One of the best debut films in the history of cinema, Sidney Lumet’s 1957 12 Angry Men, a hymn to the voice of reason amidst a cacophony of furious prejudice, questions the very nature of the American judicial system in its pursuit of justice and its relation to the truth.
On a sweltering, Summer day, the twelve members of a jury retire to deliberate on a murder case. What at first seems irrefutable to nearly all of them, i.e. the defendant’s guilt, soon dissipates into thin air. Rain starts to fall, cooling the day, as juror # 8, slowly convinces the others of the possible reasonable doubt in the case. As ambiguous as it can be, we never find out the truth of the matter. We are left with the not guilty verdict and we’re not sure it is the best one.
Juror # 8 – Juror # 8 (Henry Fonda), rational, cool-headed and pragmatic, wants to talk about the case because he feels unease to condemn a man to die, without true conviction. Whereas the others share a feeling of certainty, he is adamant of his own doubt. As an architect he wants to build bridges between himself and the other jurors.
Juror # 9 – After an apparent unfruitful talking, juror # 8 suggests a secret vote, and agrees to align himself with the others if the score of 11 to 1 against acquittal is maintained. Juror # 9 (Joseph Sweeney) thinks that Fonda’s character has made some very good points. ‘Well, it’s not easy to stand alone against the ridicule of others. So he gambled for support. And I gave to him.’
Juror # 5 – They discuss how the noise of the EL train would not allow the old man downstairs to hear the accused allegedly yelling ‘I’m gonna kill you.’ According to juror # 9, the old man said that he has heard the yelling because he wanted attention. His little monologue about the importance of being listened to is an allusion to his own feelings. Juror # 8 argues that we all say things like ‘I’m gonna kill you’ without meaning it. Then, juror # 5 (Jack Klugman) changes his vote.
Juror # 11 – Juror # 11 (George Voskovec), calm and methodical, questions the fact that the accused would go back to the apartment to retrieve the murder’s knife. It doesn’t make sense. They deliberate and he also changes his vote to not guilty.
Juror # 2 / Juror # 6 – Then Juror # 8 tries the experiment of ‘the old man walking the hall’. Juror # 3 (Lee J. Cobb) loses patience with this and then in an outburst threats to kill him. ‘You don’t really mean that, do you?’ retorts juror # 8. After that, juror # 2 (John Fiedler) and juror # 6 (Edward Binns) change their vote too.
Juror # 7 – Juror # 2 mentions that the angle of the wound inflicted on the murdered father has been bothering him for some time. The accused is much shorter than his dead father but the knife entered in a downward position. Then juror # 5 says that anyone who uses a switch blade knife would stab upwards. Juror # 7 (Jack Warden) decides to change his vote because he ‘is tired of all this.’ Juror # 11 gets upset with his attitude.
Juror # 12 / Juror 1 – Then juror # 8 asks for another vote, and this time juror # 12 (Robert Webber) and juror # 1 (Martin Balsam) change their vote to not guilty. They seem to be following the crowd. They heard all the arguments, which have slowly been pushing the vote towards acquittal, and they seem not to want to be left behind.
Juror # 10 / Juror # 4 – At this moment juror # 4 takes his glasses off and rubs the top of his nose where they have left marks on both sides. Juror # 9 then says that the woman who testified about seeing the accused in the act of killing his father also had marks like that on top of her nose. If she wears glasses then her testimony might be questioned. Both juror # 10 (Ed Begley) and juror # 4 (E. G. Marshall) now admit that there is a reasonable doubt and change their vote to not guilty.
Juror # 3 – At this point, feeling totally isolated, juror # 3 (Lee J. Cobb) gets upset, shouts to everyone, and then gives a little emotional speech about how ungrateful his son is. Then, he forgives his son and changes his vote to not guilty.
12 Angry Men is usually understood as an eulogy of the American judicial system. In fact, it can also be seen as an indictment of it, as the film showcases the process’ deficiencies through the irrational behaviour displayed by the jury. There is a fallacy in the belief that decisions are generally reached through rational, evidence-based, commonsensical choices. It is hard, as juror # 8 himself admits, to keep personal prejudice out of the equation. Even with such incomplete cross-section of American society in the mid-50s it becomes clear that there are enough ‘unreasonable’ ways to approach the whole thing.
With the exception of juror # 4 (rational and concerned with facts) and juror # 11 (methodical and respectful of the process), all the others involve emotional elements in their change of vote. Although valid arguments are presented before they change their minds, jurors # 1, #2, # 6 and # 12 seem gullible enough to be persuaded by popular opinion and the direction the argument is going at any time. This is not to say that they blindly follow the crowd, no matter what, but only to imply that their volte-face might have come about with the help of any emotional or insecurity issues they might harbour deep inside. Coincidence or not, these jurors are the ones with the least to say.
..#1….. #2….. #3…..#4….. #5….. #6…..#7…..#9…..#10….#11…#12
Juror # 5, on the other hand, had more personal reasons for his change of mind. He also heard a valid argument that might have convinced him of a reasonable doubt. The noise of the elevated train obstructing the yelling at the murder scene contradicts the old man saying that he heard the accused shouting at his father. However, juror # 5’s solidarity towards the accused, someone who experienced a life which he knows too well, having lived in the slums his whole life, must have played a part in his change of mind. Surely, his ‘not guilty’ vote comes from a sentimental streak of his consciousness.
..Three Reasons: 12 Angry Men © The Criterion Collection.
Juror # 7’s position is the easiest one to deconstruct, and probably the most despicable one. His indifference towards the whole process upsets jurors # 3 and # 11, and is scoffed by juror # 8, almost as a moral attribute. His narcissistic frame of mind, directed to curtail the proceedings short for the sake of a ball game, makes him the most alienated character in the film. He will be despised by everyone, independently of one’s leaning towards punishing or sympathising with the boy. Some people just should never be called for jury service.
With belligerent jurors # 3 and # 10, it is obvious that both wear their emotions on their sleeves. One is totally blinded by personal circumstances, the other by racial hatred. Juror # 3, remains impassive to every single argument up to end. Then, he finally lets all the anger and resentment towards his ‘ungrateful’ son surface. And finally, he forgives his son – and therefore the accused. Equally explosive, juror # 10 capitulates after the others ignore his diatribe on the low-lives; the whole room becomes completely apathetic. Having lost the respect of those men, he now succumbs to a catatonic state of dejection.
Juror # 8, as the audience’s alter-ego, then talks how prejudices poison debate – and that sums up one of the most important themes of the film. However, he also displays a highly biased view of how debate should be conducted. Now, with all the jurors but one, convinced of the reasonable doubt, he looks at juror # 3 and says: ‘You’re alone.’ Don’t forget that he (# 8) was in that position himself at the beginning of the picture. But then it was portrayed as the brave man takes a stand against conformity. Now, instead, the film depicts # 3 as the stubborn man who cannot shake off prejudice and see reason.
..#1….. #2….. #3…..#4….. #5….. #6…..#7…..#9…..#10….#11…#12
And that’s what is great about this masterpiece of naturalistic cinema. The fact that every character is a fully developed human being with flaws. Juror # 9, the first one to change his vote, who incidentally is probably the eldest of them all, might have been motivated by the behaviour of the ‘old man’, the witness who allegedly heard the defendant yell at his father. In an almost mirror reaction to the old man’s inferiority complex, juror # 9 wants to do the right thing, be brave and perhaps make a difference. He makes sure he is being heard by the others.
I would argue that the real antagonist to Fonda’s character is not the explosive juror # 3 or the bigoted juror # 10, but in fact, the most rational of them all, juror # 4. He maintains his position to the end and eventually turns around when he sees evidence contradicting his vote. But he too probably carries a class prejudice that’s interfering with his objective lens. The juror who really seems to behave in the most honourable way, respectful of the process and the people involved in it, who listens to what the others have to say and then as objectively as possible tries to arrive at rational conclusions, is juror # 11. Isn’t ironic that the perfect juror is a naturalized immigrant?
The most pertinent question remains. How verdicts are fairly reached without a juror # 8 in each courtroom? He is the epitome of humane justice, not because he sides with the defendant, but because he’s not in a rush to pass judgement. He wants to doubt; he wants to open different ways of seeing things. He wants to build bridges. He respects the process; he believes in it. From the outset, he establishes the moral imperative – for which all jury service ought to abide: As people responsible for the life of someone else, we hold the obligation to sit and discuss the details of the case in a serious manner. Every defendant, no matter how big or small the case, deserves twelve angry men arguing their case, inside a hot and humid room…