Top 100 Movie Review: No. 018 – 12 Angry Men (1957)

Ranked 018 on the IMDb Top 100 Movie List (as at May 2017).
Watched movie during July 2020.

Cast: Martin Balsam (Juror 1), John Fiedler (Juror 2), Lee J. Cobb (Juror 3), E.G. Marshall (Juror 4), Jack Klugman (Juror 5), Edward Binns (Juror 6), Jack Warden (Juror 7), Henry Fonda (Juror 8), Joseph Sweeney (Juror 9), Ed Begley (Juror 10), George Voskovec (Juror 11), Robert Webber (Juror 12)
Directors: Sidney Lumet
My rating: 9.5 / 10

In jury room of the New York County Courthouse, a jury prepares to deliberate the case of an 18-year-old impoverished youth accused of stabbing his father to death. The judge instructs them that if there is any reasonable doubt, the jurors are to return a verdict of not guilty; if found guilty, the defendant will receive a death sentence. The verdict must be unanimous either way.

At first, the evidence seems convincing: a neighbour testified to witnessing the defendant stab his father from her window. Another neighbour testified that he heard the defendant threaten to kill his father and the father’s body hitting the ground, and then, through his peephole, saw the defendant run past his door. The boy has a criminal past and had recently purchased a switchblade of the same type as was found at the murder scene, but claimed he lost his. The knife at the scene had been cleaned of fingerprints.

The jurors at first seem to take the decision lightly. Juror 7 (Jack Warden) in particular is anxious to catch his tickets to the baseball game. In a preliminary vote, all jurors vote guilty except Juror 8 (Henry Fonda), who believes that there should be some discussion before the verdict is made given it will be a mandatory death sentence if found guilty. He questions the reliability of the witnesses and also throws doubt on the supposed uniqueness of the murder weapon by producing an identical switchblade from his pocket. He says he cannot vote guilty because reasonable doubt exists. With his arguments seemingly failing to convince any of the other jurors, Juror 8 suggests a secret ballot, from which he will abstain; if all the other jurors still vote guilty, he will acquiesce. The ballot reveals one new not guilty vote. Juror 9 (Joseph Sweeney) reveals that he changed his vote, respecting Juror 8’s motives and agreeing there should at least be some discussion.

Juror 8 argues that the noise of a passing train would have obscured the threat the second witness claimed to have overheard. Juror 5 (Jack Klugman) changes his vote, as does Juror 11 (George Voskovec), who believes the defendant, had he truly killed his father, would not have returned to the crime scene several hours later to retrieve the murder weapon as it had already been cleaned of fingerprints. Juror 8 points out that people often say “I’m going to kill you” without literally meaning it.

Jurors 5, 6 (Edward Binns), and 8 further question the second witness’s story. Juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb) is infuriated, and after a verbal argument, tries to attack Juror 8, shouting “I’ll kill him!”. Juror 8 points out that this proves his point about the defendant’s words. Jurors 2 and 6 change their votes; the jury is now evenly split.

Juror 4 doubts the defendant’s alibi, based on the boy’s inability to recall certain details regarding his alibi. Juror 8 tests Juror 4’s own memory. He is able to remember events from the previous week, with difficulty similar to the defendant. Jurors 2 (John Fiedler), 3, and 8 debate whether the defendant could have stabbed his much-taller father from a downward angle, eventually deciding it was physically possible, though awkward. Juror 5 points out that someone who knew how to use a switchblade would have instead stabbed underhand at an upwards angle.

Impatient to leave despite the ball game likely now washed out, Juror 7 changes his vote and is confronted by Juror 11; Juror 7 insists, unconvincingly, that he thinks the defendant is not guilty. Jurors 1 (Martin Balsam) and 12 (Robert Webber) also change their votes, leaving only three guilty votes. Juror 10 (Ed Begley) erupts in racially motivated vitriol. The rest of the jurors, excepting Juror 4 (E.G. Marshall), turn their backs to him. When he bemoans that nobody is listening to him, Juror 4 claims he has and tells him to sit down and be quiet from now on. Juror 10 seemingly realises he has bought racial prejudiced into his reasoning and slumps down in a corner, later voting not guilty.

Juror 4 declares that the woman who saw the killing from across the street stands as solid evidence. Juror 12 reverts back to a guilty vote.

After watching Juror 4 rub his nose, irritated by impressions from his eyeglasses, Juror 9 realises that the same witness had the same impressions on her nose as well, indicating that she wore eyeglasses as well but did not wear them to court. Juror 8 reasons that the witness, who was trying to sleep when she saw the killing, was not wearing her eyeglasses when it happened and she would not have had time to put them on to get a clear view of the person who did the stabbing, making her story dubious. The remaining jurors, except Juror 3, change their vote to not guilty.

Juror 3 gives an increasingly tortured string of arguments, building on earlier remarks about his strained relationship with his own son. In a moment of rage, Juror 3 tears up a photograph of him and his son before breaking down sobbing. Realising he has bought his anger over his relationship with his son into the jury room he quietly mutters not guilty, making the vote unanimous. As the others leave, Juror 8 helps the distraught Juror 3 with his coat. The defendant is found not guilty off-screen and the jurors leave the courthouse. In a brief epilogue, Jurors 8 and 9 introduce each other for the first time by their names before parting.

What’s to Like
The psychological charged conversations, the insights into prejudicial judgments.

What’s not to Like

This movie probably spoke to me some much having been on a jury myself and having experience the a wide variety of personalities, so of which I recognised in this film.  While some of what the jurors did, in particular Juror 8 bringing in new evidence by buying a similar knife would never be allowed, the interactions rang true even if a little more dramatic.  I watched the film intently, following the arguments and learning more about the case with each conversation. 

You don’t see the crime, or get any flashbacks, or even see any of the witnesses, you can only judge of the arguments of the jurors.   Some of the jurors take the jobs seriously and others see it as a burden they want over, just like real life.  The film never tells us with the defendant was guilty or innocent, it’s left to the viewer to make up their mind on that count, but it does seem likely there is reasonable doubt even if guilty the point likely hasn’t been proven.

The film also gives some insight into the fairness of the justice system, from a court appointed defence lawyer who probably isn’t invested in the case, to how a poor immigrant is more likely to be assumed guilty. 

A great tense film with get dialogue and themes that gets you thinking. 

Academy Awards

  • Best Picture – nominee
  • Best Director (Sidney Lumet) – nominee
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium – nominee

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries (76 by June 2023) in this amazing world.
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