Juror #1: This [vote] has to be twelve to nothing either way. That’s the law. … We have eleven guilty, one not guilty.
Juror #3: You really think he’s innocent?
Juror #8: I just want to talk. … There were eleven votes for guilty, it’s not easy to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first.
That’s the general premise behind 12 Angry Men – a fact of the American legal system is that every jury decision made at the end of a trial must be unanimous. So what happens when one juror simply isn’t convinced in what everyone else thinks is an open-and-shut case? 12 Angry Men happens.
Before I get any further let me put in a word about spoilers – Discussing spoilers for 12 Angry Men is difficult because you can pretty much guess how the movie is going to end once you’re 20 minutes in. There’s no big twist-ending, and by the time you’re halfway done with the film, the excitement comes not from learning what happens, but seeing how it happens. At a certain point, you know that Juror #8, played by good-guy-actor*/Chris-Evans-of-his-day Henry Fonda, is going to convince his other jurors that the boy on trial for murder is not guilty. But it’s just the sheer thrill of watching him convince the others is what drives the movie.
Since this movie is all about the deliberation, it takes place almost entirely in a single room. The very first lines of the film take place in the courtroom, and the final moments show the jurors leaving the courthouse, and in the middle there’s a little interlude in which we see a couple of the jurors chatting in the bathroom. Other than these few moments, the duration of the film is spent around the table.
It’s a dialogue-driven piece, often performed as a stage play. Almost all taking place in the one room, there’s few scene transitions that will break up the plot, leaving pretty much all of the 90-odd minutes to the deliberation .
And a screenplay this phenomenal could, plausibly, be enough to carry the film into a good reception. But the performances are great, with each actor giving a juror personality, despite the fact that we only ever learn two of their names (at the end of the film). Sure, for the sake of this post I’ve been referring to the heroic Juror #8, played by Henry Fonda, and the discipline-enthusiastic Juror #3 played by Lee J. Cobb, but all the others manage to be colorful characters. The old man, the nerdy man, the immigrant, the racist, the foreman, the salesman, the can’t-be-bothered sports fan, and the logical man. (I only count one juror with a nondescript personality.)
Here, Henry Fonda portrays one of the greatest heroes in cinema. Yes, he’s more everyman than superhuman, and that’s what makes Juror #8 so wonderful. He was picked at random, and ultimately saves the life of a young man who the legal system would have otherwise condemned. Juror #8 shows the importance of a compassionate heart and an skeptical mind.
What’s more than this, 12 Angry Men does some wonderful things with cinematography.
At the beginning of the film, the camera perspective hangs above the table, overlooking the jurors.
Then, around the middle, the camera is level with the characters as they deliberate.
By the end of the movie, the camera is below the jurors. This could be symbolic of a shift in perspective regarding the guilt/innocence of the defendant, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that this shift definitively means one thing.
Favorite Scene: This is a movie that makes it hard to pick one specific scene because most of the movie feels like one continuous scene. But my favorite moments are the ones that feel like crucial reveals. Moments where the tension reaches a peak because of the animosity between the jurors. When Juror #8 pulls out the knife, it makes for a very cinematic reveal. After being asked why he never sweats earlier in the film, when the logical juror finally pulls out a handkerchief to wipe away his sweat after harsh questioning, it feels like a big reveal.
Another great moment is when the jurors are deliberating about the testimony of an old man, which villainous Juror #3 touted as clear evidence that the boy was surely guilty. Having taken everything the old witness said as gospel truth, when the other jurors begin to point out that that old man’s story doesn’t quite add up, Juror #3 blurts out “He’s an old man! Half the time he was confused! How could he be positive about anything?” And then, God bless Lee J. Cobb’s performance, his face shows everything about how crestfallen he is. In a movie teeming with hard evidence based on facts, it’s a powerful moment of emotional nuance in which Juror #3 realizes (or begins to realize) that everything is arbitrary.
Other than these, I think that the one scene really worth mentioning is the resolution; when Juror #3 has his emotional breakdown, and it becomes clear that his stance on the case stemmed from his relationship with his son.
And after that, #8 helps a clearly emotional #3 with his jacket as all the jurors leave the courthouse and go out into the world, change or not changed by the things that happened.
Favorite Performance: Okay, obviously Henry Fonda carries the first half of this movie. As said above, he gets to play one of the great heroes of classic cinema. He gives a great performance of a man determined to do right by the boy, despite the skepticism of his peers. There are only so many great things I can say about Fonda and his role about Juror #8 that haven’t been said before.
On the other hand, I think Lee J. Cobb’s performance of Juror #3, pretty much the antagonist for the entire film, really ties it all together. He’s an important foil to Juror #8, and unlike Fonda’s character, Cobb shows a wider range over a bigger character arc. At the start of the film, #3 mumbles with derision about how kids these days have no respect, and by the end of the film, he weeps for the lack of a relationship with his son. Between these two points are a court case and simple facts, and yet it’s clear just how the character arc moves along.
On the opposite sides, we have two truly stellar performances. Cobb’s “self-appointed public avenger” would be nothing without Fonda’s compassionate and inquisitive Juror #8. These two have a spiteful tension which successfully carries the film.
Favorite Quote: After disagreeing on the boy’s use of the phrase “I’ll kill you” (literal versus figurative), during the argument between Jurors #3 and #8 in which 8 calls 3 a sadist, 3 takes a dive towards 8 and threatens to kill him. Juror #8 plays it cool – “You don’t really mean you’ll kill me do you?”
Academy Award Nominations: Nominated for Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay, all of which it lost to The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Fun Fact: From the IMDb trivia section:
I love this because it shows the impact of fictional stories, and how they can inspire people to do great things. Who knows how many successful law careers this film inspired?
If you like this movie, also check out: There’s a 1997 television remake, but most people don’t talk about it because there isn’t much to be said. This wasn’t a movie that needed a remake. However, there was a highly amusing parody episode of Inside Amy Schumer cleverly titled “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer,” in which 12 men (a star-studded cast with Paul Giamatti, Jeff Goldblum, Kumail Nanjiani, and various others) debate whether or not Amy Schumer is attractive enough to be on television. It’s hilarious.
12 Angry Men works as both riveting legal drama and informative moral tale. At once, it shows both the strength and weaknesses in the criminal justice system, as well as in ourselves. What do we do to get to the truth? Do our personal prejudices get in the way? How much do we discuss crucial decisions before we make them? Will you be the one to take a difficult stance, even if many disagree with you? Juror #8 and his struggle with the truth are an example for us all; he doesn’t thwart some super-villain or save a damsel in distress, but still he is one of the most courageous characters ever to grace the screen.