12 Angry Men — An American Film Classic

So my wife was lucky enough to pull jury duty for today.  It’s actually the second time this has happened to her (I’ve never been called for it yet myself).  The first time around, the trial was canceled the day beforehand when a plea was apparently reached, but this time she’s headed off to the courthouse.  I’m admittedly curious as to what kind of trial she could be taking part in.  Is it going to be something newsworthy, or more like sleep-inducing?  How long is it going to take — a day or maybe weeks — and will she be given the “don’t talk about the trial to anyone, even your loved ones” request you see jury members given during every television or movie courtroom drama?

Her experience today got me thinking this morning about the depiction of the trial process on the big and small screens.  Almost always, the jury deliberation itself in an afterthought when it comes to dramatizing the events of a trial; we’re usually privy to all of the intrigue taking place behind the scenes with either the prosecution of the defense, but less often do we see the juries themselves, or get to know what’s going on behind those closed doors after both sides have rested their case.

An exception to that approach is the 1957 Academy Award nominated film 12 Angry Men, which is a personal favorite of mine and a movie I make a point to watch whenever I catch it on somewhere.  Adapted from a 1954 television broadcast of the same name, the black-and-white movie is headlined by a fine performance by legendary actor Henry Fonda and features a cast filled with talented and recognizable actors.  12 Angry Men is viewed as an American classic, having been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress and it’s the owner of tremendous acclaim (it’s a favorite film of Roger Ebert, and it has a 100% approval rating by critics on Rotten Tomatoes).  While the story has been adapted for the stage since, and there have been several remakes of the film (most notably a 1997 version made for Showtime), the 1957 version is the definitive version of the story, and the one I enjoy the most.

If you haven’t seen it (an oversight you can and should immediately correct — the film is available on DVD at Amazon), the story’s focus is on the deliberations of a jury serving in the trial of a teenage boy accused of murdering his father.  The jury — twelve men of various social status and economic means — is largely convinced of the boy’s guilt and is prepared to deliver a quick guilty verdict — which would result in the death penalty (according to the story).  But one juror (Fonda ‘s character in the original) is a holdout, believing that the evidence is circumstantial and that the accused deserves as least the time and effort of a deliberation before convicting him.  Juror Number Eight, as Fonda’s character is known (we don’t get anyone’s names throughout the film until the very end — the jurors are all known simply by their number) begins to present the case of the accused innocence to his fellow jurors, many of whom are hostile at first to what they believe is simply a waste of their time.

Fonda’s character is clearly the hero of the piece, an outnumbered man facing a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, but the characters of the remaining jurors are also fleshed out spectacularly throughout the film, as the audience discovers that many of them have their own personal flaws and prejudices that are influencing their votes.  Lee J. Cobb (a fine actor in his own right, who originated the role of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman) plays the main antagonist in the jury room, Juror Number Three.  Cobb’s performance lives up to the “angry” part of the title, as his juror is a bitter, resentful man with his own private demons that put him in direct conflict with Fonda’s quiet, determined strength to find the truth.  It’s the dynamic between the two that drives the drama, but there are many other noteworthy performers in the film as well — Martin Balsam as the jury foreman, and E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, and Robert Webber as jurors.

The movie is a taunt, tense ride that sees Fonda eventually swaying the remaining jurors over to his side.  Unique in its making is that the film is set, outside of a few brief scenes, entirely in the jury room (only 8 of the 96 minutes of the film takes place outside of there), leaving the claustrophobia of the hot, cramped deliberation room felt by the jurors to seep off of the screen and envelop the viewer.

There are some flaws and inaccuracies in the film — primarily the composition of the jury itself; in the 1957 movie, the jury is an all-male group with no African-Americans — the closest thing to a minority juror is the Czech watchmaker, played by George Voskovec.  Later adaptations rectified this implausibility (the 1997 remake had four African-Americans among the jurors, while several stage adaptations have changed more than one juror’s sex from male to female), but despite the suspension of disbelief needed, the original still stands as the best of them all.  If you haven’t seen it before, it occasionally runs on Turner Classic Movies and is on DVD.  I highly recommend it.

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One Response to “12 Angry Men — An American Film Classic”

  1. […] Lee J, Cobb (centre, with arm raised) wishes to re-enact the murder with Henry Fonda (left). Image: The Last Honest Man […]

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