Starring Henry Fonda and Martin Balsam, 12 Angry Men was released in 1957. Does it still hold up for today’s cinema watchers?
Imagine having someone else’s life in your hands.
Not their livelihood, but their actual life. Someone’s very existence. Whether this person lives or dies is, at least in part, is in your hands. Scary, right?
In that case (see what I did there?), welcome to 12 Angry Men. Sidney Lumet’s classic 1957 courtroom drama focuses on a jury’s deliberation of a young man, who is accused of stabbing his abusive father to death.
Did he do it? That’s up to the main characters – the titular ‘Angry Men’, to decide. As for us, we get to sit back and watch the whole thing unfold.
With an unconventional premise and a cast boasting some of the finest actors of that period – including future Oscar winners Henry Fonda (On Golden Pond) and Martin Balsam (Psycho) – the film is a recipe for success.
So, what has made 12 Angry Men so memorable for six decades? For one, it’s a perfect combination of excellent writing, acting, and set design.
Let’s look at the latter first. Most of the action takes place in that tiny jury room set. It’s small enough to create the sense of claustrophobia and drab enough to convey the sense of boredom or tiredness.
Yet, with all the tumultuous conversations during the film, the room itself is the only element remaining unchanged.
In terms of writing, Reginald Rose’s screenplay (based on his earlier stage play) has the difficult job of balancing 12 characters. Although some Jurors are more prominent than others, each has their own distinctive personality.
There are no two identical voices within the conversation and as a writer, that is very impressive.
First and foremost, this applies to Fonda’s character, Juror #8.
In my opinion, the film would be missing much of its impact if a lesser actor played the lead role.
Fonda’s talent and charisma are the very reason why the other jurors (and the audience) listen to Juror #8 and ultimately see his way of thinking. Although Fonda is not the first actor to have played Davis/Juror #8, he very much makes the part his own and it is nearly impossible to think of the film without his performance.
In addition, Fonda also produced 12 Angry Men, his only producing credit, which made him an even more natural choice
Conflicting characters are the key ingredient for any drama, however, 12 Angry Men takes this even further.
Not only do these men have very different perspectives, but they are also in what is probably the most high-stakes situation of their lives thus far.
How does one approach sitting on a murder trial? It’s no mean feat. Do you focus on the facts, like Juror #8? Maybe observe every minute detail of the witnesses/defendants – like Juror #4 (EG Marshall) or #9 (Joseph McSweeney).
Or, perhaps, your decision reflects personal bias, like Juror #3 (Cobb) and this defines your course of action.
The film places a very toxic group of individuals into one setting – with some bigoted, sociopathic or overly prejudicial jury members.
Case in point: Juror #7 just wants to get to his baseball game as soon as possible. He does not care whether the defendant is guilty or not.
However, with the possible exception of Juror #10, none of the ‘bad’ Jurors get any ‘comeuppance’ by the end of the film.
If they had, it would have gone entirely against the message being conveyed all along.
The law isn’t black and white; there’s nuance and layers to almost every story. While this does not condone acts of violence, it does leave room for interpretation as to what actually happened.
Overall, Rose’s writing takes what begins as a very real, relatable situation – jury duty – and uses that germ to craft an intricate, complex narrative with plenty of rich scenes for the actors to play with.
It’s been 65 years already and I suspect this film will continue to be enjoyed for many more.