12 Angry Men (1957)

The basic idea of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men sounds simple enough.  It begins with little fanfare and the words of a judge who, it seems obvious, is not saying them for the first time:   

You’ve listened to a long and complex case of murder in the first degree.  Premeditated murder is the most serious charge tried in our criminal courts.  You’ve listened to the testimony.  You’ve had the law read to you and interpreted as it applies in this case.  It’s now your duty to sit down and separate the facts from the fancy.  One man is dead, another man’s life is at stake.  If there is a reasonable doubt in your minds as to the guilt of the accused—a reasonable doubt—then you must bring me a verdict of not guilt.  If, however, there’s no reasonable doubt, then you must, in good conscience, find the accused guilty.  However you decide, your verdict must be unanimous.  In the event you find the accused guilty, the bench will not entertain a recommendation for mercy.  The death sentence is mandatory in this case.  You’re faced with a grave responsibility.

The Courtroom

Lumet and company then begin to throw information at us.  We first get glimpses into the different thoughts of the more outspoken members of the group.  There is a casual, “open and shut case” and “we can get out of here pretty quick.”  Of course, after everyone is finally seated and the group realizes there is a loan dissenter, the others are understandably irritated.  After all, this is the system and it seems, with little doubt, to have worked. 

The Accused

The jurors are a varied group.  The first (Martin Balsam) is the assistant head coach at Andrew J. McCorkle High School in Queens.  The second (John Fiedler), a mousy (although, perhaps “piggy” might be a better adjective considering Fiedler’s later voice acting career) nebbish, says that the defendant was clearly guilty from the beginning and that the prosecution did not prove otherwise.  The third (Lee J. Cobb) admits early in the film that he has “sat on many juries.”  He runs a courier service and is proud of it.  He presents his proof of guilt clearly and has taken notes on the testimony and arguments.  “You can’t refute facts,” he insists.  Juror four (E.G. Marshall) is confident of guilt because the young man claimed to have been watching movies but was unable to remember what he had watched when questioned.  Juror five (Jack Klugman), a man of similar background and ethnicity to the accused, asks to pass when his turn arrives to explain why he thinks the boy guilty.  Juror six (Ed Binns), a carpenter, believes the boy had a motive in that he and his father were heard arguing earlier before the murder.  Juror seven (Jack Warden) is a salesman who has “tickets to the ball game tonight” that, as juror eleven (George Voskovec), a Russian watchmaker, will point out, are burning a whole in his pocket.  Juror ten, like juror twelve (Robert Webber), an advertiser, will vacillate a bit due to arguments that arise and facts that are uncovered.   

The Jurors

Juror eight (Henry Fonda), an architect, immediately argues with the second juror that no one has to prove the boy’s innocence because the burden of proof is on the prosecution.  He also argues with juror six that he does not believe there was sufficient motive for the boy to kill his father as the boy had undoubtedly seen many arguments with his father.  He, of course, is the loan dissenter. 

The other jurors play a significant roll in the film as well—especially the old man (juror nine, portrayed by Joseph Sweeney)—but, it is the trial that is at the heart of the film.  The boy is on trial for patricide.  (This will be especially significant to juror three who has unresolved feelings to express to his own estranged son.)  To the credit of most of the jurors, the case does seem strongly to indicate his guilt.  The man in the apartment below that of the accused heard the murder take place and saw the boy flee.  A woman in the building next door even claims to have seen the boy kill his father.  Also, earlier in the evening, the boy purchased a knife.  His knife turned up missing and a similar knife was later found in his dead father’s chest.

The Crime

With this evidence, it seems as though he would not even need a trial.  But, since the Constitution guarantees him just that, these twelve men get to oversee and interpret his trial.  Unsurprisingly, though, the tide begins to shift.  We learn from juror eight that knives such as the one used to kill the boy’s father are easy to come by.  He was able to find one at a very reasonable price in the boy’s neighborhood.  Juror four is still insistent upon the fact that the boy should have been able to remember those movies.  However, on the spot, he cannot accurately remember movies that he has seen recently.  And it seems likely that he is attempting this memory recall under probably much less pressure than the boy would have experienced.

The film will proceed in this way until the jurors have been convinced, for the right reasons, that there is reasonable doubt as to the boy’s guilt.  The jurors all have their reasonable doubt and, unfortunately, not because the Constitution is just that infallible.  The fact is that, essentially, one man saved the life of the accused.  The characters will, with little doubt, remember that fact and this experience for the rest of their lives.














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