Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley Sr.
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Twelve men sit around a table in a hot, stuffy jury room, deciding the fate of a young man charged with murder. The foreman takes a preliminary vote; hands rise around the table, in nearly unanimous support of a guilty verdict. Then the foreman asks for the "not guilty" vote--and a single hand rises, that of Juror No. 8 (Henry Fonda). "You really think he's innocent?" asks a man at the other end of the table. "I don't know," the dissenter says, after a pause. Over the next hour and a half, the lone holdout explains the case as he sees it, rallying other jurors to his cause even as others become more firmly entrenched in their belief in the defendant's guilt. Tempers flare, and a confrontation between the quiet holdout and his increasingly hostile antagonists seems certain.
Sidney Lumet's debut film 12 Angry Men, written by Reginald Rose and based on his original teleplay, is a jury procedural that manages to be as compelling as the finest traditional courtroom dramas ever filmed. Except for two brief scenes at the start and end of the movie, the entire film takes place within the jury room, which becomes more claustrophobic as time passes (Lumet used lenses of different focal length to create the perception that the walls are closing in). Like his contemporary John Frankenheimer, Lumet, who also directed Fail-Safe and Dog Day Afternoon, got his start in early television drama, and here he demonstrates his affinity for telling confined, minimalist stories that focus on personalities rather than props.
Lumet--who's still making films--is known for making socially relevant pictures from a left-of-center point of view, but a brilliant performance by Henry Fonda, possibly the finest of his career, keeps 12 Angry Men from being simply a cringeworthy exercise in liberal preachiness. Fonda was better than just about anyone else at projecting a fundamental decency, so much so that director Sergio Leone eventually cast him as a sadistic gunman in the spaghetti Western Once Upon a Time in the West as a playful joke. An architect by profession, Fonda's Juror No. 8 examines and deconstructs the prosecution's case with the kind of thoughtful analysis he might bring to the process of designing a building, his position evolving over the course of the film from a vague uneasiness to specific refutations of the other jurors' arguments based in logic and common sense. Other actors might render the character as a mere bleeding heart; Fonda instead portrays a man motivated by a sincere belief that a man must be considered innocent until the state proves his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and who considers it his ethical duty to zealously search for that reasonable doubt before ruling it out.
Fonda's chief antagonist is played by the great Lee J. Cobb, one of my favorite actors, whom you may remember as the corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly in On the Waterfront. Cobb originated the role of Willy Loman in the 1949 Broadway production of Death of a Salesman and played the role on stage for many years. The leather-lunged Cobb was a big, physically imposing man who often played loudmouths and hotheads, and he often put his own intimidating physical presence to use portraying characters with deep-seated insecurities and anxieties who use bluster as a shield. The contrast between the overheated Cobb and the soft-spoken Fonda is educational. Not to be forgotten are the other members of the cast, including Ed Begley Sr., Martin Balsam, Jack Klugman, E.G. Marshall, and Jack Warden. Most were unknowns at the time of 12 Angry Men's release, but today they'd all probably occupy top spots on any list of mid-century America's most talented male actors. You might be able to assemble a cast like that today, but finding a producer willing to pay for it would be harder.
Points to ponder:
- Look for: soprano-voiced character actor John Fiedler, an unforgettable figure who's played nebbishes and wimps in just about everything, but who is probably best remembered for playing sniveling bureaucrat Mr. Hengist in the 1967 Star Trek episode "Wolf in the Fold", for his recurring role as therapy patient Emil Peterson on The Bob Newhart Show, and as the longtime voice of Piglet in Disney's Winnie the Pooh animated features and shorts.
- The film never reveals whether the defendant committed the crime. That is for the viewer to decide. The evidence against the defendant seems unimpeachable at the start of the film; by the end, the prosecution's case is riddled with holes and inconsistencies and a guilty verdict seems unthinkable. Yet the defendant's innocence is never proven, nor are any alternate suspects meaningfully suggested. How would you vote?