When a Puerto Rican boy is put on trial for murdering his father, eleven out twelve jurors are hasty to vote that he is guilty, and thus quick to put him into the electric chair. They think the case is as straightforward as black and white, with no room for grey. Juror number eight is sceptical about the available evidence and wants a thorough analysis of the facts from every juror before sending a boy to death, to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. What starts as an open-and-shut case becomes a detective story that pokes holes in the evidence at hand, creating a mini-drama of each juror’s prejudices and preconceptions about the case and about one another.
No car chases, guns or bombs are needed to make an entertaining and riveting film. The great bard Shakespeare coined the phrase “the bee’s knees” and this is the bee’s knees indeed. I was captivated from beginning to end. Each of the twelve are introduced to us as they’re introduced to each other. They are all their own people. They have personalities, some likeable and some less so. If character is the driver, then the screenplay is the goddamn car, with excellent performances from Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath) and Lee. J. Cobb (On The Waterfront). Every line is written to make you question, ponder and think about what is happening on screen. Flippin’ good!
Having recently watched the BBC’s adaptation of Witness for the Prosecution based on the book by Agatha Christie, I have taken a shine to courtroom dramas and dramas with that feel. And both 12 Angry Men and Witness have tension in their characters. Witness has characters on the stand whilst 12 Angry Men puts characters on their own sort of stand. They’re examining one another, and certain characters show their true colours at their disdain for other views. In a way, characters in Lumet’s film are saying “free speech is overrated if you don’t agree with me”. And is that any different to the culture with the Trump Administration and his wanting to silence the free press?
And when we don’t follow the crowd, we get mocked. That’s not something exclusive to this film, that’s human nature. When we decide to stand alone and not with the crowd, eyebrows are raised. But what about when one man becomes two and then three? That’s how movements start. Fonda against the other eleven is uncomfortable, as he is the only one who seems to not want to rush into killing someone without all the facts. His humanity highlights the rest of the group’s inhumanity and their will to hurry into committing an act that the accused is on trial for. They insult and belittle him in his inability to not see beyond reasonable doubt but things change when two vote “not guilty”.
With each passing minute, Fonda applies logic and reason to his arguments. Something some of his fellow jurors don’t care for, including one who seems to only want to talk about football. We share in his wins and enthusiasm at debunking the case, poking holes in the arguments left, right and centre. These eleven angry men are in awe of this man and when it’s a hung vote, things get interesting. The viewer can also see these arguments for guilty and not guilty. Is Fonda’s character correct in his doubts? He destroys a theory that was seemingly iron tight as well, much to the dismay of Cobb’s character, who seems angry all the time. And by the end, we understand why.
In addition to the case, there many relatable human elements such as the assumptions and prejudices that influence people and the personality clashes between different characters. These are given life by Fonda, Cobb and Joseph Sweeney and they’re awe-inspiring performances. Each character has his own tics, specific to that person. In groups like this, there are leaders and followers. Big personalities often lead, Cobb’s juror has influence. That’s influence by intimidation, using his body to instil fear into the other jurors and thus get what he wants, a boy’s death. Filmed in black and white with excellent cinematography too, this is really an edge of your seat drama.
From the cinematography to the acting performances, and more importantly, the writing, there’s a lot we can learn from 12 Angry Men. It’s a deep character study of the impulsive nature of humanity but moreover, masculinity. It’s Lord of the Flies for grown ups and it’s something that needs to be rewatched time and time again because none of us are safe from letting our own misconceptions and emotions cloud our judgement.