12 Angry Men (1957)


*. In my commentary on Seven Days in May I mentioned John Frankenheimer’s remarks about how ridiculous it all seems today, living in a world where the moral and political principles that his movie provided a civic lesson in have blown away like a morning fog. That same sense of moral dislocation is even more in evidence here. How we have changed.
*. I guess in some ways this film could be read as an allegory for the upheavals about to come, the sweeping away of old certitudes and prejudices for uncertainty and moral relativism. Active liberalism wins the argument on “rights” hands down, while old-school conservatism is exposed as hypocritical and just plain wrong.
*. It’s a lesson that would be easier to take, even given the strained and unconvincing artificiality of its premise (a case tried and determined practically de novo in a little over an hour), if it had at least got the law right. Instead it makes a total hash of things, even with Fonda’s lecturing.
*. There is, for example, no attempt to discriminate between finding the accused innocent or finding him not guilty because the jurors have not been persuaded of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Fonda’s icebreaker that the jury consider whatever is “possible” is, I would argue, misleading. The possible is not at issue.
*. Of course you know right away that the jurors holding Wrong Views are going to be humbled, humiliated, and broken. There is absolutely no dramatic tension in that regard, and the breakdowns of Cobb and Begley are about as convincing as Jack Nicholson’s meltdown on the stand in A Few Good Men. That is to say, they are mere dramatic requirements. But even granting all this, it seems to me that the prosecution still has a pretty strong case.


*. The fact that the son had recently had an argument with his father, gone out and bought a knife identical to the one used to stab his father, then claimed in his defence that he’d immediately lost the knife, all seem strong circumstantial evidence of guilt. I’m also unsure of what Fonda proves by interrogating Juror 4 (E. G. Marshall) about a movie he saw a few days ago. Marshall’s memory is fuzzy on some details about the second feature he’d seen, but this is in no way comparable to the accused not being able to remember anything at all about a movie he supposedly saw only a few hours earlier. Emotional stress? That seems a convenient excuse, especially since Fonda had initially said that being abused by his father was an everyday experience. And yet it is the accused’s being slapped by his father that Fonda later claims causes the emotional stress and amnesia.
*. It’s interesting that when Fonda questions the father’s slap as a motive for the murder, since abuse had been going on the accused’s entire life, he is immediately slapped down by Juror 4 and Fonda is silent in response. The script does recognize that there are real weaknesses in Fonda’s argument and that his view of things may be misleading and even wrong at times.


*. No, I don’t much like Juror 8. He’s a schemer. Let’s ask to see the knife, he says, let’s take a look at it. All the while knowing that he has a duplicate in his pocket that he plans to spring on the other jurors at the right moment. How disingenuous and manipulative is that? Not to mention totally out of bounds and providing grounds for a mistrial. His whole act of just being a humble agnostic when it comes to matters of “the truth” is a sham. From the beginning he is a man with an agenda, underlined by the way every vote changed to “not guilty” cuts to a shot of his making calculating and approving looks.
*. They could re-make this movie today ironically, with one fanatical, wing-nut juror leading the other eleven into error. Something like that is apparently what happened with the West Memphis Three.
*. It’s interesting that at the time the movie was commended for presenting a representative cross-section of American society, which meant members of different classes. Today, criticism is often directed at the “twelve angry white men.” That is, no women or visible minorities.
*. The greatest art is not to be noticed. Lumet’s “lens plot” (increasing the focal length of the lenses he used, in order to give the impression that the walls were moving closer) and gradually descending his camera placement, are cases in point.
*. On the other hand, it’s hard not to notice that this is just a filmed teleplay, with stilted dialogue and a single restricted set. I think this is why it flopped at the box office. People wanted to see something that belonged on the big screen, and this was a resolutely small-screen project that had already been on TV. Plus it wasn’t in colour.
*. I understand that the defence lawyer may have been incompetent. But over a six-day trial the question of one of the eyewitness’s eyesight was never questioned? And yet apparently all of the jurors noticed the marks on the side of her nose indicating that she regularly wore glasses?
*. George Wendt describes the cast as “the pantheon of character actors of the latter half of the twentieth century.” They’re good, but the script here makes them seem hammy. It wasn’t an acting style of the ’50s, it was a writing style.
*. At the time, this script was seen as fast and razor sharp. By today’s standards it seems crude and laboured. When the ethnic juror corrects the bigot’s grammar you almost cringe.


*. Is it a mistake to show the defendant? He’s often described of indeterminate race (Drew Casper describes him as “Puerto Rican, presumably,” but then Casper also describes Juror 2 as “homosexual, no doubt”). I think his race would have been even more indeterminate if we’d never seen him at all. Or would that have seemed contrived?
*. In summary, it’s no fun casting a vote against such a beloved film. The kinds of ratings and testimonials that this title still garners on Internet sites are truly spectacular. Criticizing it feels like dissing To Kill a Mockingbird, another movie that teaches a valuable social lesson, celebrates the heroism of the common man, and makes you feel good about the system (democracy, the rule of law, equality, human rights). It may take a bit of trial and error but you’ll finally get that fan to work, or  find a towel dispenser that does. The same goes for the justice system.
*. Lawyers, quite naturally, love this sort of thing. Gregory Peck and Henry Fonda will always carry the day.
*. In sum, I think this movie has dated badly and was probably already a bit stagey and arthritic in 1957. I don’t find any of it believable, and the preaching is made so obvious it finally becomes self-defeating. I still find it watchable, intensely so at times, but I don’t value or enjoy it as much as it asks to be.


2 thoughts on “12 Angry Men (1957)

  1. Michael Derringer

    I haven’t seen 12 Angry Men in maybe ten years. Reading this makes me want to see it again. It’s one of those movies whose goodness I’ve always taken for granted. It’s liked by both critics (100% on Rotten Tomatoes) and the public (the 5th-highest rated movie on IMDb). But these are interesting points.

    1. Alex Good

      It’s a problem-picture that wants you to feel good at the end about the system, and justice, etc. So it’s got its heart on its sleeve all the way. But that level of preachiness, not to mention the staginess, doesn’t play as well today. Though it’s still effective drama.


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