Thoughts on “Twelve Angry Men”

One of the great American films is Twelve Angry Men, Sydney Lumet’s 1957 drama based on stage play about the deliberations of a jury in a murder trial.

The facts of the case are presented entirely through dialogue as the jurors discuss the case. An eighteen-year-old boy from a rough neighborhood is accused of stabbing his abusive father with a switchblade. The boy has a history of violence, had recently had a fight with his father, admits to buying a knife matching the murder weapon’s description, and is placed at the scene by two witnesses, one of whom claims to have actually seen the murder. It therefore seems an open-and-shut case, and when the preliminary vote is called, eleven of the twelve vote guilty.

The only one voting not guilty is Juror Eight, and his position is not so much that he thinks the boy is innocent as that they ought to at least talk about the case before making their decision, especially seeing as how the boy is facing the death penalty. But as the movie goes on, he begins to sway the others one by one to consider that the evidence is, in fact, not as strong as it seems.

There is a lot to talk about in this film. In the first place the character work here is top-notch and deserves close study. Twelve different men, none of whom have names (save for Eight and Nine, who only exchange names in the epilogue), and each is a distinct and fully-realized character. Some make less of an impact that the others (two and six are comparatively quiet most the film), but they’re all vivid individuals just from the way they approach the case.

Juror One (Martin Balsam!) is an assistant high school football coach (presumably the reason he was picked for foreman) who mostly takes a backseat to the discussions but tries to manage the personalities of the others and keep things civil, though he’s hampered by the fact that these are all adults rather than the teenagers he’s used to dealing with and he has little real authority over them. He’s a laid-back, good-natured man who doesn’t relish his role but mostly keeps his cool.

Juror Two (John Fiedler!) is a timid bank teller. He is generally meek and hesitant to offer his opinion or put himself forward (when asked why he voted guilty, he can’t give a definite reason), and when he does often ends up having someone talk over him. As the night wears on, though, he begins to assert himself more, pushing back against the others and pointing out a key inconsistency in the evidence.

Juror Three (Lee J. Cobb!) is a self-made business owner and experienced juror. He’s far and away the most interesting character in the film. He starts off by calmly citing a list of facts from notes he diligently took during the trial, professing no personal interest in the case. But then he illustrates a point by recounting his own difficult relationship with his adult son, whom he hasn’t seen in years, though he still carries a picture of him in his wallet. As more holes are poked in the case he becomes increasingly emotional and angry, refusing to concede any point and often contradicting himself to avoid doing so. At one point he even loses his temper entirely and tries to physically attack Eight (he retires to a corner after this to get himself under control for the next few scenes). It’s increasingly clear that his guilty vote is only a manifestation of his unprocessed anger over his relationship with his son. He’s really the deuteragonist with Eight, and the film is as much about him as it is anything else.

Juror Four (E.G. Marshall!) is a stoical and highly logical broker, who takes a genuinely detached and fully reasonable approach to the case. Unlike most of the others he never loses his temper and only rarely raises his voice, and he’s the only one who never removes his coat despite its being a very hot day. He gives every point due consideration and makes consistently strong arguments, though he’s willing to concede points to the other side. The most focused and strictly rational of the twelve, he shows a marked distaste for the behavior of some of the others, particularly Three and Ten. Yet he misses several points because they turn on personal factors that he, a detached, rational man, wouldn’t consider.

Juror Five (Jack Klugman!)’s job isn’t revealed, but he comes from a similar economic background to the defendant, having grown up in a slum. He seems to have come up in society since then (he’s better dressed and more articulate than the definitely blue-collar Six), but clearly still feels a stigma for his background. He tries to pass it off with a grim joke (“I’ve played in backyards that were filled with garbage. Maybe you can still smell it on me”), but reacts strongly to anyone’s seeming to judge him for it. He seems the most conflicted about the case to start with, being very quiet and declining to give his reasons for voting guilty, apparently trying hard not to let his sympathy for the defendant influence his opinion (which, ironically, it does). He’s one of the first to switch to not-guilty and becomes much more animated afterwards, eventually offering a key insight into the murder weapon.

Juror Six (Edward Binns!) is a simple, blue-collar painter who seems to feel himself over his head with the case. When it comes time to offer his reasons, he gives a rather uncertain account of the motive, which he struggles to defend against pushback, and offers few concrete ideas afterwards. He does, however, have a strong, old-fashioned sense of right and wrong, offering unsolicited overtures of respect to Nine (an old man) and furiously rebuking Three when he talks down to him. He also gives Eight his most effective pushback, by asking “supposing you talk us all out of this and the kid really did knife his father?”

Juror Seven (Jack Warden!) is a superficial and flippant salesman who quite simply does not care about the case. He just wants to get it over with as soon as possible, since he has tickets to a baseball game. He’s constantly cracking jokes, making smart-alecky comments, and checking his watch. He typically answers objections with snide comments and insults rather than arguments. At first the others enjoy his bonhomie, but as the night wears on they find him increasingly annoying, culminating in Eleven chewing him out for his callousness.

Juror Eight (Henry Fonda!) is a mild mannered, thoughtful architect and the one holdout of the jury. He empathetically puts himself in the defendant’s place as he tries to consider just how much can be said in his favor, in the process slowly dismantling the case against him. During this he shows great personal courage – standing alone against the room, not flinching when Three attacks him and so on – as well as compassion and ingenuity. He seems mostly to be grasping at straws to begin with, testing for weaknesses rather than really having much of a case, but when he finds one he pushes it for all its worth. He also displays some ingenuity, like when he sets up a recreation of one witness’s story. The main protagonist and hero of the story.

Juror Nine (Joseph Sweeney!) is a polite old man who brings empathy and long experience to the case, offering insights into the mentality of the witnesses. He also betrays a degree of bitterness, when he talks of one witness – an old man like him – and notes how sad it is that, after a long life, no one pays him any mind or seeks his advice. Clearly, he sympathizes, and the way some of the others ignore or dismiss his contributions helps to illustrate his point. He shows a mild frustration at a few points that he doesn’t have the strength or energy to push back as strongly as he would like against the others, but is the first to change his vote, expressing respect for Eight’s actions.

Juror Ten (Ed Begley!) is a grouchy, bigoted old garage owner. He makes frequent comments about “them,” the unnamed minority group to which the defendant belongs and makes it clear that his primary reason for voting guilty is purely based on prejudice. He’s also one of the more vocal members of the jury, but contributes very little of substance, mostly just shouting semi-coherent rants either about his prejudice or his opponents. By far the most unpleasant character in the film.

Juror Eleven (George Voskovec!) is a well-mannered European immigrant watchmaker, who is willing to look at both sides of the question and makes some very carefully conceived points. He also shows a keen awareness of the moral responsibility facing them and makes a point of reminding the others about it.

Juror Twelve (Robert Webber!) is a chatty advertising executive. He’s friendly and often tries to draw people into conversation, but superficial, unsure of himself, and easily flustered. He makes a few arguments, but seemingly prefers to go along with the group rather than to form his own opinion and hastily backing down if it seems like the others aren’t following him. Like Seven, he’s rather flippant about the whole thing (early on he comments on how glad he was to get a murder trial because it was more interesting), but at least takes his role more seriously than him.

Famously, the movie takes place almost entirely in one room, save for brief opening and closing scenes and a single scene in the adjoining bathroom (the script originated as a stage play). Moreover, that one room allows the director to make use of some very impressive camerawork.

At the start of the movie, the characters are mostly fairly relaxed. As they enter the jury room they chat lightly, trade impressions of the case, ask lightly personal questions and so on. That atmosphere is fairly relaxed and the camera stands well back and slightly above, taking in the room. As the deliberations go on, however, the shots begin to get closer and lower as we get to know the characters and the sense of responsibility and confinement weighs heavier on them. In the end, as the deliberations enter their final stage, the camera zooms in close on their faces, lined in heavy shadows, bringing us into intimate contact and emphasizing the claustrophobic feel of the room.

On the subject of atmosphere, the whole discussion and the shift in mood is portrayed very well. As I say, we start out fairly relaxed and friendly, with the characters calmly making their points and putting forth the evidence. But as Eight refuses to budge and the argument drags on things become increasingly heated and personal, particularly from Three and Ten. For many of the men, especially at first, it’s less about the case than simply that they want to be done with this uncomfortable and tedious duty and get back to their own lives. But at the same time some of them begin to feel their responsibility more heavily as the discussion goes on an it sinks in that they are dealing with the fate of a man’s life. The humor and joviality mostly fades away as the film goes on and the tone becomes more serious, heated, and finally exhausted.

Likewise, the discussion that makes up the film feels very real. The characters are not philosophers or professional debaters, but ordinary men of varying personalities and experiences. The debate doesn’t follow a logical progression but jumps back and forth from point to point. Early on, they start to go around the table offering their reasons for voting guilty, but halfway through they get sidetracked and never finish (though the device lets them tell the audience the main facts of the case in an easy, natural manner). The men don’t always make good arguments or acknowledge them once made.

For example, early on, Juror Three challenges Eight on the testimony of the old man who claimed to have heard the killing. Eight’s initial arguments are fairly flimsy:

Eight: “I was wondering how clearly the old man could have heard the boy through the ceiling.”
Three: “He didn’t hear him through the ceiling, the window was open, so was the one upstairs it was a hot night.”
Eight: “It’s not that easy to identify a voice, especially a shouting voice.”
Twelve: “He identified it in court!”

Eight is grasping here, testing for weaknesses. But the real key point comes when someone else cites the woman’s testimony and he spots a key factor that no one’s noticed: namely, that the woman’s testimony means the old man would have had to have heard the boy over the roar of an elevated train.

Meanwhile, many of the more intractable jurors don’t even bother answering the objections: they simply claim that they not-guilty party are “making things up” or that their points are just nitpicks and don’t mean anything. There’s no grounds for this; they’re just lashing out in frustration, as people do in debates. After Eight makes his point about the elevated train and comments that they’ve “proved” the old man couldn’t have heard the boy, Ten protests “You didn’t prove anything!” Even though, logically speaking, he did.

On the other hand, you have something like the scene with the knife. Juror Two notes that the defendant was much shorter than his father and questions whether he would have stabbed downward. Juror Three then demonstrates how easy it would be for a shorter man to stab a taller with an overhand strike and that the stab wound bears him out (he ends up having to demonstrate on Eight, leading to a brilliantly acted scene of tension as everyone wonders whether the temperamental Three is going to lose his head completely). Thus far a perfectly reasonable point counter-point. Then there comes another counter point where Five draws on his first-hand knowledge of knife fights to say that no one who was used to the weapon would use it like that. Yet even so, Four dismisses the point, because weapon usage isn’t the kind of thing that he understands enough to judge of its weight. Meanwhile Twelve is fingering the knife, trying to make up his mind about it.

Observe the back-and-forth at work: an initial objection is raised, then answered, but then the answer itself is objected to, and in the end each character decides for himself how much the argument matters. It isn’t a neat and simple matter of pointing out evidence and scoring points: each aspect of the case has multiple layers to it and ultimately depends on the individual’s perspective for how much weight it holds.

Something else brought up repeatedly in the film is that the question isn’t really whether they think the boy is definitely innocent; the question is whether the evidence against amounts to a certainty or whether it allows for ‘reasonable doubt’. As far as it goes, there are really only two points of ‘negative’ evidence in favor of the boy’s innocence: one, the aforementioned stab wound being inconsistent with an experienced knife-fighter, and two, the inconsistency that he was both calm enough to wipe the knife from fingerprints and panicked enough to leave the incriminating knife behind, causing him to return to the house three hours later in time to be caught by the police. The rest is simply a matter of asking whether doubts could be admitted about the prosecuting evidence. If the evidence can reasonably be called into question, then it doesn’t count.

Though the film does play rather fast and loose with the jury rules. In particular, several lawyers have noted that Eight’s conducting his own investigation and bringing in an identical knife to the supposedly-unique murder weapon would cause a mistrial in real life.

I also noticed a possible inconsistency: when Eight tests Four on his own memory by asking what he was doing the past few nights, Four talks as if he’d been working at his office as usual, when they’d early mentioned that they’d been in court for six days (though that might just be my own inexperience with jury trials and how much time is taken up in the actual trial).

That said, the film is filled with masterful little bits of characterization and detail, cluing you in to who the people are and making the proceedings feel more real. For instance, when they first get into the jury room they open the windows to try to air out the hot room. One of the windows sticks, requiring Six and Five to work together to open it. Later, when they close the windows against the sudden rain, the same window sticks and Eight needs One’s help to close it, prompting an exchange where One reminisces about a football game that got similarly rained out, adding depth to his character. Or notice the different things the characters do in the opening scene: Eight stands by the window, drumming his fingers and thinking (Twelve tries to engage him in conversation without success); Four studies a newspaper intently, trying to see how the market closed (establishing his focused, professional character); Five, meanwhile, is also staring at a newspaper, but clearly isn’t reading it, showing his conflicted condition; Twelve and Seven wander about the room chatting with different characters (Seven tries to talk baseball with Two, who has nothing to say, establishing his timidity). Then, when Nine comes in, having been absent in the bathroom, Six gets him his chair unsolicited. This sort of thing continues throughout the film, and it’s a masterclass in acting and visual storytelling.

Another oft-noted detail of this film is the fact that the defendant’s ethnicity is never specified. We know that he’s some kind of minority, and that’s all that’s necessary for the story. This was another wise move; it allows the film to get its point across without being bogged down in specifics. If we were specifically told that he was a Jew or a Puerto Rican or and Italian, then it might have come across as too preachy, as if the story were specifically trying to defend that group. Instead, the boy is simply “one of Them,” which allows the audience to apply the ideas involved to prejudice as such.

Of listing great scenes in this film there would be no end: Eight producing his duplicate knife. The secret ballot gambling for support. Eleven calling out Seven for his callousness (“You can’t talk like that to me!” “I can talk like that to you”). “You don’t really mean you’ll kill me, do you?” Recreating the old man’s journey to the door. Ten’s minutes-long bigoted rant, resulting in every other juror turning their backs on him one-by-one (the atmosphere noticeably changes after that, becoming much quieter, almost exhausted, as if everyone’s slightly in shock). And, of course, Three’s final breakdown where he realizes just what he’s been doing.

All the actors in this film are first-rate: it’s a true actor’s film, and we have twelve seasoned performers at the top of their game. But the standout really has to be Lee J. Cobb as Three, the angriest of the twelve. He starts out as a seemingly reasonable man, a gruff, but good-natured, self-made man whose been on multiple juries before and who took careful notes during the trial. As time goes on, though, he becomes increasingly emotional and agitated, contradicting himself, refusing to admit evidence, and periodically ranting about how the defendant deserves to die. He’ll occasionally act as if he has first hand knowledge of the case (“Anyone who says that the way he said it, they mean it!”) and seems to take every change of vote or even questioning of the evidence personally. Yet at the same time, he seems to realize that he’s not acting quite rationally, and his moments of lost control are often followed by a chagrined show of remorse or self-isolation. Cobb gives an absolutely masterful performance, especially during that climactic rant, when he realizes just what he’s really been doing this whole time…and what it says about him.

As I say, this is really one of the great American films, something that anyone with an interest in cinema or storytelling in general should definitely see. Really, everyone should see the film regardless: it’s a riveting piece of work. I’ve heard stories of people showing it in classrooms to modern kids and teenagers, and their becoming sucked into the narrative despite it being a film made over sixty years ago. This is definitely a canon work; an integral part of western culture.

Note: The above is an Amazon affiliate link. A purchase made through this link nets me a small commission at no extra charge to you.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on “Twelve Angry Men”

  1. It seems petty to complain about this, but: How come Warden and Begley don’t get exclamation marks? (And, honestly, Sweeney deserves one for this film alone.)

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s