Directed by Sidney Lumet
‘Life is in their hands, death is on their minds!’ is the gripping tagline of one the best courtroom dramas ever created. Nominated for 3 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, the movie has become the epitome of the rights to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. However, it is the simple premise of the movie that makes it interesting to watch. Based on the original 1954 screenplay by Reginald Rose, 12 Angry Men is an excellent study for anyone who has the slightest interest in legal matters or filmmaking. On the hottest day of the year, 12 men discuss the ultimate fate of a teen accused of murdering his father.
The movie has been structured quite neatly as it only sticks to the jurors’ debate after the trial itself. Other than a brief prologue and an even briefer epilogue, the story is set in a New York City jury room — way too small and claustrophobic to contain the egos of the jury members. Unlike most courtroom movies, 12 Angry Men does not end by stating whether the defendant is guilty or innocent. Instead, the movie focuses on whether the jurors have a reasonable doubt based on the gathered evidence.
Nowadays, this principle of believing that an accused is innocent until proven guilty is automatically given as a fundamental right to someone facing criminal charges. In the 50s, however, this Constitutional right, was a new term in the legal world as many Americans had difficulty accepting it. Gradually, the presumption of innocence has developed from simply a rule of evidence into the corner-stone of Anglo-American Criminal Procedure. For your information, there are many jurisdictions in the rest of the world that have accepted this principle as well by codifying it; see article 6(2) of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) for instance.
In the movie it’s Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb) whose convincing statements indirectly persuade ten of his fellow jurors to vote in favour of a reasonable doubt, thereby declaring the death sentence. The wonderful performance achieved by Lee J. Cobb will stay with you forever. Going in against all odds is Juror #8 (Henry Fonda). He has put more thought into the case than any other jury member by questioning the facts and pieces of evidence from the trial itself. The movie illustrates how he calmly and reasonably takes on the impossible task of convincing every jury member that it’s not about a question of guilty or not guilty, but rather debating the reasonable doubt of the defendant.
It’s always difficult to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth. I don’t really know what the truth is. I don’t suppose anybody will ever really know. Nine of us now seem to feel that the defendant is innocent, but we’re just gambling on probabilities – we may be wrong. We may be trying to let a guilty man go free, I don’t know. Nobody really can. But we have a reasonable doubt, and that’s something that’s very valuable in our system. No jury can declare a man guilty unless it’s sure. — Juror #8
Director Sidney Lumet is arguably among the most famous of American filmmakers, but in 1954 he was only a debuting director. Nevertheless, 12 Angry Men is a masterfully crafted piece of cinema. The original screenplay by Rose was made into this movie with the financial support of Henry Fonda and Rose, both co-producers. It’s interesting to see how Fonda was the actual Hollywood star of the movie since the other actors were only New York City’s finest (even though they performed outstandingly well). All this is proof that, for a film to be this great, it does not solely depend on an extensive budget — only superb storytelling.
With a running time of 95 minutes, Lumet uses a range of camera shots to set the tone in the room. The room exudes a sense of claustrophobia due to the frequent close-ups and tropical weather in NYC. The tension in the room consequently rises and finally explodes in the last minutes of the movie. You can literally see some of the jury members sweating it out as they stand for a difficult decision. Other jurors can’t stand the fact that it’s taking longer than they’d initially anticipated.
Since there aren’t any noticeable scene transitions, it often feels as if you are viewing the debate live on-screen. One by one, Juror #8 asks every other jury member to motivate his choice. Juror #3 becomes, as a reaction, more passionate and makes a personal link with the case. This results into rising emotions and beliefs which put Juror #3 into favorable spotlights.
The soundtrack of the movie has also heavily influenced the claustrophobic effect. Some simple tones can do a lot of good if used properly.
On the downside, 12 Angry Men may appeal to a specific target group only. I don’t see anyone watching this on a Friday night, but if you are a fan of cinema this movie should be part of your watchlist. Anyhow, I do recommend younger generations to watch this classic picture too.
12 Angry Men is a vivid example of legendary cinema by one the world’s finest directors that transforms simplicity into a spectacular courtroom showdown.