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Review by Dragan Antulov
4 stars out of 4
There are many ways in which Continental and Anglo-Saxon
schools of law manifest their differences in the area of
Criminal Procedure, but usually the most notable, at least
for outside observers, is the use of lay jury in the latter.
The advantages and disadvantages of both schools could be
the subject of lengthy debates, but there is no doubt that
the criminal trials in Anglo-Saxon countries provide better
drama and, consequently, better material for movies.
Hollywood filmmakers came to such conclusion long time ago
and, as a result, created whole new sub-genre of courtroom
dramas. However, the most important and possibly the most
interesting element of such trials - jury and its
deliberations - was mostly absent from Hollywood films. One
of the rare films to break such taboo and deal with juries
was 12 ANGRY MEN, 1957 directorial debut by Sidney Lumet.
Plot of this film is based on the play by Reginald Rose, who
had been allegedly inspired by his own experiences as juror.
The movie begins one hot summer day in New York courthouse.
A teenager has just been tried for the murder of his father,
and the judge sends the jury to deliberate about his guilt
or innocence, warning them that the guilty verdict brings
mandatory death penalty. When jurors enter the room, things
aren't looking very well for the defendant - jury members
are eager to pronounce him guilty as soon as possible. The
only exception is Juror #8 (played by Henry Fonda), who
votes "not guilty" only because he thinks that the decision
on someone's life and death should be made after careful
examination of the evidence. The rest of the jury is upset
with such dissent, but Juror #8 gradually convinces them to
review the case. As a result, reasonable doubt about boy's
guilt emerges and more jurors are ready to vote "not
guilty", while, on the other hand, some jurors are becoming
quite passionate about sending defendant to the electric
Today, 12 ANGRY MEN is a considered to be classic, one of
the greatest films made by 1950s Hollywood. Unfortunately,
it also belongs to those films, which are not made in
Hollywood today, since it is hard to imagine big studios
spending money on films based on stage plays, shot in black
and white and with plots set in a single room during one
afternoon (1997 remake was shot in cable production). On the
other hand, some filmmakers in today's Hollywood would find
the theme of this film quite to their tastes. Reginald
Rose's play doesn't just reveal dramatic tensions, usually
hidden behind locked jury room doors; it also reveals the
role prejudice plays in judicial, as well as any other
important collective decisions in American society. If made
today, and without some constraints Lumet had in 1950s, this
film would be considered very "politically correct". Of
course, subplot about prejudices could be hidden for those
accustomed for more direct and more preachy ways of socially
conscious American cinema of 1990s. All person in the jury
room are white men; but even they are object of social
stratification and prejudices. Through the escalating drama
anonymous jurors slowly reveal their different social
backgrounds and the ways in which they perceive the world
and each other. The biggest prejudice is, of course, racial
one - directed against "people from the slums", who are,
same as jurors themselves, anonymous for the viewers, but
their ethnic background is presumed to be Puerto Rican.
Because of such prejudices, many jurors were ready to make
their fatal decision before they were really examining the
evidence. The microcosm of the jury room could be perceived
as metaphor for the American society in 1950s and the
struggle of the lone Juror #8, whose background is
intellectual, could be seen as a metaphor for the struggle
for civil rights of American ethnic minorities.
With or without politics, 12 ANGRY MEN is a powerful film,
and its director Lumet should be really praised for making
it such with small budget and in so unappealing setting.
Lumet's achievement is even greater when we take into
account the fact that it was his first major film. On the
other hand, we could say that he had easy time, since few
directors enjoyed privilege of working with such stellar
cast. Always reliable Henry Fonda is only a nominal lead,
being partnered with eleven great character actors. Thanks
to Lumet's meticulous pacing and editing, each of them used
opportunity to give splendid performance. Only one of them,
Lee J. Cobb (Juror #3 and most ardent member of "guilty"
camp), got "Oscar" for the role in this film, but each other
member of the cast deserved it too. Perhaps 12 ANGRY MEN
should have been the opportunity to introduce new category
of "Oscars" - given for collective performances. The
excellent acting was supported with good photography by
Boris Kaufman and also by ascetic but suggestive musical
score by Kenyon Hopkins. The only thing that doesn't look
perfect in this film is the ending, which seems somewhat
abrupt and the epilogue is unnecessary. However, this flaw
is a minor one, and 12 ANGRY MEN completely deserved its
high status of undisputed classic.
Another thing that makes 12 ANGRY MEN important is its
educational value. This film is a great combination of an
adult theme and the treatment suitable for younger audience.
Therefore, 12 ANGRY MEN is a film that should be viewed not
only by those who want to educate themselves about inner
workings of American judicial system.
Copyright © 1999 Dragan Antulov