Life Is In Their Hands — Death Is On Their Minds!
Some time in the past two years or so I re-watched 12 Angry Men, for the first time in many years. It immediately dawned on me how poignant the message behind it was back in 1957, and it struck me how we haven’t changed much as a society in the past 50 years.
Sidney Lumet’s directorial debut which is adapted from a teleplay of the same name by Reginald Rose puts twelve men in the deliberation room of an 18-year-old Hispanic “man’s” trial for murdering his father. Set during the hottest day of the year in New York City, it appears to be an open and shut case. All the facts prove he’s guilty … or is he? The men call for a preliminary vote, fully expecting it to be unanimous. Every one just wants to go home, or in Juror 7’s (Jack Warden) case, he wants to go to the Yankees game. (I don’t blame him, I’d want to go to that game too). Unfortunately for the group, there’s a lone hold out who votes not guilty. Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) provides the voice of reason and argues that the boy deserves some deliberation from the group. He believes there is some reasonable doubt based on the accuracy and reliability of the two eye witnesses, and the prosecution’s claim that the murder weapon, a common switchblade was “rare”. On a walk through the boy’s neighborhood the night before, he was able to purchase an identical knife for six dollars not far from the boy’s home, thus hanging the jury and forcing the other men to question their own morals and values.
Playing out in almost real time over the next hour, they each begin to change their minds based on their new assessments of the “facts”. After multiple rounds of new votes, Jurors 3 (Lee J. Cobb), 4 (E.G. Marshall) and 10 (Ed Begley), are still voting guilty. Until Juror 10 goes on a tirade condemning “those people” and claiming they don’t belong here and are no better than animals. All the men in the room turn their backs to him, until he shuts up realizing how vulgar he sounds. Juror 12 (Robert Webber) then flip-flops his vote, bringing the vote back to 8–4.
Upon realizing the woman across the street who claims to have seen the boy stab his father while she was laying in bed trying to fall asleep, wore glasses based on the visible marks on her nose and was most likely not wearing them at the time, Jurors 12, 10 and 4 change their vote to not guilty. This leaves Juror 3 who has been angry and impatient through out this whole process, as the lone hold out. This allows him to make a stand and argue for his reasoning behind voting guilty just as Juror 8 did earlier. Only after a long and strenuous argument, he breaks down crying, because he’s really angry at the strained relationship with his own son. Ultimately changing his vote to not guilty and acquitting the boy.
Initially, it was hard for me to believe that this film was a box office disappointment. It has an all star cast and powerful meaning behind it. But, maybe it was too powerful for its time. The film really highlights the system of collaboration and the extreme difficulties of having multiple, strong personalities in a room together creating conflict. Yet, it also shows the power one person has to stimulate change. As difficult as it seems, it really can happen with the right person leading the charge.
Without getting too political, there were multiple times where in my mind I was inserting the terms “snowflakes”, “bad hombres’ and “fake news” into the dialogue coming out of the characters’ mouths. Juror 10’s tirade alone sounded like something we’d read about in the news after being tweeted out in the middle of the night. 50 years later and it seems we are really no better off than we were back then.
History is doomed to repeat itself I suppose.
Strangely enough, while I was watching this, I kept finding myself thinking Lee J. Cobb was George C. Scott. They really looked very similar back in the day. And clearly that wasn’t a far stretch of the imagination, because Scott played Juror 3 in William Friedkin’s 1997 television remake, which has a pretty stellar cast as well and I may need to watch it someday.
The combination of a low budget, extensive, single room rehearsals prior to filming and unique lenses and camera techniques really allowed Lumet to capture the claustrophobic feeling of 12 strangers being trapped in a deliberation room together. Thus, bringing out the best / worst of each character. Amazingly enough, only 3 minutes of the film took place outside of the deliberation room. Being the theatrical directorial debut of Sidney Lumet, the film was nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay) unfortunately the film lost out in all categories to The Bridge on the River Kwai (which I’ve never seen, even though it was on HBO all the time as a kid). It’s really a shame it didn’t win any of those awards, because it surely was a deserving effort.
What 12 Angry Men Means to Us
“You don’t really mean you’ll kill me, do you?” I saw 12 Angry Men when I was young and it engendered a lifelong enjoyment of court-room dramas, even though the trial itself is over before the film even starts. A master class in screenwriting, direction and acting. Almost all the action takes place in one room. It’s just a bunch of (occasionally sweaty) men arguing. None of them even have NAMEs, for crying out loud. This movie breaks all the rules of what makes a good film, and yet it’s riviting. From the moment Juror 8 refuses to raise his hand to Juror 3’s breakdown you can’t look away. Just thinking about it makes me want to watch it again.