On the “hottest day of the year” in New York City, 12 men are cramped in a small jury room to debate the fate of an 18-year-old defendant.
The original 1957 masterpiece “12 Angry Men” begins with the judge giving his routine spiel to the jury in an apathetic tone.
There is a glimpse of the defendant in question, but none of the trial is ever displayed.
The 12 jurors are led into the jury room where they are to decide if the defendant is guilty.
If there is a unanimous vote of “guilty,” the young defendant will be subject to the electric chair.
The jurors vote: 11 men vote “guilty” while one lone juror votes “not guilty.” The outcast, Juror No. 8 (Henry Fonda), is ridiculed by his fellow jurors, who believe this is an “open-and-shut case.”
Fonda doesn’t necessarily believe the young man is innocent, but he wants to thoroughly discuss the case before making a final decision — a decision with a very high consequence.
He defends his vote of “not guilty” by stating, “We’re talking about somebody’s life here. We can’t decide in five minutes. Supposing we’re wrong?”
As the trial is analyzed, and both witnesses and evidence are brought into question, the vote gradually shifts.
The cast of “12 Angry Men” is phenomenal. Besides Henry Fonda, the other 11 actors were among the greatest in NYC at the time.
Each of the 12 men have defined characteristics that, when mixed, produce clashing and tension.
Juror No. 3 (Lee J. Cobb) is the obstinate man, critically biased in the case, hoping the defendant won’t get off. Juror No. 7 (Jack Warden) is an impatient individual who wants to make a fast decision, simply because he has tickets to the ball game that evening.
The elderly chap, Juror No. 9 (Joseph Sweeney), notices minute details and reveals understanding beyond most of the other men.
The most brutally discriminatory juror, No. 10 (Ed Begley), believes the defendant (who is an ethnic minority from a broken “slum” home) has to be guilty.
He spits out his racist comments to the disturbed jurymen, saying, “You know how these people lie. It’s born in them . they don’t need any real big reason to kill someone.”
It gets to the point when his commentary is so disgusting that each juror leaves the table one by one to show they won’t listen anymore, and his opinions are voided.
Through body language, dialogue and cinematography, the film’s effect is deliberate and in your face.
The cinematographer filmed the first third of the film above eye-level, the second third at eye-level and the final third below eye-level to produce a sense of angst and pressure as the events progress.
“12 Angry Men” illustrates the vital importance of the jury system in our country. The words “innocent until proven guilty” are often thrown around so lightly that the true meaning is overshadowed. More often, defendants are viewed as guilty until proven innocent.
It’s amazing to think of what factors can determine a human’s fate when on trial. Missing a baseball game, personal biases and prejudices, impatience or just plain apathy.
Outnumbered 11 to one, Juror No. 8 defies the status quo. This film is a reminder of the power of one individual against all odds.
Staff writer Marjorie Hamburger may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.