Twelve Angry Men (1957)

Twelve Angry Men
a review by Damian Cannon, 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.


An excellent courtroom drama with a unique twist. Instead of following the trial itself, the viewer has a unique chance to observe the events behind the closed doors of a jury room. The film begins with the end of the trial. The jurors retire to deliberate the case. A preliminary vote is taken and the result is 11:1 in favour of the guilty verdict. Eleven jurors have raised their hands to convict a young man of killing his father. Only Juror #8 has doubts. At first even he does not truly believe the young man to be innocent but notes (rightfully) that the case for the defence might have been presented in a more convincing manner and that the boy might be given the benefit of a doubt. Since the boy is to be executed if found guilty his life is now in the hands of the jury and juror #8 reasons that the least they could do is talk about the case a bit. As time goes on some of the jurors change their minds and find that there is perhaps enough reasonable doubt not to convict the young man after all. But not everyone is easy to convince.

Although the plot of the film is excellent and it is fascinating to see what little things can influence which way a verdict goes, where this film really succeeds is in presenting the characters of the 12 jurors. The character of each of the jurors emerges through a wonderful mix of perfect casting, excellent dialogue and near-flawless acting.

Juror #1 - a simple man who clearly does not understand the full complexity of the task that lies before him but is trying to do everything not to let anyone else find this out. He appears at ease only once during the film - when he talks about football. He has the misfortune to be selected foreman of the jury - a task he clearly does not relish.

Juror #2 - a small, quite man, clearly unaccustomed to giving his own opinion much less to expecting his views to be of any importance. Apparently he finds solace in his job - he is an accountant.

Juror #3 - probably the most complex personality in the film. Starts off like a pleasant self-made successful businessman, he analyses the case impartially, explains his arguments well and is reasonably self assured. As time goes on he becomes more and more passionate and seems to be somehow personally involved with the case. He also starts to show some signs of slight mental instability. Wonderfully played by Lee J. Cobb - this is the character you remember after the film is over.

Juror #4 - self assured, slightly arrogant stockbroker. Obviously considers himself more intelligent than anyone else in the room, he approaches the case with cool heartless logic but (as one of the jurors says - "this is not an exact science") he does not take into account the feelings, the passions, the characters of the people involved in the case. He is conspicuous by the fact that he is the only juror that does not take his jacket off (it is a very hot day).

Juror #5 - here is a man under great emotional stress. He comes from the same social background as the accused boy - with who he almost unwillingly seems to identify with. Paradoxically this appears one of the main reasons for him voting guilty - he does not want compassion to influence him - so ironically it does.

Juror #6 - a simple man, quite readily admitting that everyone in the room is better qualified than he is to make decisions and offer explanations. But he really wants to see justice done and it worries him that he might make a mistake.

Juror #7 - the only one that really has no opinion on this case. Literally throughout the film his thoughts are never on the case - he talks of baseball, of the heat, of fixing the fan but the only reason he has for voting this way or that is to speed things up a bit so he might be out of the jury room as soon as possible. Not an evil man he just has no sense of morality whatsoever - he can tell right from wrong but does not seem to think it's worth the bother.

Juror #8- a caring man, has put more thought into the case than any of the other jurors. He tries to do his best even in the face of seemingly impossible odds.

Juror #9 - a wise old man with his great life experience has quite a unique way of looking at the case.

Juror #10 - the most horrifying character in the film. Votes guilty and does not even try to hide the fact that he does so only because of the boy's social background. The tragedy comes from the fact that his own social position is only a cut above the boy's - which makes him all the more eager to accentuate the difference.

Juror #11 - an immigrant watchmaker, careful methodical man, well mannered and soft spoken. respects the right of people to have different opinion to his - and is willing to look at both sides of the problem. Loses his temper only once - horrified by the complete indifference of juror #7.

Juror #12 - a young business type - perhaps he has his own opinions - but is careful to hide them. What he has learnt out of life seems to be that intelligence is equal with agreeing with what the majority of people think.

The film succeeds in doing something very rare today - developing an intelligent plot while also developing 12 believable, memorable and distinct characters.