I’ve been selected for jury duty once in my life. While I shan’t reveal any details here, mainly because most of them elude me at this point, I do remember feeling the weight of responsibility in making my decision. If the parties involved decided that they wanted me to sit in on their jury, I felt that I owed it to them to carefully consider all the arguments and ensure that I had my facts straight. Plus they gave me free food. What kind of monster would I be if I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain?
So imagine my surprise during my first viewing of 12 Angry Men when a young man will be sentenced to die if the jury reaches a guilty verdict, and yet some of the jurors just want to hurry up and vote so they can get out of there. If Henry Fonda’s juror was as shocked as I was, he hid it well, merely suggesting that it’s worth talking about the trial because he has “reasonable doubt.” A few of these other men are annoyed and don’t see the point in discussing anything. The kid is guilty and that’s that. Fonda remains steadfast in his belief and the jurors have no choice but to reluctantly oblige him. The seeds have been planted for 90+ plus minutes of required viewing for anyone curious about the filmmaking process, and the importance of dialogue, camerawork and body language.
And I suppose I should mention we’re going to get into some spoilers here, so if you are lucky enough to have the chance to see 12 Angry Men for the first time, do yourself a huge favor and go check it out before you read this. I promise you won’t regret it.
In his first feature film, Sidney Lumet displayed an innate understanding of all of these concepts in the beginning of what was a remarkable career. He later helmed Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Verdict, Prince of the City and the underrated Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, among others, and yet for some inexplicable reason Lumet was never honored with an Academy Award for Best Director. He eventually did receive a Lifetime Achievement award in 2005. I wonder if it came with a note from the Academy that read, “Wow, we really screwed you all these years. Sorry about that. Hope this makes up for all that and, we’re good right?”
Bad humor aside, it really does befuddle me that Lumet went nearly his whole life without getting that recognition, but it’s not the first time that someone worthy was constantly shunned by the Academy and it won’t be the last. His body of work is unique and does his name more justice than a trophy ever would, and I believe that 12 Angry men is the greatest representation of that. I just watched it the other night and it is still as powerful and mesmerizing as it was back in 1957. My girlfriend was studying for a test when I put it on, so she popped in and intended just to watch for a little bit as she ate dinner. Once the credits were about to roll and she was still sitting there next to me, she looks over and says, “Why did you have to put on a movie that’s so engrossing?”
That people who were born decades after 12 Angry Men came out can still fall under its spell is a testament not just to the film’s timeliness, but to the ideas that encompass it and how they are disclosed. We never do know for sure whether the kid is truly guilty or not. Save for one shot of him in the courthouse, he doesn’t appear. Nor do we see any of the jurors in their personal lives or in a situation not connected to the trial. Everything is revealed to us as they deliberate and try to figure out why this Fonda guy has a reasonable doubt. What we come to find is that all 12 of these men have their imperfections, some more apparent and abrasive than others. Will they be able to improve on them once they return to their daily routines? That’s the question I was asking when the men were walking down the steps of the courthouse in the final scene, and it was put there by all the uncertainty and agony I saw in their faces. A lot of that has to do with guilt.
Guilt reveals itself in the ways that you expect but also in the ways that you don’t. Sure, these men are tasked with determining whether they believe that the kid is guilty. But note how after Juror 10 unleashes an ugly tirade that exposes his racism, he goes and sits by himself for the rest of the film. Even when asked whether he wants to change his vote to “not guilty,” he simply nods his head in silence as if he is deeply embarrassed about just how deep his prejudice ran. Then there’s Juror 3, who tears up the picture of him with his son and immediately regrets it, breaking down in tears over the state of their relationship. Is there also a sense of shame there for trying to send a potentially innocent kid to the electric chair? Lastly, there’s even a brief moment where Fonda’s Juror is asked, “Supposin’ you talk us all out of this and the kid really did knife his father?” The camera lingers on his reaction before cutting back to the others, and we know then that even he is unsure of himself.
Lumet explored guilt throughout his career and here it permeates through every inch of the screen. Confined to this one space on the hottest day of the year, these men come into conflict as much with themselves as they do with one another. It takes a great cast to convey all of that with just exchanges of dialogue and facial expressions (Fonda and Lee J. Cobb’s Juror 3 lead the way, but I bet you’ll recognize Jack Warden and Martin Balsam too). It also takes the right backdrop. As the men sweat profusely and complain that the fan isn’t working, tension continues to build and tempers begin to snap and it makes for an incredibly authentic viewing experience. Lumet preferred to shoot his films in New York because there was a greater sense of reality. 12 Angry Men supports that idea and then some.
It’s no big secret that movies in the 50’s were limited by the technology of the time, and it was up to the directors to reverse those limitations and make them assets. 12 Angry Men is timeless not just because its themes and ideas are still relevant today, but also that it couldn’t be remade with a bunch of fancy effects and CGI. It requires those simple concepts of sharp dialogue and expert camerawork to truly function the way that it’s supposed to, and is a perfect companion to Lumet’s book “Making Movies” if you want to educate yourself on the creation of a quality film.
On the back of that book there’s a quote from Steven Spielberg: “Film would be a better place if every director were required to share with other romancers of film his process. It is a gift to all of us that it is Sidney Lumet, one of America’s greatest filmmakers, who is sharing his point-of-view.”
I believe that 12 Angry Men was Lumet’s greatest gift to us, and film is damn sure in a better place today because of it.