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12 Angry Men (1957)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

The movie opens with camera shots of courthouse activity. Eventually the camera settles on a particular courtroom where the presiding judge is giving his final instructions to the jury in a murder case, one he says has been long and complex (the judge seems bored or perhaps uncomfortably warm).

The opening credits roll and the jury files into the deliberation room, where almost this entire movie is set. The cast one sees in those opening credits is impressive as one of the best ever assembled, although it is completely male. As one juror comments, it is forecast to be the hottest day of the year and the jury room has no air conditioning. Most of the jurors seem impatient to reach a verdict and finish.

Henry Fonda gives what may be one of his finest performances as an architect who has a reasonable doubt about the prosecution’s case. He wants to discuss the details of the case in the hopes of getting some resolution. The other eleven jurors all vote guilty, but he initially holds out alone against them with his questions and his doubt. The juror most opposed to Fonda’s position, played with great emotion by Lee J. Cobb, begins with the entire cast behind his argument, which at some points seems to be little more than accepting the authority of the prosecutor as a representative of the State. One of the jurors, who is soon shown to be a bigot (Ed Begley Sr.), wants to tell jokes, but the architect keeps them on the job by objecting to such a lack of seriousness in a murder case.

The stock broker (E.G. Marshall) is an analytical thinker who also believes “the kid” is guilty, but gives cogent arguments for his opinion. He doesn’t believe the defendant's account of his whereabouts during and after the time of the killing. After an initial round of discussion in which the sports fan (Jack Warden), the bigot, the broker, the slum resident (Jack Klugman), the foreman (Martin Balsam), the ad agency man (Robert Webber) and the rest each take their turn attempting to convince the architect (Fonda) that the prosecution has proved its case, they take a secret ballot. In that vote the architect has won someone over to his position of “not guilty.”

All the fine performances along with the great script make this a classic film. It focuses on timeless qualities of human nature in both the characters of the jurors and those of the witnesses, who never actually appear in the film but are discussed in great depth by the jury in its deliberation. The movie shows the jury system to be a microcosm of the larger free market of ideas. The jury system has evolved over a long period. This film shows that if a large enough cross section of the population is used to obtain a representative jury, some of the best features of people working in groups can be achieved. 

In any case, if you are fond of questioning authority and also enjoy seeing great actors work with a fine script and real issues, then 12 Angry Men with its stellar ensemble cast should satisfy your desires for movie viewing.

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