Nothing will ever top the first time I saw Twelve Angry Men on stage. It was a local community theater production, and I was floored by the show. Ignoring the mostly fantastic cast and the great set and costume design, the script is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s perfectly structured and laid-out. Every line of thought is marvelous to see unfold, and you would really be hard pressed to find a better movie that centers around 12 men talking for two hours.
Our story actually has its origins in TV, a 1954 television play by Reginald Rose, who later wrote its adaption to the stage. It eventually became a movie in 1957. The play is minimalist in nature. It takes place entirely within one room, the juror chamber, as the 12 men (sometimes men and women or just women depending on the adaption) deliberate the existence of a reasonable doubt concerning the guilt of a young man accused of the premeditated murder of his father.
The jurors are unnamed (except for two at the very end) and are made up a wide variety of types. Highlights include of Martin Balsam as Juror 1 and the humble foreman who is just trying his best to keep the debate under control; Lee J. Cobb as Juror 3, the most stubborn of the jurors and who is the pig-headed, angry, father with a troubled history with his son, and is the biggest proponent of declaring the boy guilty; E.G. Marshall is Juror 4, a logical stock broker who relies on the facts without getting emotionally involved (most of the time) with what is being discussed; Jack Klugman is Juror 5, a man who used to live in the same neighborhood and in similar economic conditions as the accused; Jack Warden as Juror 7, a man who couldn’t care less about the trial and just wants to get the matter wrapped up so he can go to a baseball game; Juror 10, played by Ed Begley Sr., is a narrow minded racist who seems content to condemn the accused simply because of where he lives; George Voskovec plays Juror 11, a polite immigrant watchmaker; and, finally, Henry Fonda plays our protagonist, Juror 8, the first to step up in defense of the accused. Juror 8 isn’t sure if the boy is innocent. He does think there is a reasonable doubt of his guilt, and that’s the crucial point. It’s not important if the boy is guilty or not. It’s establishing the existence of a reasonable doubt which the jurors must determine.
Remember when I said the play is minimalist? Well, that is translated to the big screen. The movie is just an assortment of conversations, debates, and arguments. The film never cuts away to a flashback of the murder or uses visuals of any kind to get the detail of the case across to the audience (barring a diagram showing the layout of an apartment). It’s all slowly and deliberately told to you through excellently written dialogue. I love the film for that. It would’ve been so easy to have the screen go all wavy and show us possible ways the murder could’ve happen. Usually, you want to show and not tell. The telling in 12 Angry Men is handled so expertly, though, that I wouldn’t want it any other way. There’s just something stimulating about watching people talk in a well-crafted movie that can be better than watching big budget epics, horror gems, period dramas, hilarious comedies, or even the best action film. They are all great genres and story types but sometimes you don’t need much to get butts in the seats. I just can’t describe how great it is to see the case and its flaws laid out point by point in such an intelligent and well-crafted way.
Sidney Lumet keeps the already small space even smaller by claustrophobic camera techniques that creep in as the story gets further along and arguments more heated. I’ll admit I didn’t consciously notice the effects of these techniques. You might, and even if you don’t, the film still has plenty of tension to keep you interested.
One annoyance I am sad to report is Peter Fonda’s character can be smug when he pulls someone to his side. Yeah, the jurors should’ve deliberated and discussed the the case from the moment they went into the juror room instead of coming in with their prejudged opinions (especially when some juror’s were basing their judgement purely on racist ideals or personal biases). That being said, Fonda shouldn’t ever have a “Oh, yeah! You agree with me now.” look. It doesn’t fit his humble demeanor and instead makes out to be an ass. (I know some may have trouble sympathizing with Fonda’s character going beyond the role of a juror and taking the case into his own hands when it is revealed he, to prove a point, bought a duplicate dagger as the one used in the murder. I’m okay with that because he’s human, and it shows he isn’t perfect.)
Also, the ‘not guilty’ voters can be hypocritical. In one scene, a Juror 11 (the well-mannered immigrant) says his vote is guilty, but he is still for discussing the case and even bringing up certain unresolved points with the defense and prosecution. Someone asks him why he chose guilty if he’s going to bring all this up. He’s says he doesn’t have to explain why he voted the way he did. That’s all fine and dandy. What’s not okay is when he later changes his vote to not guilty and tells another juror they have to say why they are going with guilty. Maybe I missed something. As I remember it, though, it comes off a huge pile of hypocrisy. I don’t recall having this problem with the stage version I saw, but I may be forgetting it.
Besides those problems, the film was topnotch. You could not have a better experience watching 12 men talk for two hours. If you can, I would love to know about that film, because 12 Angry Men is a tough opponent to beat.