Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
It takes a lot of effort to successfully make a film like this—a talented cast, smart dialogue, solid directing, and effective commentary. With “12 Angry Men,” the 1957 film adapted from Reginald Rose’s teleplay of the same name, this film about a jury confined to one room while determining the verdict of a murder trial would’ve been to make into an uninteresting hour-and-a-half-long experience. But instead, it’s a riveting, insightful, wonderfully-written-and-acted drama that serves as both a murder mystery and as a commentary on the American justice system and is effective as both.
The film is set in a jury discussion room in real time and mostly stays there, with the exceptions of a brief prologue and an equally brief epilogue. In the prologue, the jury has already sat through the trial and are hearing the final words of the judge before going about deciding the verdict of a young man (who is clearly a minority, but his race is never determined) who is accused of murdering his father. Then the jury moves into the room to determine the boy’s guilt or innocence. 11 of the 12 men vote “guilty,” meaning there is one holdout. Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) has reasonable doubt about the boy’s liability and challenges the others to prove him wrong. They bring up the facts, he states his case, and soon enough, another person, elderly Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney), holds out and changes his vote as well. This leads to further investigation on the case, with new possible answers and outcomes that help the examination cause change in others’ votes. For example, how are they sure of what the testifying witnesses saw or heard? Why couldn’t the kid clear up his alibi? What about the stab wound coming from the switchblade used as the murder weapon? New elements continue to pile on, adding to the possibility that they misinterpreted the facts. The two strongest jury members voting “guilty” are arrogant Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb), whose past overshadows his view of the present, and Juror #10 (Ed Begley), an ignorant bigot whose hatred blinds him.
The film works as a “murder mystery,” going by witnesses’ testimonies and physical evidence. But there are no clear answers or even indications as to whether or not the boy is actually guilty. But that’s not what the film is about. Instead, the film is about how if this jury is not absolutely sure that he is guilty, if there is any reasonable doubt, they must acquit him. They must acknowledge all possibilities or they’ll send a wrongfully accused defendant to death row. The film isn’t about the crime as much as analysis of the crime, and it successfully delivers much insight into what goes on in the jury room.
The way new possibilities continue to pile on one after another is handled effectively, with fascinating detail causing audiences to think about what verdict they would choose if they were in that room, listening to all of this. What also makes it work is the excellent dialogue spoken by the characters—how they all react to certain circumstances, what they have to say, etc. That’s really what gives the film its strength: the dialogue and the acting. Each of the 12 actors do great jobs portraying the “12 angry men” in the title and they each do their best to give their characters different personalities (twelve key characters is hard to keep track of, since only about half of them are allowed to leave impacts). Henry Fonda was the only big star at the time to highlight the film, and he does a brilliant job playing the conflicted voice of reason, Juror #8 (whose name isn’t revealed until the very end, along with Juror #9’s). Equally brilliant (at least, those who stand out to me) are Ed Begley as Juror #10, whose bigotry is enough to have everyone in the room turn against him at a crucial point; Joseph Sweeney as wise Juror #9; Jack Warden as the wisecracking salesman who serves as Juror #7 and is willing to stay with the winning side in order to make it to an evening baseball game; Lee J. Cobb as the aggressive Juror #3 (whose final verdict is the most heartbreaking moment in the film, in which he ultimately breaks down and cries); and John Fiedler as meek Juror #2, who is dominated by the others at first but more confident by the end. Those were the ones that stood out to me, but the other actors (Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, George Voskovec, and Robert Webber) do fine work as well. It’s a wonder why neither of these 12 performances were given Oscar consideration.
Of course, the direction can’t be ignored. Sidney Lumet, who used social commentary in each of his films no matter what the subject to get multiple points across, knew how to keep the tension going while allowing the actors to actually live the situation they’re in and let everything come naturally. The tension is raised not just with heat (as the film takes place on the hottest day of the summer, as indicated) with assistance from use of shots (mostly close-ups) to deliver a sense of claustrophobia.
“12 Angry Men” may have been released in the mid-1950s, but the issues being addressed in this film are still important today in 2015. What’s to separate facts from possibility? What is truly “fact?” Could a “guilty” verdict be allowed with reasonable doubt? Is there ever reasonable doubt? What are the true priorities of a juror? And most importantly, is a jury just willing to get on with their lives if it means ruining the life of another just because of what they heard and not because of what they know? Those are the questions addressed in “12 Angry Men,” an outstanding film that stands the test of time.