THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 70: 12 ANGRY MEN

by Laurent Kelly


12 Angry Men (1957)  Director: Sidney Lumet  Screenplay: Reginald Rose (story)  Starring: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden, Ed Begley  OSCAR COUNT (0) – Nominated for Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay

“It’s always difficult to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth. I don’t really know what the truth is. I don’t suppose anybody will ever really know. Nine of us now seem to feel that the defendant is innocent, but we’re just gambling on probabilities – we may be wrong. We may be trying to let a guilty man go free, I don’t know. Nobody really can. But we have a reasonable doubt, and that’s something that’s very valuable in our system. No jury can declare a man guilty unless it’s SURE. We nine can’t understand how you three are still so sure. Maybe you can tell us.”

The case seems crystal clear to the majority of the men in the room. The young Spanish-American murdered his father. Alright, let’s go home. Luckily our heroic protagonist simply known as Juror 8 and played expertly by actor Henry Fonda is not so close minded and easily convinced.Gradually he starts to unravel not just the evidence but also the prejudices of the other men in the room who clearly want the young boy locked up for reasons that havenothing to do with the case itself.

From a character persepctive 12 Angry Men is quite simply flawless as it highlights the personality traits that exist in the company of men. You have the passive aggressive know it all, the followers who support his words without an original thought of their own, the simple minded who haven’t considered the case from any other persepctive and then the rare, exceptional man in society who is not afraid to stand  for what he believes in and go against the crowd.

Even though the film takes place in a single room, every second of this excellently written and directed film is deeply engrossing.The tension escalates in admiring fashion as we see Fonda gradually turn the case on its head and win people on his side and the ferociousclose-ups on the fists, sweat and beady eyes capture the claustraphobia of the situation and foreshadow the impending violence.

The film is also clever for manipulating the audience and challenging our own assumptions about the case. Through the twelve different viewpoints it makes us think about our own perspective on the situation and thus try and imagine how we would deal with such a scenario. Would we able to see the case as Fonda does and if so would we have the guts to say anything? The tragedy is that whilst this film concludes with a happy ending we realise the struggle that it takes just to make individuals think outside the box and we know that this has been an exceptional one-off victory. If a man like Fonda hadn’t have been in the room the most likely innocent young man would have been sent to the chair without a second thought. As long as prejudices and irrational hatred cloud our society this film will remain hauntingly relevant.

DID YOU KNOW? Rose’s TV play script was virtually identical to the feature film version.

An excellent fan-made trailer:


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