12 Angry Men is one of the most miss sold movies the art has ever produced. The courtroom trappings and homicide trial led many a lethargic marketing man to pepper the promotion of the film with such hackneyed clichés as ‘The Battle for Truth’ and ‘Open and Shut Case’. But 12 Angry Men was never about the guilt or the innocence of the accused youth. The film is about whether the justice system has afforded the defendant a fair trial. Henry Fonda’s character isn’t trying to convince these men that the boy is innocent, merely that the case against him is flimsy, and that their own assumptions, based on nothing more than the boy’s ethnic and economic background, are no reason to condemn an 18-year-old to the electric chair.
In his breathtakingly vital screenplay, writer Reginald Rose didn’t put a Hispanic minor on the stand, but rather the human failings of the justice system. By placing ourselves in charge of how the law is governed, we have inadvertently weaved all of our major and minor faults through the heart of civilisation’s most essential institution. Through Juror No. 8, one of the most iconic roles in all of cinematic history, Rose lists off the inconsistencies that make the case against the boy, not necessarily shambolic or corrupt, but deeply flawed and no basis at all for a guilty conviction.
Perhaps even more damning is his systematic deconstruction of the institutional flaws at the heart of the legal process. For instance, how the paltry awards for helping an impoverished kid can create a sense of apathy in his public defender, hampering his ability to make his case, or how a witnesses’ sense of self-importance can lead to him testifying that his assumptions are actually facts.
But mostly, this film examines the flaws in the system, and in ourselves, through the roles of the jury members, whether that be through the guy who argues you can twist facts to fit any theory so only our prejudices are reliable, the guy who thinks that you can’t let a man walk free if you’re not certain of his innocence but is ok to let him fry despite not being certain of his guilt, or just the guy who wants to get out early because the judgment call on this kid’s life threatens to clash with a baseball game he’s brought tickets for. Rose creates a script that smoothly navigates through the thorny hedges of the investigation, proving the importance of the constitutional ideals that get lost in a vengeance-bent society, namely, that the burden of proof is on the prosecution, not the suspect, and that no one may be convicted if there is reasonable doubt that they committed the crime.
Throughout the film, director Sidney Lumet’s camera goes from a lofty position above the heads of the jurors, like a news helicopter circling a story, to gradually sinking to their eye level and below. All the while, each shot pulls in tighter and tighter to their faces, denying both them and us our space to breath, making the film more and more uncomfortable with each line of dialogue. The heat, suggested throughout the film with subtle hints like a broken fan, sweat patches on white shirts and beads of sweat dripping down the faces of the characters, becomes stifling.
Eventually, a storm breaks loose outside and the noise from the rain threatens to drown out the character’s pleas for No. 8 to stop his madness. Combined with the heat and the increasingly claustrophobic cinematography, the atmosphere is almost unbearable and Lumet uses it to trap you in the deliberation room with them, forcing you to empathise with their stress as Juror No. 8 takes each of their theories and exposes their failings to the harsh light of day.
The cast, an embarrassment of riches and the film’s only real extravagance, are as compelling as they are intense. Cinematographer Boris Kaufman creates portraits of these men, the beauty of which all the CGI in the world couldn’t recreate. Their gestures, their demeanours, their ticks and twitches of body language all give their game away, letting us know what drives their motives even before they do. Two of the actors, almost never mentioned in the conversation surrounding this film as the plaudits almost always land on Fonda, provide a Yin and Yang dynamic to the film’s portrayal of senior citizens. They are Joseph Sweeney and Ed Begley and both are simply brilliant.
They play the two oldest gentlemen on the case. One, kind-hearted and open-minded, the other mean-spirited and prejudiced. These days, they would be part of an internet meme: “What you think your grandad is like, versus what he’s actually like.” Ed Begley, in particular, gives a speech towards the end of the film, driven by his deep seeded anger and hatred that begins with fiery vindication and ends with trembling desperation as each man steps away from the table, the transparency of his racist tract making them realise they’ve let their discriminatory natures rule over their judgment.
With all but three of its 96 minutes running time taking place in a single, 16 x 24ft jury room, Sidney Lumet crafted one of the purest pieces of cinema ever created, armed only with great actors, sublime performances, a riveting script, incredible cinematography and brilliant direction. The genius of the film is to let those elements of cinema draw out the details of a complex case in a manner that anyone could understand and let the universally relatable themes wash over the audience with nothing to cloud the clarity of their revelations. 12 Angry Men is an enduring classic of filmmaking kept tragically relevant by some of the most divisive times in Western civilisation.
Dir: Sidney Lumet
Scr: Reginald Rose
Starring: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden
Prd: Reginald Rose, Henry Fonda
DOP: Boris Kaufman
Music: Kenyon Hopkins
Run time: 96 mins
12 Angry Men is out now on DVD and Blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection.