famously filmed almost entirely, after a few brief establishing scenes, in the jury’s deliberation room. The interest comes in the form of a single juror — played by Henry Fonda, also acting as producer — who seeks to throw reasonable doubt on the evidence they’ve been listening to in court for the last week or so. As he gradually wins others round to his point of view, deep rifts open up in this group of ostensible strangers, and the various intolerances in the room begin to make themselves known.
Right from the off, Rose’s dialogue is wonderful, establishing the inevitable divisions between the men (“You’re a real baseball fan, aren’t ya?”) as well as stirring the pot on the tensions that will, very soon, begin to boil over (“She’s one of them too, isn’t she?”). The jurors — all men, as the title suggests, though some of them very mild-mannered — at first unify against Fonda, but as the conversation progresses, little matters, such as the defendant getting lumped with a public prosecutor who may not have been motivated to do a sterling job, being to prise open the gaps which exist, showing how the privilege (“He was born in a slum; slums are breeding grounds for criminals — I know it and so do you.”), preconceptions, prejudices, and petty-mindedness of these men have potentially had more of a say in their conclusions than any of the evidence they’ve been shown.
Bit by bit the details of the crime emerge: not just the timeline and the case for the prosecution that adds up to indicate the suspect’s guilt, but also the reasons given for finding the suspect’s story doubtful: his convenient loss of the distinctive knife found in the murdered man’s chest, his inability to remember any detail of the films he claimed to have been watching when the murder took place. And yet the preconceptions of the men assigned the task of sending him to his death see only doubts in the defence, leaving it to Fonda’s architect — perhaps the greatest amateur sleuth ever to grace the screen, given the acuity with which he picks apart every aspect of the case — to slowly turn to tide by using their lazy reasoning against them (“Well, I think testimony that could put a boy in the electric chair should be that accurate.”).
Fonda is singled out from the beginning: the only stationary presence in the room in the opening extended shot, the subject of the shot after the first cut, initially keeping his suit on as the temperature rises — as if the mere matter of physical discomfort is too minor to warrant consideration — failing to respond to the little instances of friendly approach from the other jurors, remaining sitting down as other prowl around the room while tempers fray…and when he eventually moves it’s to surge to his feet and hurl into proceedings a development that begins the crumbling of the edifice of that automatic presumption of guilt. You really feel here the gears grinding on the change of focus of the genre in the years leading up to this: Fonda plays essentially a lone sleuth, but the background of social difficulties and a loosely-framed racial tension lean more into the crime story than that of pure detection. It’s a difficult gulf to bridge, but Rose’s screenplay does an admirable job, aided by Fonda’s admittedly slightly one-note Juror 8.
Watching this again, it struck me how little reason there initially is behind Fonda’s objection, as if the jumping-off point of the film needs to make him seem irrational at first, but in a way this makes the slow examination of those around him all the more enjoyable. Look at the surprisingly moving speech given by Joseph Sweeney’s Juror 9, laying out the quiet, miserable, ignored life of a faded and unimportant old man that clearly cuts very close to home, and the wordless shaking of his head that follows in stark silence when he’s challenged on this summation (“What do you know about it?”). Equally, the picking apart of idiomatic expressions and precise speech — “He don’t even speak good English…” — shows an almost forensic level of detail in Rose’s script that more than justifies the simple setting, so that these diamonds of ideas might glimmer a little more brightly.
And, more intelligently still, Fonda’s naysayer doesn’t have it all his own way: as others begin to come round to his way of thinking, intelligent discourse is had — when Lee J. Cobb’s scene-chewing irritable Juror 2 will allow it — as the men finally get down to doing their job and pick apart what they’ve been told from both sides (“Remember he lived in a neighbourhood where screams were fairly commonplace…”) and end up stumbling over their own laziness (“He was an old man, half the time he was confused; how can he be positive about anything?”). And this makes the building up of his defence case all the more telling: the re-enactment of the old man’s walk from the bed to the corridor, inviting a discussion on lawyerly practices, subject to the very opposition it should be given the seriousness of the decision in their hands…and culminating in that wonderful verbal callback which is perhaps one of the best chef’s kiss moments in cinema.
Lumet’s direction is also superbly kinetic for such a simple setup. The camera is rarely still except when focussing in on a single person for effect, and the cast of wonderful character actors deliver their lines while prowling around, removing clothing, mopping their faces…all the little idioms of bad ‘busy’ acting that folds in beautifully for how naturally it strikes the eye. Hands twitch on cigarettes, the overlapping dialogue manages to tell its own story as the Not Guilty contingent grows and cavils more openly with those who insist on guilt, hands are thrown around a lot…it’s glorious old-fashioned film-making and delightful to revisit. And in the moments where tensions either reach a head or boil off entirely, Lumet uses silence brilliantly, with a minimum of musical cues — possibly none at all, in fact, I’m afraid I was too swept up to notice — to tell you that something is significant, realising that any moment not filled with Rose’s crackling dialogue will tell its own story. And the blocking of some of the shots, trying to frame up to 12 people at once without making it look too busy, or partitioning off a meaningful subset while making their movement into those positions feel organic, shows a real master at work.
And so, 20-some years later, 12 Angry Men is still a compelling delight: serious without being too sombre (“Number 1…oh, that’s me…”), intelligent without getting carried away with its ideas, full of clever little analogies (the rain breaking and the fan beginning to work just as the vote reveals itself to be turning — “Things are looking up here, huh?”), and a masterpiece of character work being folded into plotting such that both shine through magnificently. Sure, it’s a little heavy-handed at times (the whole “prejudice always obscures the truth” speech after the empty xenophobic rambling of Ed Begley’s Juror 10 is perhaps a step too far), and a couple of the conversions don’t fully convince, but as a piece of classic cinema it deserves its reputation, and does a wonderful job in its surprisingly compact runtime.
Man, they don’t make ’em like this any more. And, no — I will not watch the remake.
16 thoughts on “#1062: “That’s exactly the point this gentleman has been making.” – A Day Out for the Armchair Detective in 12 Angry Men (1957) [Scr. Reginald Rose, Dir. Sidney Lumet]”
I think that even some the accurate logical objections to the script (that bringing a new exhibit into the jury room would result in an instant mistrial, that there are points that even the most resigned and jaded public defender would not overlook, etc…) are missing the point. This is, after all, a textbook survey of the biases and weaknesses of jury members (one unique type of human prejudice for each different juror) made to feel as real, human, and compelling as possible. It could have been made more realistic, but not without losing some of its power and encyclopedic ground.
Oh, agreed, someone looking for a realistic jury movie needs to search elsewhere — Fonda’s far too perceptive, a handful of the ‘conversions’ seem to occur purely because the tide is turning (itself emblematic of problematic psychology…), lord alone knows it’s not realistic. But it’s compelling and, as you say, the characters are incredible.
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Actually, the psychology of the conversions has never bothered me— I believe a lot of people DO change their conviction just because everybody else is doing it. No, for me it’s more the unrealism of the symmetry— one racial bigot, one whose personal dynamics with his family get in the way, one who is impatient to be elsewhere, etc…— that at once makes it fantasy but is also the point. Three who wanted to go to the baseball game would make more realistic sense (maybe one of whom was also a bigot, not a single different problem for each juror), but wouldn’t serve the symbolic representative power of the story. And it would be a major loss to the story not to have the second knife, but of course realistically that would be the end of the story. Ultimately, it’s an unrealistic parable made to seem as realistic as possible through effective acting and directing. And I love it for that.
I had the opportunity to direct the play at school, and we had a grand time. Due to my population, it was “Twelve Angry People,” and it was amazing how difficult it was to give male members of the cast any of the “sympathetic” roles – but I did it. Everyone had to create their personal biography that made them the way they were; one of the most realistic aspects of the play/screenplay is how little jurors reveal of themselves in the course of a trial. (I know that from a couple of personal experiences, too.)
I know you’re not quite the “movie” person as a rule, but as a huge Sidney Lumet fan, I have to say that if you haven’t seen THE VERDICT, you must. Again, we’re learning about a man through his profession as lawyer and everything – from Paul Newman’s bravura performance to the soundtrack – is another brilliant take on how the system not only favors the powerful but seeks to grind down the little man. And the final scene with Lindsay Crouse . . . God, I hope you’ve seen this one!!
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Yes, and despite how good the play can be, any production of it sheds light on Lumet’s brilliance. It may look like just a matter of carefully preserving performances on camera, but it’s far more than that. It’s a matter of subtly designed cinematic dynamics, nearly invisible to most eyes but highly effective.
It also demonstrates how wise was the decision to assign Murder on the Orient Express to Lumet. Now, I’ll admit that I don’t find the film entirely satisfactory (I really don’t think it’s a novel that could ever provide the basis for an entirely satisfactory movie). For, look what it has against it: it’s a film that consists of the investigation of a murder that takes place offscreen, made up of individual interviews of (primarily) seated people in small cabins of a non-moving train. It’s really even more of a talk-fest than Twelve Angry Men. It’s a marvel that it works as well as it does, and that’s largely due to Lumet. All subsequent remakes could do was find new directions to take it in, none of which have been deemed generally satisfactory.
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It’s not for nothing that he was known as an actor’s director, due to his work on the stage and TV, and that made “talky” movies like 12AM and MotOE vibrant. (Although MotOE is an extremely visual film as well, due to how well Lumet makes a character out of the train.) In both films, he creates terrific suspense out of enforced claustrophobia. And of course both movies are about finding real justice for/against a suspected criminal. Still, I think 12AM ultimately has the dramatic advantage because it trades on the inherent differences of its characters while, all appearances to the contrary, the people in MotOE are more alike than not. And, of course, it’s really mostly a series of informational interviews for most of its runtime.
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I love The Verdict, saw it when it came out. Not 100% convinced that Galvin’s final speech is as it good as it needs to be but it is an exceptional film – the sombre look, the perfect cast, the great cast, the terrific plot, all working together in perfect sync. Great filmmaking.
The incredible craft shown by Lumet in this movie is even more amazing when you realize it was his first film. He’d done only TV plays before. And Reginald Rose came from the same background.
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Lumet was also a member
Of the Actor’s Studio and directed for the stage; hence, his reputation as an actor’s director.
Stupidly, I failed to look up Lumet’s filmography before writing the above, so I didn’t realise this was his first film. Holy hell, what a talent!
I have not seen The Verdict, no, but after rewatching this I’m tempted to check out much more Lumet…hell, he might have even convinced me to board the Orient Express. So watch this space,
Love that assignment of giving the actors the task of establishing why their characters ended up the way they did. I imagine they had a lot of fun with that.
I’m a bit Lumet fan – most of his genre films are very hard-hitting police dramas like SERPICO but he was notoriously prolific (Paul Newman once said of him that he could double park outside a bordello) – DOG DAY AFTERNOON is his best I think though I like all the films he made with Connery. He did some lighter films, like DEATHTRAP, and filmed the first George Smiley book very well as THE DEADLY AFFAIR – commercially MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS was his most successful. But I still think Finney is very hammy in that one and basically miscast. I much prefer Branagh and Ustinov in the role when it comes to cinema versions.
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My dad used to rave about this and he was definitely right to do so and I definitely need to watch it again as my wife has never seen it. The way the testimony is broken down piece by piece to show reasonable doubt. The way that the jurors swing round to Fonda’s side and start to make their own arguments. It’s a masterpiece.
I heard a lot about “classic” movies growing up, and while some of them left me completely nonplussed — seriously, what does everyone see in The Godfather?? — this was one of a handful that hit hard and left a lasting impression. Hence my jumping at the chance to watch it a second time.
I watch far, far less these days, but I’m tempted to try and track down a few classics — Witness for the Prosecution, I’m looking at you — to see if they have the same impact.
I re-watched this at Christmas as one of my 18-year-old nieces (I have two) had it on a list of films she should see, most of which were a bit dark for the season (Taxi Driver was in there – great film but not a post-pramdial family movie). And she and her sister and her parents were all enthralled, which was such a relief as I felt it would feel too remote what with its lack of score, black and white cinematography and all-male cast. Well worth seeing the original TV play, broadcast live from New York with some of the same supporting actors. You can view it online:
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Looks like my YouTube link vanished: trying again:
Hope that is visible?