12 Angry Men (1957)

“He’s a common, ignorant slob. He don’t even speak good English.”

Synopsis:
A jury forman (Martin Balsam) assumes that deliberations on the murder trial of a Puerto Rican teenager will go smoothly and quickly, and most of the 12 men are eager to simply go home. But a dissenting “not guilty” voter (Henry Fonda) — hoping to hash out details of the case to determine any reasonable doubt — soon has most of his fellow jurors beginning to rethink their assumptions, with the exception of two unyielding bigots (Lee J. Cobb and Ed Begley).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this adaptation of Reginald Rose’s teleplay of the same name features “flawless direction by Sidney Lumet (his film debut)” and an “ingenious script” in which jurors are “questioning evidence, reenacting crime, theorizing about the witnesses’ motives for accusing the young boy of murder, and getting the most resistant among them… to reveal the prejudices that have influenced their verdicts.” He notes that the film is “fascinating and exciting”, while acknowledging skepticism that “a group of diverse Americans will make the right decision because those who are biased will be outnumbered”. He points out that the “most interesting aspect of the film is the concept of hero: few movies characters are more admirable than Henry Fonda, who stands fast against 11 jurors” — but “Rose’s valid point is that he can’t do it alone”. Finally, Peary notes that while this film is “idealistic… it’s not dated (as anyone who has recently served on a jury knows)”.

I’m a huge fan of this surprisingly gripping nearly-one-room drama, which I rewatch periodically and am drawn into time and again. Fonda’s performance is outstanding, but so are those of all the other (mostly unknown) actors. Meanwhile, it’s clear how much thought and effort were put into every minute of the production, from acting to staging; as noted in TCM’s article:

During rehearsals, Lumet and cinematographer Boris Kaufman set up their shots in an actual NYC jury room, blueprinting 365 separate takes from every aspect of the claustrophobic set. The end result, after only 17 days of shooting, is a masterful job of spare, lean black and white filmmaking, crafted in an era when big screens, big locales and bold color were deemed an absolute necessity.

While watching this film, we genuinely feel we’re being taken on a carefully calibrated ride across both the challenges and the benefits of our very-human justice system. As noted by James Kendrick in his review for Qnetwork, “The resistance of the other jurors to discussing the seemingly open-and-shut case is a compelling means of depicting how the system works only when those involved accept the moral weight of their roles.” DVD Savant adds that: “On one level the jury isn’t much better than a mob — most of these men are quite willing to go along with the perceived majority opinion without really thinking about the case. Only when challenged to actually apply themselves to their appointed task do the sensitive thinkers advance their personal opinions.”

Note: The opening establishing shot reminds me both visually and aurally of Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries — though Wiseman would linger longer and add several more establishing shots before moving into “the action”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A uniformly excellent cast, through-and-through



  • Fine camerawork and direction within a confined space

Must See?
Yes, as a true classic — one well worth revisiting regularly.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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2 Responses to “12 Angry Men (1957)”

  1. A no-brainer must-see, as (easily) one of the best films of the 1950s; and for its ensemble acting, its camerawork, its script and Lumet’s direction.

    Another one of those films that can simply pull me in when I begin watching it – and it holds firm throughout. I haven’t revisited it a lot but, by now, I’ve probably seen it about 5 times over the years.

    It can be seen from a removed viewpoint (those observing can see it as merely a study of a jury) or as something pointed toward the audience (as we begin to ask ourselves the questions these jurors ask of each other: what, in life, do we base our judgments of people and their actions on? – objectivity or prejudice?).

    Rose’s script is crackerjack and tight as a drum so the film might have been just as effective without the concerted effort that Lumet and Kaufman put into elevating a static setting to an electric one. But the film and the cast do benefit from the extra effort: it’s not too little and not too much; this is not a showy piece.

    I believe this is the only film that Fonda ever co-produced. It would seem that the subtle use of the theme of prejudice was something that resonated with the actor. Still, his performance (as are all of the performances) is appropriately subservient to the material.

    Side note: In 1991, a sort of parody of this film was produced in Japan – called ’12 Gentle Japanese’… in which – at the film’s opening – 11 jurors held a verdict of ‘innocent’ and one wanted to cast a vote ‘guilty’. At the time, Japan did not have a jury system (though it did have one from 1928 to 1943.) Interestingly (and perhaps sparked by the 1991 film), Japan brought the jury system back for criminal cases in 2009.

  2. A riveting drama and a true classic: must see.

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