12 Angry Men – 1957
Director – Sidney Lumet
Starring – Henry Fonda, Jack Klugman, and Lee J. Cobb
The legal system is a funny thing. By and large it works on the notion of truth, the differentiation between lies and provable fact. The problem is, that since all of these definitions and judgements are filtered through, and interpreted by other human beings, it’s nearly impossible to keep prejudice, opinion and point of view from clouding the “truth”, and making an unbiased result a near impossibility.
12 Angry Men seeks to scrutinize the process of determining a mans guilt or innocence by watching that process unfold. Henry Fonda plays juror number 8, the one man on the jury of a murder trial who hasn’t pre-decided the fate of a young man who is accused of stabbing his father to death. Each of the other jurors has their own individual reasons for thinking he is guilty, although none of them have anything to do with the facts in the case and have more to do with their own biases. The entire duration of the film is tied up in the task of separating perception and fact, and as a result the internal, and is some cases subconscious motivations of each of the jurors is laid bare.
One major theme in this film is prejudice. Whether its prejudice against the young man because of where he comes from (a poor, immigrant neighborhood), or prejudice in favor of ones own interests (the man who wants the trial over with so he can get to his baseball game), the film is really asking what form of prejudice do you, the viewer, subscribe to, and are you able to understand it and take responsibility for it? To a certain degree we are all guilty of this manner of behavior at one level or another, but like juror 8 we are also capable of standing up for what is right, understanding when we’ve made a mistake, and changing course when we are wrong. The biggest takeaway from this film is the idea of personal redemption. Yes, the personal redemption that is on display in the film, but moreover the potential for our own personal redemption. Despite the dramatic story acting as a vehicle for the message, it is the audience that is under scrutiny the entire time.
The jurors are a vehicle through which we can see ourselves. The young man accused of murder is not even a character that we get to know. All we know of him is based on the impressions that we get from the completely normal, yet flawed human beings that are charged with judging him, and we in turn make our own judgements based on what we think of them. It quickly becomes apparent how fragile and important the system is that decides a man’s fate can be. Not based on the color of his skin, his occupation, the neighborhood he grew up in, or much more scary, what else you have going on in YOUR life, but by the definable and provable facts of what he (or she) did or didn’t do.
As usual, Henry Fonda plays the role of our system’s super-ego to a tee (a role he has worked on and perfected in another film I had the pleasure of seeing and reviewing, “The Ox-bow Incident”). With his furrowed brow, stoic features, and piercing eyes, he was born to take on the good guy role (precisely why he is so good as the villain in “Once Upon a Time in the West”). Similarly, the gravely voice, gruff “angry-father” demeanor, and intense stare, make Lee J. Cobb a perfect choice as the stubborn, petulant, juror 3. Finally, despite the fact that it took me out of the story a little, it was fun to see The Odd Couple’s Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman) take a turn as a raving, racist, who doesn’t quite understand how uncomfortable he makes everyone else.
As far as cinematography goes, this film is beautiful to look at. The fact that it takes place (almost) entirely in the same room throughout the entire film is a testament to how engaging the film’s subject matter, and how talented cinematographer Boris Kaufman actually is. One scene in particular, just after the aforementioned racist rant, where each Juror is forced to listen to what they sound like and each responds with shame and disgust, is so well orchestrated that I kept thinking about it for days after seeing it.
When it comes to the films on this list, the ones you should see, some are good, some are not so good, and there are others, like 12 Angry Men, that transcend the boundaries between importance of message, and quality of work. It’s a wonder that this film came out of the 1950’s, before the bulk of the civil rights movement that would come after it. It has definitely earned it’s place on this list, and is well worth a watch. Incidentally, if you haven’t already seen it (or read the review), go watch The Ox-bow Incident too! It might actually be my favorite of the two films, but both are fantastic.
“Acting!” (said in a whisper) – Ashley