Adapted from Reginald Rose's television play, this film marked the directing debut of Sidney Lumet. At the end of a murder trial in New York City, the twelve jurors retire to consider the verdict. The man in the dock is a young Puerto Rican accused of killing his father, and eleven of the twelve jurors do not hesitate in finding him guilty. However, one of the jurors (Henry Fonda), reluctant to send the youngster to his death without any debate, returns a vote of not guilty. From this single ...
In light of recent court trials and judicial rulings that have taken place around me and some shown on the news, such as the Oscar Pistorius trial in South Africa without a jury that was judge-led, or the numerous Death Row convictions based on contaminated evidence as well as the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, USA, I felt compelled to view Twelve Angry Men to perhaps discover and remind myself about how, despite many obstacles to overcome such as our prejudices and emotions and differing viewpoints, we can bring about change, justice, equality and fairness in our world. It was, though, with a sense of trepidation that I bought this film since the title in itself did not exactly promote equality as there wasn't a single jury member that was female. Nonetheless I still felt it would be worth a watch if I just thought of the twelve angry men as twelve debating human minds.
Twelve Angry Men is a courtroom drama and yet just about the entire film takes place in a jury room and we see none of the trial. The only time we're outside the jury room is for a brief set-up and an even briefer epilogue. The real essence of the film is about the American constitution's promise that a defendant receives a fair trial and the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise- a principle of reasonable doubt. Twelve men are given the unenviable though extremely necessary task - just my opinion - of debating the fate of a young Puerto Rican American defendant charged with murdering his father. From the set-up involving the judge's perfunctory, almost bored, charge to the jury, and his tone of voice, we can infer that the verdict is a foregone conclusion which makes a mockery out of the justice system in 50s America.
We are drip-fed the evidence only second-hand, as the twelve jurors debate it. That gives the story a rather convenient and contrived feel. To add to these two notions, the jury member who holds out, played by the iconic Henry Fonda, gradually sets about trying to overcome the rather less-than-democratic prejudices of the other eleven members of the jury with predictable consequences. Yet the tense, lucid, and admirably economical treatment of the story, it's stark simplicity, feeling as if I'd seen these types of people before, with their various prejudices and conditioned reasoning, made me expect a far more challenging outcome, albeit one with a vague hope, which would show that although the principle of reasonable doubt is one of the most enlightened elements of the American constitution, it is also sadly the one that many Americans have had difficulty in accepting.
This film is not about getting to a clear-cut verdict. It's really about the need to listen to each other, and differentiate between fact and truth. Throughout the film you are constantly reminded that a man's life is at stake in the hands of these twelve men and it's an uncomfortable and at times despicable feeling to witness the bigotry displayed by some of the jury members as well as their reasoning on how they came to their conclusions. You feel that because the jury members don't know the defendant, that seeing him die doesn't mean very much to some. There's a jury member who like the defendant is a product of the "streets," and hopes that his guilty vote will distance himself from his past. Another member had a severe falling out with his own young son and therefore holds a grudge against all young people. Thus each of the eleven jury members has voted to convict for reasons of his own. None of the twelve initially appears to have influenced the other which seems to show the strength and individuality in each character although having said that, one or two jury members do appear to go with the flow and don't want to upset the others.
What's really surprising about Twelve Angry Men is that despite being almost entirely set in a single location, the consistently taut, sweltering, claustrophobic atmosphere created largely by Boris Kaufman's excellent camerawork results in a highly realistic thriller. The film is devoid of action and yet, despite being set over the best part of an entire day, it flies by and you feel as if the events happened in real time. The tension comes from personality conflicts, dialogue that makes you think and body language, and there are a great many of these of course, with twelve people! To avoid sentimentality, the film very cleverly avoids even giving us much of a look at the defendant. We only glimpse him very briefly and that makes us focus our judgement upon the character of each of the jury members.
Twelve Angry Men is interested in looking at logic, emotion and prejudice as major forces that struggle to control the field. Ultimately the jurors are all defined in terms of their personalities, backgrounds, occupations, prejudices and emotional tilts. Evidence is debated so completely that despite not being witness to the trial itself, you feel as if you know as much as the jury does. The film balances one piece of evidence against another that seems contradictory. Twelve Angry Men is as meticulous as the summation of an Agatha Christie novel. It's worth reminding potential viewers that the film isn't concerned with solving the crime as much as it is about sending the wrong man to die.
It's also worth bearing in mind that though eleven jury members start out thinking the defendant is guilty, not all those voting in this direction are portrayed negatively. There are those jurors who are so certain of the infallibility of the Law and therefore assume that if the boy was arrested, he must be guilty which is another wonderful issue raised in the film.
Henry Fonda comes across as he always did in his films; like a guy who doesn't know how to fake it. Though typecast as the bastion of liberalism, his performance feels extremely important, necessary and is also nicely underplayed. He is that rare barometer of truth against which to measure not only the other characters in his films but yourself too. He's not only a beacon of hope but a tower of strength, standing alone as a voice of doubt about the accused's guilt. "We're talking about somebody's life here," says Fonda early on in the film. "We can't decide in five minutes. Supposing we're wrong?" This sets the tone for the rest of the film. His simple task in the picture is to persuade the weary jurors to re-examine the evidence and separate it from the backstory of each man. Fonda drags deliberations from the hot day into the heat of the night, chipping away at the guilty verdict.
Whilst all the other jury members are excellent, as they smoke, sweat, swear, sprawl, stalk and get angry, the standouts in particular are Lee J Cobb, E.G. Marshall and Ed Begley who plays a racist and ignorant man full of stereotypical assumptions. To tempt you with the potential conflicts that arise in the film, Begley delivers a racist rant as follows; "You know how these people lie. It's born in them. They don't know what the truth is. And let me tell you, they don't need any real big reason to kill someone, either."
Clearly, the director Sidney Lumet turned filming in one room to his advantage. He creates this sense of entrapment that the jury members must have felt in that room. As the film unfolds, the room appears to get smaller and smaller and this effect was created by the use of longer lenses towards the latter half of the film. Lumet also shot the early part of the film above eye level and by the end of the movie, the camera was well below eye level so you could see the ceiling in the final shots. This gives you the illusion that not only are the walls closing in but so is the ceiling, thus increasing the sense of claustrophobia, suffocation and tension. This film is a master-class in how lens choices affect mood. As we look down on the characters in the beginning with the high camera angle, it suggests that they can be comprehended and mastered. Towards the climax of the film, the high angle creates the impression that the characters loom over us and it makes you feel overwhelmed by the force of their passion. For me, Sidney Lumet is one of the greatest directors I've ever come across. The evidence of this lies in the fact that I have more of his movies in my collection than any other director. His range of film subjects is so broad that he cannot be categorised. Twelve Angry Men is as relevant today as it was when first released. In many ways, it validates that the jury system is an important check against state power.
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Please note this is a region 2 DVD and will require a region 2 (Europe) or region Free DVD Player in order to play. Adapted from Reginald Rose's television play, this film marked the directing debut of Sidney Lumet. At the end of a murder trial in New York City, the twelve jurors retire to consider the verdict. The man in the dock is a young Puerto Rican accused of killing his father, and eleven of the twelve jurors do not hesitate in finding him guilty. However, one of the jurors (Henry Fonda), reluctant to send the youngster to his death without any debate, returns a vote of not guilty. From this single event, the jurors begin to re-evaluate the case, as they look at the murder - and themselves - in a fresh light.
Adapted from Reginald Rose's television play, this film marks the directorial debut of Sidney Lumet. At the end of a murder trial in New York City, the jurors retire to consider their verdict. The man in the dock is a young Puerto Rican accused of killing his father, and eleven of the jurors do not hesitate in finding him guilty. However, one of the jurors (Henry Fonda), reluctant to send the youngster to his death without any debate, returns a vote of not guilty. From this single event, the jurors begin to re-evaluate the case, as they look at the murder - and themselves - in a fresh light. The film was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Director (Lumet), Best Picture and Best Writing, Screenplay Based On Material from Another Medium (Rose).