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Compelling Movies: 12 Angry Men

Some movies are so good you have to watch them whenever they're broadcast. 12 Angry Men tops that list for movie blogger Robert Castle.

There are four or five movies that I must watch when I see them broadcasted. First and foremost is 12 Angry Men (1957). Because it is often on Turner Classic Movies and there are no commercials, I watch a large portion of it. The last five times, I missed the opening but usually caught the first vote.

Its director, Sidney Lumet, who primarily directed television until the 1960s, eventually become one of the top directors in America throughout his career. Many of his films are set in New York City, and the best of them have centered on issues of (in)justice, especially The Verdict (1982), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Daniel (1983), and Prince of the City (1981).

I’ve often thought about the appeal of this movie. It is largely emotional, that emotion generated by the drama, tension, great acting, and satisfying ending. Perhaps this movie is the classic-if-understated form of the underdog movie; the heroics are sublime.

The appeal also rises from the general lesson of distrusting the obvious, but not just blanket skepticism. Juror #8 challenges small points, like what can be heard and seen during the murder when the elevated train is speeding by, to large ones, like producing a knife identical to the murder weapon.

It helps, as well, that Henry Fonda plays this character. He played very few villains and often played a man of great integrity and conscience, best exemplified by a movie similar to 12 Angry Men, called The Ox-bow Incident (1943).

(Fonda’s turn in Young Man Lincoln (1939), which deepened his persona as honest and intelligent, came to fruition as the fictional president in Fail-Safe (1964).)

I wonder how many of us have been in Juror #8's situation. The holdout. The iconoclast. The gadfly. I’ve never deliberated as a juror and had the dubious task of keeping people from dinner and family or their attending a baseball game.

But it is likelier that we might find ourselves taking an unpopular stand and getting abused for it, which is why we welcome Juror #8's reasonableness and triumph, a victory few of us get in life.

Of course, our sympathies are stacked on Fonda’s side. Who’s going to identify with Juror’s #3 and #10: Lee J. Cobb and Ed Begley?

Begley is deeply prejudiced and believes the “minority” defendant must have committed the crime. Some of his best lines say it all:

“Bright? He's a common ignorant slob. He don’t even speak good English.”

“They get drunk... oh, they're real big drinkers, all of 'em - you know that - and bang: someone's lyin' in the gutter. Oh, nobody's blaming them for it. That's the way they are! By nature! You know what I mean? VIOLENT!”

And his most ironic line: “Human life don't mean as much to them as it does to us!”

Begley rarely played a sympathetic role, his looks alone make us wonder whether he was ever young, ever had a delicate or sublime thought.

Lee J. Cobb is more of a bully, ridiculing the “softness” of his fellow jurors, calling Juror #12 (Robert Webber) the “boy” in the gray flannel suit. After the second vote, he verbally attacks mousy Juror #5 (John Fiedler):

Brother, you really are something, you sit here vote guilty like the rest of us, then some golden-voiced preacher starts tearing your poor heart out about some underprivileged kid, just couldn't help becoming a murderer, and you change your vote. Well if that isn't the most sickening... Why don't you drop a quarter in his collection box!

In fact, the vote came from the oldest juror, #9 (Joseph Sweeney), and seems based less on Juror #8's reasonable doubts than in opposition to the gruff nature of Jurors 3 and 10.

Eventually, the verdict in 12 Angry Men moves to the other pole: 11 not guilty and 1 guilty. Now Juror #3, Cobb, is the holdout. Cobb’s persona, usually gruff like Begley’s, placed him roles as authority figures like union bosses, policemen, and newspaper publishers.

A tough and violent guy, like Johnny Friendly in On the Waterfront (1954) and Mike Figlia in Thieves’ Highway (1949), he argues in favor of a guilty verdict with increasing agitation:

Brother, I've seen all kinds of dishonesty in my day, but this little display takes the cake. Y'all come in here with your hearts bleedin' all over the floor about slum kids and injustice; you listen to some fairy tales; suddenly you start gettin' through to some of these old ladies... well, you're not getting through to me, I've had enough! WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH YOU GUYS? You all know he's guilty. He's got to burn! You're letting him slip through our fingers.

When he’s a mob of one, Juror #3 is still dangerous. He certainly can’t argue the way back to 11 to 1 in favor of guilt, but they can’t make him change his mind.

He can still burn the defendant by hanging the jury. The next jury to come along is going to be similar to this one and there probably won’t be a Juror #8 to slow down the deliberations.

However, Juror #8 sees that #3’s anger is guiding his arguments for a guilty vote. In fact, he makes #3 go through the process that most of the other jurors went through: examining exactly why they are voting ‘guilty’.

For example, Juror #4 (E.G. Marshall) holds out nearly as long as #3 and only changes his vote when he is reasonably convinced that there’s a better than even possibility the boy didn’t kill his father.

Indeed, no one on the jury has #3's degree of anger. The anger, we find out, comes from his relationship with his son. His son has rejected him:

Aah. When he was nine years old he ran away from a fight. I saw it; I was so embarrassed I almost threw up. I said, 'I'm gonna make a man outa you if I have to break you in two tryin'. And I made a man out of him. When he was sixteen we had a fight. Hit me in the jaw - a big kid. Haven't seen him for two years. Kids... work your heart out...

He can’t get at his son but a teenager who will get the death penalty for killing his old man will be satisfying in itself.

Juror #3's conflict magnifies how the jurors—and everyone else—act based on their life experiences. Most of them live complacently and seldom have their judgments and beliefs challenged.

The 1950s, were known rightly or not, as a decade of conformity. During this time, writers and filmmakers raised fears about this conformity.

David Reisman’s book The Lonely Crowd, which found expression in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957), depicted a society of other-directed people who sought acceptance from others over maintaining their individuality, making them susceptible to authoritarian political forces.

12 Angry Men critiqued that conformist mentality the same year that A Face in the Crowd was produced.

Although the former was nominated for three Academy Awards, the public did not appreciate the social mirror presented by either film, and rejected both at the box office.

Collingswood resident Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. In town, he is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.

Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.

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Ned Bulmash July 06, 2012 at 11:34 AM
I vote in every election and have always wanted to be picked in a jury but was never selected until Jan. of this year. I had to call the county first for room assignment but was told that there was a large enough pool of prospective jurors so don't show up. I question the veracity of this movie. Firstly, no women in 1950's I don't buy it especially because women usually vote (the criteria for jury selection) more than men. The 1950's wasn't always that conformist. I think that era is derided too much. Divorces were few, employment , except for a very few blips, was exceptionally good, and public education was , I think very good in Philadelphia. Unfortunately Philly was de facto segragated.
Robert Castle July 06, 2012 at 04:35 PM
Ned, It's a movie. Don't worry or count on a its veracity. It's not a documentary. It's fiction and drama. The appeal of the film has a mot to do with it not being anything like a jury experience. Runaway Jury (a film based on a popular novel) may have more veracity and realism about the jury experience but it doesn't come close to 12 Angry Men. Nor am I saying the 50s were 100% conformist. I remember something called the civil rights movement and Montgomery bus boycott and the Beat Generation. The movie shows a conformist flavor of the 50s when it was "a man's world". Conformism has a negative tone when applied to anything. Society is, by definition, about forcing and compelling people to do things. It can be subtle or brutal. Conformism is the norm. Even the non-conformists can't escape it.
Ned Bulmash July 08, 2012 at 11:46 AM
Regarding the conformity issue I thnk America was happy-ecstatic even- in the 50's just to have a job, a roof over your head and your children were clothed. After the Great Depression, WW2 the country had catasthophe fatigue. People didn't want to rock the boat. My grandmother and mother(her father had died in the 20's)had to rent a room for two and lived on relief for a substantial part of the 30's. My grandmother was a seamtress but she could not get work. The 50's was idylic by any measure.

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