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22 January 2013

12 Angry Men (1957)

Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, EG Marshall, Martin Balsam,
Jack Warden, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Joseph Sweeney
Ed Begley, George Voskovec, Robert Webber
Watching Anatomy of a Murder brought to mind another film, an earlier one that was also considered a courtroom drama. It is one that I had seen a couple of times before. It was about yet another murder trial, yet another trial by jury, another film that was based almost wholly in a courtroom. 

Where this film differs from the afore-mentioned one however, is that the trial is over when the movie begins. The focus is not on the accused, or the lawyers, either for the prosecution or the defence, or the Judge. It is on the jurors, the 12 people who are chosen to make a decision on whether the accused is guilty or innocent. They hold the power of life. Or death.
A young Spanish-American teenager is arraigned for the murder of his step-father. To most spectators, it seems like an open-and-shut case. The boy had the motive, the opportunity and the weapon. His alibi doesn't hold up, and besides, there were two witnesses, one of them an eye-witness to the murder. Evidence has been presented, the lawyers had examined and cross-examined their witnesses, they had made their closing arguments to the jury. All that remains is the verdict. 

And so the judge briefs the twelve men on the jury - they have followed the trial closely; they have seen all the evidence, and heard the testimony of the witnesses; they have listened carefully to the closing arguments of the counsel. Now, it is their duty to separate the facts from the fantasy. Upon their deliberation will rest the verdict - guilty or not guilty. If they are certain, beyond reasonable doubt, that the evidence was proof of guilt, they are to return a verdict of 'Guilty'. The penalty that follows such a verdict is death. There will be no further appeal.
And so the jury retire to a 16'-by-24' room to deliberate. They make quick acquaintance of each other. Then, in a hurry to finish an unpleasant chore and go back to the often vexing details of their own life, they call for a preliminary vote. Everyone knows it's an open-and-shut case. Unfortunately for them, one of them has a conscience. Beyond reasonable doubt. That is the phrase that hammers in his brain. So as they tally the votes, the count is 11:1. 
Eleven men in that room think he is guilty. Juror No.8 (Henry Fonda) is not up to sentencing a young man to death without even deliberating on the merits of the case. He is not convinced that the evidence against the boy is watertight. The others are frustrated. Especially Juror No.7 (Jack Warden) who is more interested in the ball game that he has tickets to; how does it matter if he takes five minutes or one hour to decide that the boy is guilty? He is sure the boy killed his father. 

No. 8 is not convinced. The boy has had a miserable eighteen years; born and brought up in a slum, kicked around by life and circumstances, pushed into an orphanage when his father was incarcerated for forgery - he's a wild, angry kid and deserves at least a few words before they send him to his death. No.10 (Ed Begley) vehemently denies that they owe him anything more than a fair trial. He's lived among people like them his whole life; 'You can't believe a word they say, they are born liars', he claims. 
Juror No.9 (Joseph Sweeney) is appalled at that statement. Only an ignorant man could believe something like that. No one is born with a monopoly on the truth, he says. 

As Juror No.1 (Martin Balsam), the foreman, takes charge, No.12 (Robert Webber) has a suggestion; perhaps they could take turns to convince No.8 why they think the boy is guilty. So they take turns. Juror No.1, a rather meek man (John Fielder), doesn't know why he thinks the boy is guilty, but he thinks it is obvious. No one proved otherwise, he says. No.8 interrupts. No one has to prove otherwise. The burden of proof is on the prosecution.
Juror No.3 (Lee J. Cobb) relies on the facts of the case, including the eyewitness account. No.4 (EG Marshall) points out the inconsistencies in the boy's defence. No. 10 butts in - the woman across the tracks saw the kid do it. How much more proof do you need? But she is also 'one of them', says No.8. How come No.10 is so willing to believe her story yet disbelieve the kid? 
The moment of tension is relieved by the foreman, who soon calls upon Juror No.5 (Jack Klugman) to state why he thinks the kid is guilty. No.5 declines to answer and the question is passed on. No.6 (Edward Binns) is convinced because he thinks he's spotted a motive - the kid and his father had been at odds before. There had been eyewitnesses to a fight earlier the evening of the murder. No.8 doesn't think that provides a strong enough motive - the kid's been hit many times before. Violence is a part of his life. He cannot see two more slaps provoking him into committing murder.

No.7 is of the same frame of mind as he was before. No amount of talking is going to make him believe the kid is innocent. After all, the kid's record showed his propensity for violence. No.3 shows them the picture of his son. A boy he had turned into a man, a son he had not seen for two years. He doesn't think much of kids. No.4 butts in - it is not important what the kid's background is; the fact is that he murdered his father. Slums breed crime. 
No. 10 agrees. Kids from the slums are trash. No.5, who had remained silent, cannot bear it any more - he is from the slums. And so on and on it goes, each man's conviction about the defendant's guilt hammering yet another nail into his coffin. 

And now, it is Juror No.8's turn. Will he be able to make his fellow jurors at least listen to his arguments? After all, some of them are already at odds with each other. No.8 feels unsure about the case because the Prosecution was so positive. Their whole case was pegged around two witnesses, and a whole lot of circumstantial evidence. But those witnesses are only people. Could they be wrong? 

No.8 disproves one bit of evidence, much to the consternation of the rest. 
But they are not disposed to believe the defendant is innocent. After all, there was an eyewitness to the murder. No.8 is beaten, yet game. He offers a deal. Take another vote. By secret ballot this time. He will abstain. If all eleven of them still vote 'Guilty' he will not stand against them. But if there is even one vote of 'Not guilty' then they will stay back to discuss the case further.

So the men cast their vote.  
When the foreman tallies it at the end, it stands 10-1. One man at least, has been convinced that the case is not as open and shut as the prosecution claimed. And he has changed his vote because he has seen No.8 stand alone against every one. It is not easy to stand up to the ridicule of others, and he, No.9 is willing to offer him some support. 
The vote now stands 10-2 in favour of guilty. Then, as No.8 pegs away slowly at the 'evidence', it is 9-3, then 8-4, then 6-6. And it around this time that No.11 (George Voskovec) finally comes into his own. He is an immigrant, a naturalised American. He cannot believe that a man would vote 'Guilty' or 'Not guilty' just to suit his own ends. The question is where do they all go from here? They need a unanimous verdict if it is not to be a hung jury. Are the jurors any more open to hearing something other than their preconceived notions? Will they even listen? Is Juror No.8 playing the Devil's advocate? Or does he believe the accused is innocent?

12 men. 12 ordinary men. And as the film progresses, some angry men. Men who, are forced by circumstances to confront their own inner prejudices, their own demons. Men who, quick to pronounce judgement on another man, are now forced to judge themselves.

While 12 Angry Men is referred to as a courtroom drama, one of the finest of its genre, all the 'action' takes place after the trial itself is over. Now, the jurors have to retreat to ponder over the arguments that have been put forth and within the claustrophobic confines of the juror's room, arrive at a verdict. Under the American justice system, all verdict by jury in a criminal trial must be unanimous. It is therefore incumbent upon these twelve men to come to a consensus.

Very little - perhaps a couple of minutes or so - of the movie's running time is spent in the courtroom or outside. The rest of the 'action' takes place in a closed room, and as the day wears on, one hot summer's day, one can actually feel the walls closing in, and the heat rising. It affects the jurors, many of whom hoped to be out soon. And when a sudden summer shower cools the temperature outside, the tension inside the room cools as well, and we, as well as they, heave a (short-lived) sigh of relief. Even the fan finally begins to work.

I must confess that my first introduction to this movie was through its Hindi remake (Ek Ruka Hua Faisla) with KK Raina as Juror No.8. One of the best remakes that I have seen (director: Basu Chatterjee), it whetted my opinion for its source material. That, despite having watched the movie once and knowing how it ends, I was still drawn into the tension, says much for director Sidney Lumet's vision.

Based on a teleplay of the same name by Reginald Rose, 12 Angry Men forces us to think - we, like the jury, are privy to the evidence, which is overwhelmingly against the defendant. When Juror No.8 raises his doubts, we too are caught by what we feel we know and what may be an alternate truth. As No.8 picks each of the 'facts' apart, showing how there could  be another reason to view that evidence, all our confidence in our ability to 'know truth' begins to dissipate. We are as much objective viewer as we are subjective voyeurs to the intense debates, arguments, even fights that take place in that room as the jurors come to terms with prejudices, biases and even personal trauma that they were not aware existed, nor would have admitted to in public.
It also raises some disturbing questions. While beyond reasonable doubt is incorporated into law so the innocent is not sentenced on circumstantial evidence alone, what happens if the defendant is really guilty? As one of the jurors tells No.8 when the latter asks him to suppose himself in the defendant's place: "Suppose you talk us all out of this, and the kid really did knife his father?" Even in the film, no one is saying the boy is innocent of murder. What their verdict finally boils down to is that they are not sure the boy is guilty; there just isn't enough evidence to convict him. 

The movie is not accurate in detailing - I do not know for instance, how they manage to get a similar knife into the room. Perhaps that is because I'm viewing it through the today's lens where I'm checked and scanned and X-rayed before I enter the court house. However, this movie serves as a very close look into how constitutional law works in this country, and provides a meticulous description of a juror's duty. Here, in the US, it is part of a citizen's civic responsibilities, and one that you cannot refuse. It shows you how responsible a position it is, and how, with great power comes great responsibility. You cannot let an innocent man be sentenced, but can you let a guilty man walk free? How do you know who is what?

Shot on a tight budget and in 21 days, the film, produced by Henry Fonda, who also stars as the juror with a conscience, 12 Angry Men  was a box-office disaster when it opened. Yet, for all that, it had some fine performances: Fonda himself, Lee J. Cobb as the antagonistic juror, Joseph Sweeney and Ed Begley stand out.

Director Sidney Lumet, who was director of photography, used photographic techniques like shortening the depth of field in order to create that palpable sense of claustrophobia. He deliberately sets the pace, increasing the tension until you can cut it with a knife. The characterisations are spot on as well, 12 ordinary men from different strata of society and different educational backgrounds (in order: an assistant football coach, a quiet bank clerk, a businessman, a stockbroker, a man from the slums, a house painter, a salesman, an architect, an elderly man, a garage owner, a watchmaker, and an advertising executive) who may or may not have known or liked each other in real life. They are not black and white, these people, and they are forced to confront the idea that the accused may also not be as black as the prosecution painted him to be. Or at least, there is reasonable doubt to suspect that he may not be so.


  1. One of my favorite films too. I had seen it before 'Ek Ruka Hua Faisla'. So I was a little disappointed with the production values of the latter, especially the make-up. But it was made for TV, so what could you expect. The biggest jarring note in the remake was that there is no jury system of trial in India.

  2.  There used to be, Soumya, until the Nanavati case in 1959. There is no mention of the period in which Ek Ruka Hua Faisla is set. So, assuming that it was set before 1959, I thought it was a pretty good remake.

  3. I remember Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (and had liked it a lot - it was so different from most of the films being made back then in India), but came to know of 12 Angry Men only a few years back. And, I must sheepishly confess, I haven't got around to watching it yet, though a lot of people have been recommending it. Your review convinces me, Anu. Will do! :-)

  4. Ek Ruka Hua Faisla - http://youtu.be/nHubBwmet0I-  depicts the jury system in force. Even as it is a very creative adaptation, one very unique feature is the soliloquy (from1.50.00 onwards) that puts charchter of Pankaj Kapoor on the stage as main "protagonist" in quite a queer turn of the story. 

  5.  Actually, watch it back-to-back with Anatomy of a Murder, Madhu. That shows you how a murder trial is prepared and defended; this one shows you how a jury deliberates. Between the two, you get a pretty accurate idea of how the courts work in the US. Truly, two fine, fine films. AoaM actually has more humour; 12AM is very, very tense. Finely acted, tautly directed movies, both of them. And I know you will enjoy it.

  6. Ashokji, the Hindi version kept faithfully to its original. The soliloquy by Pankaj Kapoor is pretty much the same as Lee Cobb's version - again, fine acting in both versions. 

  7. Anu,
    An outstanding review.  I too first watched Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, and then Tweelve Angry Men.  You are right.  What struck me was the quality of the Hindi adaptation, considering that we are used to seeing some horrible adaptations. One I particularly remember is Aitbaar, based on Dail M For Murder.  While the Hitchcock movie is remarkable for his typical brevity in the ending, Raj Babbar goes on and on, on a shooting spree after the movied has ended.  These guys should be prosecuted for murdering Hitchcock.

    Beyond any reasonable doubt I guess is a tricky question for any society.  What if he was not guilty and he is convicted, or conversely what if he was guilty and gets scot free on the principle of beyond reasonable doubt?  Do we let go 99 criminals so that not one innocent is convicted?  Staticians call it Type I and Type II error - you reduce one type of error, the other goes up.  I am told in French jurisprudence the burden of proof lies on the accused.  This issue becomes very important in Indian context with painfully slow and inefficient judicial system with abysmally low conviction rates. When I see open and shut cases being acquitted on the slightest technical point in the name of beyond any reasonable doubt, it does make me uncomfortable.  The honourable judge does not leave it at that, he does not forget to berate the police severely for shoddy investigation. While both the versions are excellent, it would be dangerous to use theirr underlying theme for rationalising the kind of acquittals we see here.  (I hope I am not hauled up for contempt of court).

  8. Hi Anu,
    Thanks for a nice review of arch-famous movie, one of the best jury-movies I know. I study it regularly with my students and know many of the cues by heart, down to the intonations and length of silences following them! ("you don't really mean you'll kill me, do you?"...)
    I also plan to use it soon with an adult philosophy class, to introduce them to the phenomena of reality ("facts, what are facts? You can twist them any way you want"), of opinion, thinking, doubting, and knowing ("You think so; do you know so?"), of daring to speak and risking being wrong, of voicing your opinion even in the face of professionals, whose authority can be so daunting when you've never been confronted to a mistake, and in short being part of a democracy where so much depends on your representatives who of course know better than do ("I'm just a working man, my boss does the supposin'")...

  9.  Don't talk to me about Aitbaar *even though* I think it was 'better' than usual. 'Better' is relative.

    I agree about 'beyond reasonable doubt'. Because that is a question that always haunts me - is it better to let 99 guilty men go scot-free than to let one innocent man be wrongly imprisoned? When you see what havoc *one* guilty man can wreak when let loose, you wonder at the many, many innocents who suffer at his hands. So, how do you weigh the balance - one innocent against many innocents or one innocent against many guilty? Or what?

    It is a horrible place to be in. As I mentioned in the post, jury duty is a civic responsibility in the US. I was called up for jury duty in a sexual abuse case, and I had to recuse myself. On one side was a teenage girl who must have been 13 or 14 when the alleged abuse happened. On the other was a young man of 23 or 24 who must have been 18 or 19 when the incident occurred. How the heck do you really decide whether it was consensual/abuse/somewhere in between? It all depends on 'he said/she said'.

    And to have someone you *know* is guilty be acquitted because of 'reasonable doubt' - I can't imagine adding insult to injury to the victims. It is very hard.

  10. Thanks, Yves. Yes, it is one of the best trial movies out there. I'm surprised at the uses to which you are putting it - surprised and impressed. :) But take a look at my discussion with Songs of Yore below - what do you think? 

  11. India has now done away with Jury system of trial.  I guess it is for the good. Our ills are somewhere else, but I do not intend to enter into this discussion, which is not germane to the theme here.  Now just a quick observation on 'recusing oneself'.  One type of recusing, where you have a conflict of interest, is very obvious, and morally correct too.  I can see Shashi Kapoor's reluctance in Deewar in this light.  But then you won't have Mere paas ma hai,  and Lord Krishna style sermon about duty and filial love, and the great classic.  But what about recusing because the choices are too difficult to handle?  I can see your dilemma, but I don't think there is a 'right' answer, which is also morally satisfying.

  12.  I had a personal reason (which is not for public debate) too for recusing myself other than my reluctance to make myself the arbiter who would either victimise a young girl further, or incarcerate an innocent young man.

    I do agree with you about not allowing distaste to turn you away from the moral responsibility that the job confers on you, however.

  13. Just like most others, I remember first watching ‘Ek Ruka Hua
    Faisla’ many years back when in school. Came across ’12 Angry Men’ much later
    during one of those MBA corporate training classes dealing with leadership,
    influencing opinion – something like that! Both the English and the Hindi
    versions (adapted faithfully as you mentioned) are remarkable not just for the
    script that keeps you glued to the screen but also the insights that it throws
    on human behaviour and our attitudes.


    It is a fascinating case study of human behaviour in a mob; by
    getting 12 men from different walks of life to peer through the death of an under
    privileged man, the director sheds light on class, racial, social and all other
    aspects that drive our behaviour in different situations. We cannot be absolutely
    objective in life – every observation or response is driven by some conscious
    or sub-conscious experience that we have undergone. The movie is also important
    now in the post-Delhi rape times when there is so much clamour for instant
    justice, even at the cost of a fair trail (even though the anger is justified).


    It was a box-office disaster, was it? What a pity – must have
    become a DVD classic like Hotel Rwanda and Shawshank Redemption which make
    great comebacks through the DVD circuit later on.   

  14. Can't see my comment, was a long one..Can't type again!

  15. Sorry, Pradeep. I don't know why Disqus threw it into Spam.  Mention of 'rape' perhaps? I don't know. I haven't even set any filters. : (

  16.  We are never objective, Pradeep. That is a fine point you make there. Our views are always subjective, and coloured by life and experiences.

    Yes, it was a box-office disaster; it wasn't until it began its showing on television that it achieved its present fame.

  17. Oh, never bothered to check if any comments have gone into spam for my blog - let me see now...'Rape' as spam! Maybe...Fairly conservative software!!!

  18. Well, it is interesting - this comment was published even though it had the R word. But your comment on Notorious which was so innocuous went into spam. I'll never understand what Disqus is up to. Sigh.

  19. I also liked 'Ek Ruka Hua Faisla' and haven't seen its original yet. IMO ,in the hindi version, Pankaj was over-the-top, Annu Kapoor was good - he hosted 'Antakshari' I think on tv, right? was he a singer too? and for some reason mostly acted in
    Anil Kapoor's films I recall.

  20. " it was so different from most of the films being made back then in India'
    It was an ART film so it had to be different!   Satires like Jaane  Bhi do yaron and Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho! were also 'art' films.

  21.  *Grin* I don't think it was an 'art film'. Remember it was directed by Basu Chatterjee. But it was directed for the television, not for the cinema halls, and that made a difference.

  22.  Do watch this one, Chris. It is available on YouTube. Annu Kapoor is a dashed fine actor, but I think P.Kapoor's character was meant to be slightly over the top. He is definitely the blusterer with a backstory of his own. I must admit though, that his counterpart in the original was not OTT.

  23. It had the kiss word; maybe it blocks it when it comes the first time...

  24. Another one of my favourites and certainly a movie that made Lumet my favourite director. I also consider this as the Best Debut Movie for any director, Ever. I love the way it builds up using literally nothing but dialogue. That moment when Henry Fonds produces knife still gets me every time I watch(Off course, we have to assume that he somehow sneaked it in. But I don't have much problem with it)

    I haven't seen Ek Ruka Hua Faisla but is there any explanation as why there are jurors in it because we don't have it in India and I think that would be the biggest obstacle for me to accept that premise. I will give it a try though.

  25.  Actually, suspend disbelief for a bit. Until I actually was part of a jury here in the US, the knife scene didn't even strike me as out of the ordinary. :)

    Ek Ruka Hua Faisla does not mention any time period - so it could before the jury system was abolished in India. :) It's a scene-by-scene remake, but very well done.


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