The Greatest films of all time: 54.12 Angry Men (1957)(USA)

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Introduction:

“12 Angry Men” is a film that set the foundation for the courtroom trial films, challenging the legal justice beyond “the reasonable doubt”, and the forefather of the single set films. “12 Angry Men” is in fact a play of 96 minutes that happen in a jury room other than a few minutes of the opening and ending scene. It proved that a single set and all dialogue film could be displayed on the cinema screen and still be powerful, gripping, heart pounding and cinematic. With the power of examination and logical arguments, the film could be a teaching example for the students of law as it was influential on the Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor in pursuing her career in law.

Adapted from a play by Reginald Rose who also wrote the screenplay, the film was directed by Sidney Lumet as his first major feature debut. As another example of power of acting, the film starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G.Marshal, , Ed Begley and Jack Warden is a tout de force of performance. A box office disappointment at the time, the film was hailed by the critics from the start to this day, winning the Golden Bear Award at the 7thBerlin International Film Festival, lost to the patriotic war film of The Bridge over the River Kwai for the best director, best picture and best screenplay.   

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Beyond a Reasonable Doubt:

A trial film outside the courtroom, in a jury room, with nameless characters, the jurors by numbers, the others by descriptions, e.g. the boy, the father, the old man, etc., “12 Angry Men” is a prototype film on several fronts. An obvious crime to all the witnesses and the 12 jurors, except one, the film implicitly is critical of the judicial system. A system that its verdict could be swayed one way or the other, costing the life of a person. The juror 8, played convincingly by Henry Fonda, with his always quiet and calm acting at the outset of casting verdict, goes against the others, just to have a reasonable discussion before sending a boy who killed his father to the execution. 

He angers the rest who seem to them the boy obviously has murdered his own father and deserves capital punishment. The juror 8 while not being certain in either way of the boy’s innocence or guilty, is only asking for re-examination of all the evidence presented in the court so to reach a just verdict beyond the reasonable doubt. Without the presence of any law expert, lawyer or judge, 12 ordinary men get into a heated dialectical discussion with all their emotions, indifferences, ignorance, care or lack of care, anger, disgust and more. Throughout the arguments, not only more aspects of the crime that were not all well presented by the lawyers in the court, but also the personalities of the jurors are revealed. This is an examination and re-examination of a crime, that even if it’s so, it has been just or not. Moreover the film is a depiction of the outlook of men towards justice, their human counterparts and life in general. 

The juror 7 (Jack Warden) who is in rush to get out of the courthouse to  attend a Yankee game that he has a ticket for, and the juror 10 (Ed Begley) who holds prejudice against any young boys like the accused, are the unreasonable resistant forces against deliberation suggested by juror 8. Juror 8 after questioning the reliability and accuracy of the two witnesses of the boy stabbing his father, asks for a secret ballot and that he would change his vote if all go again for the guilty verdict. When the secret voting reveals another “not guilty”, now 2 against 10, the arguments are heated further and changes to fights and accusations of who changed his vote. Further deliberation and the blatant and ignorant of some jurors, sways the votes of two more jurors into 4 against 8 for the boy being guilty.

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While the votes must be unanimous in either way, it seems that the situation of the verdict is not getting easier, but harder. The accuracy and reliability of an old man witness, limping from a past stroke, across the apartment where the stabbing happened due to his slowness getting to the window to see the boy fleeing 15 seconds after stabbing is strongly questioned. This angers juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb) who shouts at all that they are losing their chance to burn the boy. When juror 8 accuses him of being a sadistic avenger, he attacks him and shouts that he will kill him. Juror 8 argues that he really didn’t mean it to kill him, so was the boy shouting to kill his father as it was heard by another witness. This reasonable argument changing two more jurors’ votes to non-guilty, equals the both sides to 6-6.

Juror 4 (E.G.Marshall) doubts the boy’s alibi of being at the movies at the time of crime, as he could not recall it in much detail. Juror 8 argues how one could not remember the details of previous days, by testing the juror 4 memory who recalls things of past days with difficulty. When the stabbing wounds on the body of victim were doubted to be inflicted by the boy being a foot shorter than his father, the juror 5 steps in and demonstrates the wounds by a switchblade knife by a shorter person to a taller one, should be downward and not upward as on the body of the victim. This changes the votes of three more jurors, leaving only three jurors on the guilty side. 

An argument that the woman who allegedly witnessed the murder wearing glasses as there were marks on the sides of her nose when seen in the courtroom, so she could not have them on while in bed at that time, cast doubt on witness claim. This changed the votes of two more and left only juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb) alone on the guilty side of the verdict. He who from the start voiced his anger against the slum-born people who “kill for fun” went to solitary range finding himself alone against all. He started a long monologue of argument against the boy who like his own son are disrespectful and guilty. This final scene revealed the hidden intention and wish of this juror to vote strongly for the accused boy being guilty. When he breaks down to tears after tearing a photo of his son, he also changes his vote to “not guilty”!

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“12 Angry Men” depicts a common crime story that could happen anywhere and be judged either way of guilty or not in any courtroom or by any group of juries. Not just the story that makes this film, great but its set up to be by only jury deliberation and in a room, by a long camera shot and through powerful logical arguments and re-examination of evidence and witnesses. Through artful plot, direction and powerful performances, an only talk film that could be otherwise boring, is gripping, exciting, heart pounding and eye-opening. It questions the characters, mind sets, emotions and pre-set prejudices of some against others, and at large takes the justice system under a big question.      

Conclusion:

In closing remarks “12 Angry Men” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality:“12 Angry Men” is original in several aspects of being the first major trial film outside the courtroom with no lawyers or judges, almost all happening in a single long camera shot in a single location of a small room. The film is also an original dialogue film with no actions, but still thrilling and exciting.   

2. Technicality:The technicality of “12 Angry Men” without much of camera movements or cinematography, lies in its powerful and convincing plot, setup, and tour de force performances.

3. Impact Factor:The influence of “12 Angry Men” has been on many feature films and TV adaptations across the globe, from US to Italy, Germany, Russia, Japan and China. The film’s impact outside the film industry and on people such as the supreme court judge, Sonia Sotomayor could hardly be measured. 

4. Survival:“12 Angry Men” has survived well to this day for still influencing filmmakers, law students and jurors, and still being a thrill and eye-opener great film to watch.

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