23 May 2017



A friend of mine was made to watch this film at school years ago as part of something they called 'Law Week.' She remembers fondly that it got them out of class for the ninety-six minutes of its duration, plus the ten or so minutes at either end that it took to set up and then dismantle the projector.

Me, I didn't see the film until I was reviewing it for THE CRITERION COLLECTION and then, it was an instantaneous case of 'where the hell has this been all my life?' I loved it. I absolutely loved it. Superb acting, a great script and a good moral lesson for us all, that is, not to be prejudiced against people purely on the grounds of race and where they've come from.

Well, as the film is out on special release at the moment thanks to the aforementioned CRITERION COLLECTION, we might as well take a closer look at the plot. The film plays out in real time over the course of the ninety-odd minutes, and it's set mainly in one room which is something you don't see very often, although Alfred Hitchcock did something similar in his superb movie ROPE starring James Stewart.

12 ANGRY MEN is a courtroom drama and, before anyone grumbles, I've already locked the doors so ye can't leave till I'm good and finished, heh-heh-heh. It's one of the most important and iconic American movies ever made and it's riveting from start to finish, so there. Put that in your collective pipes and smoke it...!

And just because it's a courtroom drama doesn't mean it has to be boring. What about Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich and Tyrone Power in the magnificent WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, for example, and James Stewart, Lee Remmick and Ben Gazzara in the spicy ANATOMY OF A MURDER? Both courtroom dramas, both utterly compulsive viewing. Yes, the law can be sexy sometimes...!

Henry Fonda plays the one dissenting juror on the jury of, yes, you've guessed it, the 12 Angry Men given the task of deciding whether a young Puerto Rican man killed his father. The jurors are all gung-ho at first about voting him 'guilty,' especially the guy who has tickets for the Yankees game later on that night...!

The case seems cut and dried. There's a witness who says she saw the skinny little undernourished-looking boy commit the murder, although it was from a distance and a train was roaring past her apartment at the time. There's some other circumstantial evidence as well and so, at first, the lads on the jury are adamant that the young fella did it. All excepting Henry Fonda's character, that is...

Now, Henry Fonda knows damn well what it's like for an innocent man to be accused of a crime he didn't commit. Just the year before, he'd played just such a man in Alfred Hitchcock's movie THE WRONG MAN.

That film was based on a true story, the story of a man called Manny Balestrero who was charged with holding up an insurance office when, in reality, he'd done no such thing. The accusations caused his wife to sink into such a bad depression that she had to be hospitalised, not to mention the effect on Manny himself. He obviously knew that he hadn't done it. In the end, the real criminal was found but things looked very nasty for Manny there for a while.

Anyway, the American justice system required at that time that all twelve jurors find the man either guilty or not guilty. Henry Fonda's character in 12 ANGRY MEN puts the cat among the pigeons big-time by suggesting that there's room for reasonable doubt, and that's the killer.

You can't convict someone of a crime if there's even a tiny doubt in your mind. That's the way it works. Henry Fonda's character (none of the jurors are named, except for two towards the end) is dead right. 

The accused faces death by electric chair if he's found guilty. That's why it's so incredibly offensive for the Yankees fan to want to hurry the decision along for the sake of the match for which he has tickets. A man's life is at stake, you moron...! You can't throw it away so lightly.

One by one, the other jurors follow Henry Fonda's character's lead and start to question their own thinking and their own reasons for voting the lad guilty. One by one, they start to change both their minds and their votes.

There are a few hold-outs though, Lee J. Cobb's 'disappointed father' character being the main one of these. Can Henry Fonda's character's firm but fair reasoning bring him round before the film ends, or will he still keep insisting that the boy must 'burn' for his alleged crime? I'll never tell, so you'll have to watch the movie for yourselves to find out.

I love a ridiculously young-looking Jack Klugman (who went on to be QUINCY, MD) as the juror who grew up in a slum, and is therefore moved to protest against the discrimination shown by some of the other jurors towards other 'slum people' like the accused.

Merely coming from a slum or having been brought up there doesn't necessarily make you a scumbag, and Jack Klugman's character is prepared to fight the jurors who imply that it does. You go, Jack Klugman's character...!

Also ridiculously young-looking in this film is Martin Balsam, who as the foreman of the jury doesn't really have a huge role, oddly enough. But a mere three years later, as the ill-fated private investigator Milton Arbogast (what a great name!), he climbs the stairs in the house on the hill inhabited by Norman Bates and his 'Mother' and walks himself right into the horror cinema history books. See Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 horror film PSYCHO for more details...

Henry Fonda turns in a magnificent performance as the one lone voice in the wilderness, so to speak. The heat in that New York City courthouse's jury room deserves a mention too. It's the height of summer and the twelve men (no broads, for some reason. I suppose Ten Angry Men And A Couple Of Pissed-Off Premenstrual Women wouldn't have quite the same ring to it!) are sweltering in their suits until a thunderous rain-shower takes the edge off for them. 

The heat is obviously contributing to the tension in the room, which keeps rising and rising and rising until it's pretty much at boiling point. You can almost see it bubble.

No-one sends out for pizza or Chinese food in the film, by the way, something that I was convinced (from watching THE SIMPSONS!) was the prerogative of American jurors. And there's no mention of the jurors being sequestered overnight in a fancy hotel with room service and all expenses paid, either.

It's shocking altogether. They've got water all right but no-one brings 'em in so much as a cup of tea or, as it's New York, a cuppakawfee...! 'You wanna cuppakawfee? Come on over to my place, I'll give ya a cuppakawfee...!'

Anyway, according to Homer Simpson, there is one foolproof way of getting out of jury duty if you don't feel like putting yourself out for the few days it takes out of your schedule. He imparts this fatherly wisdom to his son Bart while they're sitting chatting on the kerb outside the house at the end of one of their adventures:

'The trick is to say that you're prejudiced against all races...!'

Cheers for that, Homer...

12 ANGRY MEN is out on special release now from THE CRITERION COLLECTION. It comes with an unprecedented amount of special features, including archival interviews with the director Sidney Lumet, a booklet featuring an essay by writer and law professor Thane Rosenbaum and Frank Schaffner's 1955 television version of the story, which I imagine is something that you wouldn't otherwise get your hands on too easily. Thank God for THE CRITERION COLLECTION, eh?

It's such a powerhouse of a film. Once seen, I guarantee you that you'll never forget it. Now, who'd'ya gotta gum around here for a goddamn cuppakawfee...


Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger and movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens' fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra's books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:


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