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12 Angry Men (1957)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

The still brilliant examination of one man's life in the balance, 12 Angry Men irrevocably alters one's perceptions of the trial by jury process. With a worried gaze, the defendant (John Savoca) pensively stares at the retreating backs of his jury. On trial for pre-meditated murder, he will be sent to the chair if a unanimous verdict of guilty is returned. Inside the jury room, Juror No. 1 (Martin Balsam) tries to impose order in his capacity as Foreman. He doesn't particularly wish to shoulder this burden but, if he must, he'll try to discharge his duties responsibly. With all assembled the mood suggests that an immediate vote should be held; hands rise, some hesitantly and some vigorously, all for guilty. The Foreman slowly counts round the table and reaches eleven - someone has bucked the trend and plumped for not guilty.

As twenty-two eyes sweep along the table, Juror No.8 (Henry Fonda) manages to look both confident and nervous. Under intense and frankly hostile scrutiny, No. 8 states that he couldn't vote in that way for one simple reason; there is reasonable doubt in his mind. Juror's No. 3 (Lee J. Cobb) and No. 10 (Ed Begley) explode in disbelieving anger, amazed that any reasonable man could harbour the slightest uncertainty. Fortunately, before they can really get offensive, the decision is made that all should explain their choice in a bid to convince their recalcitrant buddy. As expected their feelings range from the subdued, Juror No. 2 (John Fiedler), to the coldly analytical, Juror No. 4 (E.G. Marshall), to the stupid, Juror No. 7 (Jack Warden). None of this sways No. 8 though for he has a trump card; a switchblade just like the supposedly unique knife used in the killing.

Stunned, and somewhat insulted, by his forethought the jurors erupt in a babble of repudiation. The wind is taken from their sails by his calm rebuff though; he knows that his find proves nothing, yet it strikes a note of caution. Still, people like Juror No. 5 (Jack Klugman), himself a survivor of the slums, and Juror No. 6 (Edward Binns) remain sure of the boy's guilt. Sensing that he can go no further without an all-or-nothing gesture, No. 8 concedes that he'll change his mind if all eleven remain resolute. A secret ballot occurs and the Foreman reads out the results; amazingly another has risen to stand by No. 8, giving support in a time of need. Could it be Juror No. 9 (Joseph Sweeney), a wizened old man? Perhaps the change was made by Juror No. 11 (George Voskovec), a recent immigrant? Could it be that Juror No. 12 (Robert Webber), a young ad-man, has bounced into the opposite court? Only discussion can reveal this, which is exactly what No. 8 banks on.

A critically important film in a world swayed by emotion, 12 Angry Men makes its point that only reason and fact have a place in the courtroom blindingly clear. With a room full of fallible, prejudiced and ultimately unsure men, the term reasonable doubt becomes crystal clear. The whole spectrum of humanity (at least, the white male side of it) is represented, from the foul and poisonous bigotry of No. 10 to the equally unpleasant chilling logic of No.4. While this set-up is somewhat convenient, director Sidney Lumet doesn't make the mistake of portraying a clear battle between intelligence and ignorance. He doesn't even provide the juror's names, hampering any gratification through identification. Instead anyone can be wrong; the only requirement to be right is that you should be flexible enough to acknowledge this possibility.

Supported by a sterling cast, it's no great surprise that 12 Angry Men features some great performances. What's less expected is that every cast member shines at both the individual and ensemble level; this is a master-class in projecting the subtle details of character. At the head stands Fonda, a voice of reason even as he realises that this may free a murderer; his strength lies in finding the weak spots in arguments. Cobb is almost as terrific with his overbearing, angry, sadistic and contradictory playing of a man who finally deserves our sorrow. Equally unsympathetic and obnoxious, Begley perhaps pushes the envelope the furthest, becoming isolated in his hatred. Others like Sweeney give similarly gripping performances, in his case with a frail sharpness and eye for detail, though with less venom. The key ingredient is that everyone in 12 Angry Men gives their all; obviously the intensive rehearsal ordered by Lumet garnered an admirable cohesion.

Adapted directly from the play, 12 Angry Men retains the skeleton of its origin; a single pressure-cooker room, twelve divisive individuals and a life or death choice. What's added is the influential and wonderful cinematography of Boris Kaufman, amongst other things. At pivotal moments the camera closes in on what's important, picking out individual beads of sweat. It's beautiful to experience, especially on the big screen. Allied with economical and piercing dialogue, the outcome is frequently explosive; you cannot fail to be moved by 12 Angry Men. It's true, however, that the film has some faults, beyond the composition of the jury. For example, the facts conveniently allow themselves to be demolished with all of the evidence being found to contain flaws. It doesn't matter though because 12 Angry Men does the one thing that is beyond reproach; it never states the guilt or innocence of the defendant. This doesn't matter and by ignoring this point, the movie gives pause for consideration and thought.

This film was nominated for review by Terry Arnold.

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