12 Angry Men (1957)

Dir. Sidney Lumet. Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall

12 Angry Men is a magnificent fantasy. Choose your player!

  1. Juror 8 (Fonda) does enough outside research that he essentially manages to retry a case in the jury room which, if we’re honest, probably should end this movie with a mistrial as opposed to a “not guilty” vote.
  2. Twelve white men in the late ’50s, of whom at least seven or eight would have voted for Donald Trump if you placed them in 2016 (for sure 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 10, and 12), and decided to acquit a person of color who had been charged with murder.
  3. Eleven grown men change their minds in the space of ninety minutes.

I’m fond of the last one myself, since 12 Angry Men contributes to a commonly believed myth that people’s minds can be changed through debate during which the cream will rise to the top. 12 Angry Men is also a marvelous piece of Cold War propaganda, if we’re honest, complete with a thickly-accented man impressing on his native-born peers what America means to him and why juries are so important to our concept of freedom. The movie believes in the American ability to self-correct, and is inspired by it; Seven Days in May, only seven years after this film, believes in our ability to self-correct with white knuckles rather than sonorous speeches. People say that Ace in the Hole is cynical, yet it seems to me that 12 Angry Men is a far more cynical movie, lazily presuming that everything will come out right even when it looks very much like something tragic will happen instead. There is a great deal of hard work in this picture, but its rigorous structure—it must last more than half an hour, of course, but more than that its growing tide in favor of Fonda and Joseph Sweeney as numbered by the several votes which inexorably join their column, because who wouldn’t join Henry Fonda?—precludes realism in a movie which works so hard to create it otherwise.

Much of that realism is bound up in one of the better casts of the past sixty years, bought on a modest budget and containing a bunch of actors who, if they had died in 1958, would have been almost uniformly anonymous. Only Fonda and perhaps Cobb, in the glamour roles, were anything like household names when the movie premiered; while Jack Warden, Ed Begley, and Martin Balsam would be Oscar nominees (and in the latter two cases, winners), they were not yet more than vague faces. Most of the rest of the cast would carve out a niche on television during the Golden Age; John Fiedler, bless him, is probably the best known to people under eighteen because he voiced Piglet. This is a group of nobodies, in short, and while one wonders how exactly a New York jury is as white as a pre-sit-in Walgreen’s, one could reasonably make the case that these people could be scooped up off their streets. Even the name-brand actors are best known for their work as just plain folks; Fonda’s breakout was Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and Lee J. Cobb originated Willy Loman. Of this group, only Fonda and Robert Webber are handsome; George Voskovec has a certain dignity to his features, as does E.G. Marshall, but most of the rest are not much to look at. Then, too, is a trivia fact which speaks to me because it supports the tone of the time and place: more than half of the actors playing jurors had military service in their background. Balsam, Fiedler, Klugman, Binns, Warden, Fonda, and Webber were all World War II vets; Voskovec, playing an immigrant who has presumably seen some nasty things in his home country, fled his native Czechoslovakia when Hitler marched in. In this gathering of men arrayed in a life-or-death purpose, it’s hard not to think of those men with birthdays in the late ’10s or early ’20s as anything but former veterans, and it’s serendipitous, perhaps even meaningful, that so many of these men saw combat.

All of them seem to instinctively understand that no matter how grand someone’s outside profession is or how big their silver spoon was, it does not give that person the right to talk down to anyone else. Binns plays a house painter and Klugman a man who grew up in a tough neighborhood. (Another little slice of verisimilitude: Klugman, Binns, and Sweeney are all Philadelphians, Warden was born in Newark, and Balsam and Cobb both hail from the Bronx. More than that, they all look like they come from the Mid-Atlantic. Stop in at a Wawa at any time between 6:30 and 8:30 on a weekday and you’ll see one of their doppelgangers.) Yet Five and Six refuse to take any guff from Ten, who has a string of garages, or from Three or Seven, who both have successful businesses; Four, who is deeply polite, would never insult those men, but all the same Five and Six would never have allowed the stockbroker to patronize them. It’s worth noting that some career determinism is also in play with Eight, who is an architect in real life; from Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle to Liam Neeson in Love Actually to TV’s Ted Mosby and Mike Brady, architects are creative and intelligent people who rarely conform to the rigorous standard that one sees in, say, engineers. Their faces are as likely as their jobs, in other words, and there are pains taken to achieve a cross-section from a step above the service sector (Two is a bank teller) to Madison Avenue (Twelve is the kind of guy Don Draper would have punched in the jaw somewhere in Season 2 of Mad Men). These careers and backgrounds also piece together, as they reconstruct the case, with the kind of favor which only the most beneficent gods would bestow. Eight has lived under the el train; helpfully, Six has painted by one. Nine has an eye on the loneliness of old men, as well as the marks on the nose left by glasses-wearing. Four misremembers the name of a B-movie, but Two doesn’t. Three demonstrates an overhand stabbing, but Five has a better idea of how a switchblade works. For seemingly every objection or every out-there proclamation, there is someone to second the point.

Reginald Rose will never be confused with America’s great dramatists, but his screenplay (based on his play based on his television play) is filled with moments that good actors can take advantage of. There may not be much smoking etiquette on display in this room, but there sure are a bunch of microaggressive taunts which haven’t been heard since the ’60s. “You can’t talk to me like that” is a winner. So are “Who do you think you are?” and especially “How do you like that!” They are basically meaningless phrases, not much more powerful or considered than Cher’s ubiquitous “As if!” But give Klugman a “Who do you think you are?” or Warden a “How do you like that?” and it becomes something far more than a forceful colloquialism. Five, the second person to join Eight on the “not guilty” ledger, takes “Who do you think you are?” to a new level, arguing that he’s more than his background and using a “Who do you think you are?” like a switchblade to carve out some respect for himself. “How do you like that?/!” becomes a way for someone like Seven or Three to assert dominance, to express disgust that someone might even think a certain way, much less speak it out loud. On the aggregate, Rose uses interjections like a mediocre quarterback uses screen passes, and so characters are built on these seven- and eight-yard gains in the traffic of this crowded little room.

This is Sidney Lumet’s first movie, and his ability to work actors into strong performances is amplified by intelligent camera use. On a fairly small budget with one exterior and three interiors, without a single decoration that makes much of an impression, Lumet manages to vary close-ups with wide shots. As his actors get sweatier, more taut, less laconic, we see much less of them. I’ve written before about the claustrophobia of the movie (and so has literally everyone else), but it really is remarkable how medium close-ups become extreme ones, where even a person’s entire head can’t fit in the shot. Lumet is also smart enough not to lose the journalistic quality of his shots by angling them in any significant way; we only look up at Eight with any kind of consistency, and even then that shot is echoed for when we’ll see everyone from below, staring piece by piece at Three, who has finally found everyone arrayed against him.

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