Courtroom dramas, in film and elsewhere, are generally concerned with lawyers. This makes sense–after all, lawyers are the main actors in the courts, presenting arguments and making cases, locked in rhetorical combat with the fate of the accused at stake. But one factor not often considered as an active force in the courtroom is the jury, arguably the most significant player of all. This humble, silent assembly of peers is the subject of the 1957 landmark film 12 Angry Men, which brings the drama of the trial into the small, crowded confines of a jury room.
12 Angry Men starts at the end of the trial of a young man accused of killing his father, apparently with damning, irrefutable evidence. The judge explains the rules the members of jury are obliged to follow–they are to base all deductions only on the facts of the case, and declare the defendant guilty only if they are sure beyond a reasonable doubt. Upon entering the jury room, the jury seems quite sure, all talking of the open-and-shut nature of the case, certain they’ll be finished before long…until one juror (Henry Fonda) speaks out. He asks his fellow jurors to consider the impossible–what if the boy is innocent? This sets off a high-tension battle of logic and conviction to decide the guilt of the defendant.
This film was the feature debut of director Sidney Lumet, who went on to become one of the most renowned filmmakers of his generation, putting out such classics as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict. 12 Angry Men, however, might still be his one of his most beloved films, emblematic of the kinds of films the rest of his career would bring: tightly directed, superbly acted, tackling serious issues with righteous anger. His career in feature films lasted 50 years with nearly as many films – from 12 Angry Men in 1957 to Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead in 2007. He was known as an “actor’s director,” with many performers – from Al Pacino to Katherine Hepburn – naming him as one of the best directors to work with.
One of the most remarkable things about 12 Angry Men is that it takes place almost entirely within one small, swelteringly hot room in New York, keeping the quarters tight and claustrophobic. It’s not hard to feel the heat as the jurors do, to feel the emotions running high from too many men packed too close together. Just as convincing as the setting are the jurors themselves – all drawn in broad strokes, to be sure, but each fully distinct and recognizable. You have Henry Fonda’s lone dissenter, Lee J. Cobb’s angry, vindictive father, Jack Warden’s impatient jokester, the wise old man, the meek banker, the optimistic immigrant… It is a credit to the screenplay, originally written for the small screen, that all these characters manage to be worth more than their clichéd outlines, contributing their own voice to the cacophony of the proceedings.
The film has its shortcomings, of course. Its depiction of the process of a jury trial is infamously dramatized (some of what happens in the film could warrant a mistrial), and the “good” jurors, who are eloquent, intelligent, and composed, are a bit too easy to tell from the “bad” jurors, who are loud, surly, and bigoted. But, no film is perfect. 12 Angry Men is, however, endlessly watchable in its high-tension arguments and revelations, and thought-provoking, even in its more simplistic moments. A true classic, after all, is not necessarily a flawless film, but one that carries itself despite its flaws–or even because of them.