12 Decisions, 1 Life: On Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” (1957)

A stylized, sepia-colored shot of the pocketknife from Sidney Lumet's "12 Angry Men".

In a New York courtroom, on what is said to be the “hottest day of the year,” 12 jurors must decide the fate of a young man who has presumably stabbed his father following a fight one night. Is he guilty or not? The punishment that awaits him is the electric chair if he is found guilty, and so we are witness to what Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men must decide that afternoon within a single room. All must agree, lest the jury will be ‘hung.’ But this is one man’s life, and one can’t merely decide in five minutes.

At first, the case seems pretty clear—11 votes guilty save for juror number 8 (Henry Fonda) who votes Not Guilty. It’s not that he is convinced the man is innocent as much as he believes there might be a reasonable doubt. Might. And as anyone knows, to be found guilty means that one must be beyond a reasonable doubt. As Fonda slowly makes his case, he reevaluates the evidence and recreates scenes from the trial. As example, would it take the witness, a stroke victim who walked with a limp, 15 seconds to reach the door to see the murderer flee? Could he reach the door in time? Also, we are shown the murder weapon, which some believe is a shoo-in for a guilty verdict, only for Fonda to share that he has the same weapon in his pocket—indeed, this common switchblade that can be purchased anywhere.

Yet the accused in question claimed he was at the movies that night, though he could not remember the film’s details. Would he really recall the names of the actors in the film he claimed to see if under trauma? We hear the evidence second hand, and it is not about whether we know if the young man is guilty or not, as the audience has to take the jurors’ word. Rather, this film is an exercise in personality, clash, and conflict. They argue, they disagree. Each character is not remembered by name but by number. That we can recall them afterwards is a testament to the differences in their character. Fonda, as juror number 8, seems to operate out of a sense of moral compass, and as 12 Angry Men continues, other jurors slowly begin to change their votes.

Hot and thirsty, at times the sweating men move near the fans, only to wipe their brows. Uncomfortable are they, yet still the deliberation continues, as they grow heated and more temperamental. Then it’s as though the very walls begin to close in on them—the claustrophobia omnipresent. Supposedly, Sidney Lumet achieved this via his choice of lens. In his review, Roger Ebert notes, ‘the movie plays like a textbook for directors interested in how lens choices affect mood. By gradually lowering his camera, Lumet illustrates another principle of composition: A higher camera tends to dominate, a lower camera tends to be dominated. As the film begins we look down on the characters, and the angle suggests they can be comprehended and mastered.’

12 Angry Men exemplifies how well-written dialogue can dominate a single scene—one room, 12 personalities. For only 95 minutes, the scenes move quickly and don’t hesitate. Some jurors are concerned with only their own self-interests (one is upset that he will miss his baseball game), another operates out of only logic and facts, while another who grew up in a slum gets defensive when ‘people from the slum’ are criticized. Sidney Lumet’s film, based on a teleplay by Reginald Rose, has received numerous accolades and carries the stamp of a classic. Fonda brings a kind idealism to his role, a reminder that justice must, if not prevail, then at least be considered.  (A quality not too far off from his role as Abe Lincoln in The Young Mr. Lincoln.) ‘This is somebody’s life here. We can’t decide in five minutes,’ he says.

Courtroom dramas can only be as good as the writing. Of course, this could be said about any film, but what separates 12 Angry Men from something like Anatomy of a Murder is that there is a hint of Kafka here, where it is not so important why the young man is accused but that he is accused. We never come to learn the truth, as we only are witnesses to what the jury comes to believe is the truth. The young man, who is someone of ethnic descent, is subject to bigotry when juror 10 begins his racist rant, thereby causing the others to physically turn away. It’s a powerful scene, and it makes us beg the question—would this man be subject to the same presumed guilt were he white? But those who do believe he is guilty are not necessarily acting out of prejudice, such as juror 4 (E.G. Marshall), who only wants facts and logic. Not until he is convinced by juror 9 (Joseph Sweeney) that one of the witnesses was without her eyeglasses that night does he change his vote.

These characters are placed into an uncomfortable situation and are forced to deliberate. Discomfort often makes us less timid and more impatient, and not only do these jurors have responsibility weighing upon them, but the film would lack power were they not physically riled and uncomfortable. Each wants this day to end, as collectively their frustration grows. Eventually, the vote switches to 11-1, with only juror 3 remaining with the lone guilty vote. There is a sense that his feelings are personal, rather than objective, due to his private relationship with his son.

What is it about conversation that makes it so compelling? In a sense, this film could not be more ‘bare bones’ when it comes to a script, and yet its power still holds all these years later. Not only that, 12 Angry Men is a must-watch for any young writer wishing to study dialogue, wherein the tension carries throughout, scene by scene until in retrospect we are able to recall these jurors as individuals and not clichés.

Sidney Lumet is a director who often dealt well with dialogue and detail, and beneath often looms the need for justice. Films like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network are a testament to this—the idea of the frustrated workingman who seeks fairness, or just the need to expose corruption. 12 Angry Men addresses these similar themes and it does so intelligently. 12 decisions, 1 life. They need to get it right.

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