Published on April 12th, 1957 | by Padraic Coffey0
12 Angry Men (1957)
Many courtroom thrillers fall into the category of ‘whodunit’, stories in which a crime has been committed, the perpetrator of which is not determined until the film’s denouement. Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, however, does not conform to such genre staples. We never learn who is responsible for the murder at the film’s core – the brutal stabbing of a man in a poor neighbourhood – and perhaps it is inessential that we do, as 12 Angry Men is ultimately not a film about crime and punishment, but about class, prejudice and the emotional baggage which affects our judgment on a daily basis.
Its plot is a first-rate example of lean filmmaking, as are most other aspects of the film. On a day of sweltering heat in New York City, twelve anonymous jurors deliberate on a seemingly open-and-shut case in which a Hispanic youth is accused of killing his father in a fit of rage, a charge he feebly denies in the face of overwhelming evidence. All of the men return ‘guilty’ verdicts bar one, the pragmatic, well-spoken architect known as Juror Number 8 (Henry Fonda). Irritated by Fonda’s ostensibly contrarian view, the twelve dispute details of the case over the course of several hours, each slowly siding with Fonda as the evidence is refuted.
While it would be simplistic to suggest that the jury of 12 Angry Men represent a microcosm of America, many of its members constitute different sections of US society. There’s the stubborn, volatile business-owner (Lee J. Cobb), the wisecracking salesman more concerned with attending a baseball game than with the outcome of the trial (Jack Warden), the European immigrant and naturalised citizen (George Voskovec), the respectful, working-class contractor (Edward Binns) and the slum-dweller with an inferiority complex (Jack Klugman). Lumet and screenwriter Reginald Rose – adapting his own teleplay – use these archetypes to explore the divisions present in 1950s America.
While the ethnicity of the accused boy is never explicitly mentioned, several allusions are made to the untrustworthiness of the those who occupy the poorest neighbourhoods in America. The unapologetically bigoted Juror Number 10 (Ed Begley) notches up his racism from comments about the dishonesty of “them” to a vitriolic tirade which provokes the other jurors into rising one by one, ostracising him from the group. Less severe bias is projected onto Juror Number 11 (Voskovec), owing to his foreign birthplace. When Voskovec questions Warden’s comprehension of the term ‘reasonable doubt’, Warden defensively preys on the assumed insularity of the other jurors; “I’m telling ya, they’re all alike! They come over here running for their life and before they can take a deep breath, they’re telling us how to run the show.” Lumet and Rose are not entirely solemn in depicting the tension among the jurors. When one bemoans the fact that the defendant “don’t even speak good English”, Voskovec, a non-native English speaker, gently corrects him; “he doesn’t even speak good English”.
Though Lumet would have an extremely prolific and illustrious cinematic career, 12 Angry Men was his feature film debut, which renders the achievement all the more remarkable. Given that all but three very brief scenes occur in one solitary location, it is commendable how well the film avoids staginess. This is mainly down to Lumet, framing his signature long takes in an imaginative but unobtrusive manner and utilising, as he would in later films like Dog Day Afternoon and Network – an absolute minimum of incidental music. He also elicits superb performances from an notably impressive ensemble cast. Fonda’s blue eyes may not be noticeable in the film’s black-and-white cinematography (one reason for the film’s financial disappointment was the dominance of Technicolor features at the time), his role is another in a career filled with noble heroes. Arguably the best performance belongs to Lee J. Cobb, whose personal traumas are gradually exposed before the film’s tearful climax.
Known as a staple of high-school classrooms throughout the world, 12 Angry Men is a much more rewarding experience than such labelling would suggest, and ranks among the finest American cinematic thrillers, its reputation only increasing with the passage of time.