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Dissecting the Classics: 12 Angry Men

July 14, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

Revisiting the spectacle of Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man films has been a lot of fun, but it definitely feels like a good time to switch gears. This week’s feature is one of the greatest films of all time, short on the spectacle but very heavy on the drama.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics , the column previously known as Taken For Granted. In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

12 Angry Men

Wide Release Date: April 13, 1957
Directed By: Sidney Lumet
Written By: Reginald Rose
Produced By: Henry Fonda and Reginald Rose
Cinematography By: Boris Kaufman
Edited By: Carl Lerner
Music By: Kenyon Hopkins
Production Company: Orion-Nova Productions
Distributed By: United Artists
Henry Fonda as Juror #8
Lee J. Cobb as Juror #3
Ed Begley as Juror #10
Joseph Sweeney as Juror #9
E.G. Marshall as Juror #4
Jack Warden as Juror #7

What Do We All Know?

If you’re a film buff of any kind, chances are you’re aware of 12 Angry Men even if you’ve never seen it. While initially a box office disappointment, the film gained its audience on television and has since become one of the best reviewed films of all time. It’s not hard to see why; a simple yet compelling plot, a slew of great performances, and one of the finest scripts ever put to film make for a movie that sticks in the collective conscience.

In some ways, this isn’t really the type of film I would normally cover on this film. The merit of 12 Angry Men is self-evident, and I don’t think I need to argue that it’s a classic or that you should see it. But let’s try to dig a little deeper into why this film works so effectively.

What Went Right?

So the basics; a young man is on trial for the murder of his father. The evidence is overwhelmingly against him, and the death penalty is certain. Eleven members of the jury believe him to be guilty, but Henry Fonda’s Juror #8 believes there is room for reasonable doubt. The film’s drama comes from this juror attempting to convince the rest of this uncertainty; if they don’t know for sure, is it morally right to send the young man to his death?

Over ninety minutes, we not only learn the skeptical details of the case, but we get to know the distinct personalities and values of each juror. The film only ever refers to two by name, but the writing is so effective I would wager anyone who has seen the film could adequately describe at least half the group. Fonda’s strongest support comes from a wise elderly man, a polite but passionate naturalized citizen from Europe, and a man from the slums who adds insight into the case (#9, 11 and 5 respectively).

While the principled Juror #6, apathetic baseball fan (#7), indecisive salesman (#12) and the foreman are all eventually swayed, and the meek second juror finds the courage to stand up with them, three of the jurors are staunchly antagonistic. Juror #4 is dispassionate and concerned solely with provable facts, while #3 has personal issues with his own son that seems to drive his decision. #10 is a loudmouth bigot whose hatred earns the ire of everyone, including the ones who still believe in the kid’s guilt.

While I won’t spoil the eventual decision, I do think it’s fascinating that we never find out if the kid is guilty or not. This absence of information puts the audience in the same shoes of the jury; we can only use the facts presented and our own moral compass to decide if there is a reasonable doubt to his guilt. I distinctly remember believing he was guilty for most of the film, until a specific point was brought up in the film’s third act.

What Went Wrong?

There’s pretty much nothing really wrong with 12 Angry Men. From a real life perspective, the speculation isn’t how a jury is supposed to go at things, but this is really more about moral dilemmas on a grand scale. As long as nobody is hurt, I don’t believe a film should let the facts get in the way of a good story.

I considered whether the film would have benefitted from showing more of the actual trial, but ultimately I think it would skew the viewer one way or the other and take away from the film more than add to it. If I really had to nitpick, I would say that Juror #6 could have used one more moment, as he feels underdeveloped compared to the rest.

What Went Really Right?

12 Angry Men is a deliberately small piece, with most of the film taking place in one room with only a dozen actors. It has the advantage of high stakes, but a film like this lives or dies on the strength of its script and the performances of its actors. Aside from Fonda, who helped get the film made in the first place, and Lee J. Cobb, most of the actors are lesser known, with this film being their most well known. But there isn’t a weak performance in the bunch, with a lot of facial expressions playing as important beats in the story.

But for me, this is a top notch example of how to write dialogue in a way that is compelling, hits dramatic highs, and still feels like human beings talking to each other. While the case drives the plot, the real story is in seeing how the jurors react to new information. It’s a character driven narrative, and that balance between character work and crime drama creates one of the absolute best films I’ve ever seen.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2

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