***½/**** Image A- Sound B Extras B
starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, E.G. Marshall
screenplay by Reginald Rose
directed by Sidney Lumet
by Alex Jackson SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men is centred around the notion that the guilt of an accused man must be established beyond a reasonable doubt if he is to be punished through the legal system. It's a notion that most educated adults in this country have already accepted as a basic moral principle, yet 12 Angry Men manages to come off as surprisingly edgy for arguing sincerely in favour of it. The film never answers the fundamental question of whether or not the accused is indeed guilty. (We as an audience are never shown what actually happened on that fateful night, nor do we ever meet another potential suspect.) The possibility that he could have committed the murder and gotten away with it is left smugly unaddressed. Because it could not be proven in court, it simply doesn't matter.
Everything in 12 Angry Men is streamlined to unambiguously espouse a single position. The film is propaganda for the democratic process. If it embodied an ideology that we didn't share, we would no doubt see it as dangerous--or at least campy. It's funny, though: in completely embodying this one righteous ideal, the film brilliantly illustrates both the necessity and the insanity of holding any ideals at all. Failing to convict a guilty man is every bit as unjust as failing to acquit an innocent man, but as a society we have convinced ourselves that the former is the lesser of the two evils. In a sense, I guess that saying our system ever failed to convict a guilty party is theoretical, since if we'd known they were guilty we would have convicted them. Short of witnessing wrongdoing with our own eyes, having faith in the System is really the only way we can ever ascertain guilt or innocence in the first place.
Of course, we've all heard of racist juries acquitting racially-motivated murderers (think Emmett Louis Till, killed only two years before the release of 12 Angry Men) and acquittals brought about because a key piece of evidence was suppressed on a technicality. With regards to the former, 12 Angry Men persuasively argues that our current system is good at ironing out the influence of personal prejudices. We have a dozen angry men who have to agree on the same verdict and we have a high standard for establishing guilt that implicitly demands the use of reason over intuition in the deliberation process. Alas, the system is obviously unable to cut through societal or cultural biases. If there were even one juror convinced of the guilt of Emmett Till's killers, you can imagine how much pressure he felt to vote against his conscience in the jury room. This is why 12 Angry Men, a decidedly romantic view of the Great American Jury trial, is set in an urban area, where communities are splintered; and the idea of twelve complete strangers from various walks of life coming together to talk this trial thing through is enticing from a dramatic standpoint.
Now, I find the latter objection to our current trial system--of acquittals brought about on a technicality--to be more fascinating in terms of social ethics. When we acquit as the result of a legal technicality, we are preferring the prevention of a long-term loss to the acquisition of a short-term gain. Let me illustrate this with an example I remember hearing from my teacher in--where else?--eighth-grade American History class. He told us about a student of his who stabbed a woman to death with a barbeque fork. The police found the fork, but since this item was not specified in their search warrant it couldn't be admitted into evidence and the kid was found not guilty. This is how I remember the story and I'm sure the truth is a lot sloppier, but for the sake of argument let's assume that it's accurate. We would rather let this poor woman's killer go than compromise our Fourth Amendment protection against unlawful search and seizure. Freeing the occasional sicko is seen as less costly to the welfare of society.
Continuing the discussion of things that are probably cut-and-dry to most people, I must ask: why exactly do we punish criminals? Is it so they can't offend in outside society again? In 12 Angry Men, the defendant is accused of slaying his abusive father. If he did it, he was clearly pushed to do so and it was an act of passion and rage, not something premeditated. He's facing the electric chair, but does he need to be dead and off the face of the earth to ensure us that he won't kill again? Probably not. From the looks of things, assuming the defendant is guilty, this was an isolated incident.
So in this situation, at least, recidivism isn't as much the issue. Perhaps he needs to be punished to demonstrate that the System is impartial and coldly mechanical. You kill somebody, you die (or spend the rest of your life in jail). Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. That's the idea, anyway, the philosophy behind the concept of justice. It's not a judge or a jury or an executioner taking this boy's life, it's the System responding to input from the executed. We as humans seem to defer to grand ideals to take some of the onus off being free. And of what use is any ideal if it isn't absolute, blind, and unmoved by particulars?
Maybe they need to make an example of the accused. For capital punishment (or the threat of prison) to be an effective deterrent, there has to be a theatrical aspect to it. That sounds as though executions should be held in the town square, but I view it as something more complicated than satisfying the bloodlust of an angry public. In the film, Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb) is the last to vote "Not Guilty." He's estranged from his son, whom he pushed away in his attempts to "toughen" him up. He has projected his negative feelings towards his son onto the defendant and therefore has a rooting interest in seeing him fry. In less specific terms, this appears to be one of the chief purposes of the justice system. I say "theatrical experience" as opposed to "entertainment," as I don't mean to suggest that the need it fulfills is necessarily petty or sensationalistic. The trial-as-theatre can serve as catharsis, if not a lesson to others. It's comforting to actually see "evil" duly punished.
12 Angry Men explicitly floats this idea of the trial-as-theatre when the slick advertising executive mentions they were "fortunate" to get a murder case. He was afraid they would get a burglary or assault--those can be the dullest. Perhaps this was meant to start the picture out on a note of cynicism, but it strikes me as merely honest, particularly once you consider that 12 Angry Men itself is top-notch entertainment. I mean, it's appealing on a mechanical level: twelve complete strangers, eleven voting for conviction, one for acquittal, all locked in a room and forced to duke it out. At a swift ninety-six minutes, the film is incredibly lean, and director Lumet, fresh from the world of live television, brings a lot of distinctly cinematic ideas to the table. I especially loved the studied "off-the-cuff" montage of hands going up during a vote late in the picture. Best of all, of course, is the cast. Underrated as an actor, Cobb successfully takes on the formidable role of Henry Fonda's principal rival. He's George C. Scott without the threat of caricature. Also populating the cast are great character actors like Jack Warden, John Fiedler, and Jack Klugman, each doing his thing and predictably excellent doing it.
12 Angry Men legitimizes popular cinema as a vehicle for exploring and articulating key social values. That's what's fascinating and wonderful about it. In reflecting the squarest, most obvious of American ideals, it has the conviction not to simplify or compromise them or to permit our uncertainties to go unchecked. Watching it, I had a newfound appreciation for why so many films encourage eye-for-an-eye vigilante justice (even when they stop to pretend that this is a controversial idea). Morality is an incredibly messy business.
Previously issued on DVD circa 2001 in a non-anamorphic "Vintage Classics" release, the black-and-white 12 Angry Men returns to the format in a Collector's Edition sporting a spit-shine 1.66:1 pillarboxed transfer enhanced for 16x9 displays. Contrasts are excellent and grain levels appropriate. The Dolby 1.0 mono audio is functional but clear. Having suffered through his takes on Possessed and The Asphalt Jungle, I was disappointed to find blowhard film historian "Dr. Drew" Casper recording the requisite audio commentary. His focus is on fairly boring stuff like film grammar and history, but it's his complete inability to respond to movies on an emotional or personal level that always irks me. When you listen to somebody like Roger Ebert or F.X. Feeney (The Towering Inferno), you get the idea that they are feeding you as much information as they can while being overwhelmed by the visceral experience of the film in question; there's a distinct detach between Casper and his subject. Based solely on his yak-tracks, I have to concur with a hilarious comment I read on his USC "Professor Profile": "Casper wrote his own Wikipedia bio, which is the first sign that his ego competes with your education."
"Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Making 12 Angry Men" (23 mins.) is a solid-enough retrospective making-of that brings together Lumet and surviving cast member Jack Klugman. Klugman asserts that Henry Fonda wasn't one of the best actors he's ever worked with, he was THE best. More enjoyable is "Inside the Jury Room" (16 mins.), a featurette discussing the ways in which 12 Angry Men was faithful to the courtroom experience and the ways it stretched the truth. One lawyer on the panel says that the biggest inaccuracy in the film is the judge's boredom while telling the jury how important their job is, as the punishment for a guilty verdict will be execution. Another one everybody tends to single out is the scene where Fonda produces a knife exactly like the one the prosecution claimed was unique. In reality, jurors are explicitly told not to conduct private investigations or introduce additional evidence into deliberation. I did love how a Court TV reporter mentions that, because it was a great dramatic moment, she's glad they put that in there. She's in the business for that stuff. There are no additional extras whatsoever. Originally published: May 1, 2008.
96 minutes; G; 1.66:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 2.0 (Mono), French DD 2.0 (Mono), Spanish DD 2.0 (Mono); CC; English SDH, Spanish subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; MGM