Thursday, 10 May 2012

12 Angry Men

"Prejudice always obscures the truth"

1957 – New York. A Jury of twelve men have finished hearing the trial of a young immigrant man accused of murdering his father by stabbing him to death. After a brief vote in a sweltering deliberation room the vote is 11/1 in favour of a guilty verdict. The jury have been informed by the Judge that they must reach a unanimous decision. Voices are raised and tempers fray as the twelve men debate the case that could send a man to the Electric Chair.

This film has one of the most compelling stories I have ever seen. I couldn’t take my eyes off it for a minute. I was afraid of blinking or turning my head to check the time in case I missed a vital detail. This really is masterful story telling. In the beginning it is just Henry Fonda’s ‘Juror number 8’ character who votes not guilty but as the film progresses he and others question statements and evidence until more and more of the jurors have doubts. It is fairly obvious from early on what the outcome is going to be but that doesn’t matter. How they reach the decision is fascinating.

Each of the twelve men had distinct and well thought out characters. It felt to me that if they were removed from the jury room and placed in another film that their characters had enough about them to fit in. They weren’t simply one dimensional jurors but people, people with prejudices, flaws, opinions and ideas. Some of them were unlikeable but that didn’t matter. You don’t like everyone you meet in life. In my opinion only Henry Fonda’s central character felt slightly one dimensional. He was the only man whose character wasn’t really explored at all. It wasn’t something I thought about while watching the film but as I go through the characters in my head now, it feels as though his was the weakest in terms of his depth and realism.

Henry Fonda and all eleven other men gave wonderful acting performances though they were no doubt helped by the fantastic writing. It’s difficult to choose favourites but I’d have to say that Lee J. Cobb as the bad tempered and stubborn man and Joseph Sweeney as the mild mannered, observant old man gave the best performances but really it’s like choosing the greenest blade of grass on a football pitch. They were all similarly excellent. Sidney Lumet’s direction was also marvellous. Apart from just two short scenes the entire film takes place in one set and the feeling of claustrophobia is paramount to the feeling that the men are trapped until they reach a decision. Lumet recreated this tense, taught feeling of entrapment for Dog Day Afternoon, one of my all time favourites. The film is also cut in such a way that it has the appearance of just one take. It’s very well done. I was very surprised to read that this was the great director’s debut. It has the look and feel of an old master at work. The film carries many of the traits of his later work including social justice (Serpico) and ideas of unconventional families (Daniel).   

One theme prevalent in this film is racism. On many occasions various jurors exclaim things such as “We know what they’re like”, “They’re all liars, they don’t know how to tell the truth” and “They get drunk, they’re big drinkers, all of ‘em!”. There is a fair amount of inbuilt racism from many of the characters and it was brave of the film to confront this head on and say that it wasn’t right. At a time of segregation based on race in the US it surprised me just how far the anti racist stance went, though I was obvious very glad to see it. It also showed how many jurors could have made up their mind about a crime based purely on the defendant’s looks and not even consider the facts.

This film was of special interest to me as I’ve just last month been on Jury Duty myself. Although I was in a different country and over fifty years later than the film I was interested to see the similarities and differences. One obvious difference was the absence of women. Although a staunch feminist I thought that the film worked very well with their absence. There were some problems with the deliberation itself. Firstly there is no way a knife could have found its way in and there was also a fair amount of speculation. This being said, the film was so compelling that none of this mattered.

The film is an incredible example of what can be done when a fantastic story, wonderful cast and great director come together. It is gripping from start to finish, never lets up and is a breathtaking study of the justice system and of people’s prejudices and commitment to the truth. It’s the sort of film that should be shown to every teenager before leaving school and studied by every law student.



  1. Thought you'd like it and glad you did, great review, everything I remember feeling watching it for the first're making me want to watch it again now! Incredible film.

    1. Thanks for recommeding it! Can't believe I hadn't seen it before. It was incredible.