12 Angry Men (1957): 6 out of 10: 12 Angry Men currently ranks 5th on IMDb’s Top Rated Movies list. I just don’t get it. It is not a bad movie, mind you, but tied with Schindler’s List, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and Pulp Fiction as the fifth best movie ever? Yeah, maybe I am missing something here.
12 Angry Men takes place during jury deliberations in a death penalty case involving a young man accused of stabbing his father to death with a switchblade. Eleven jurors are ready to vote guilty, but one standout juror feels that they should take another look at the evidence. One by one, his examination of both the evidence and the other jurors’ prejudices turns the overall vote from guilty to not guilty. The movie is shot basically on one set and gives the impression of being shot in real time. The cast is uniformly excellent. Still, like any good juror, I have questions.
Off to the questions.
Is the defendant supposed to be Puerto Rican?
We only barely get a look at the defendant and he seems ethnic but white. Could be Arab, Italian, Puerto Rican, etc.? Much is made that the kid is a slum dweller but juror #5 was also a slum dweller and he is played by Russian Jew Jack Klugman so that’s no help. Normally, none of this would matter, but a big dramatic turning point is Juror #10 (Ed Begley) ranting and raving about how “You know how these people lie. It’s born in them. They don’t know what the truth is. And let me tell you, they don’t need any real big reason to kill someone, either.” with no one explaining who “those people” are supposed to be. French Canadians? Irish Travellers? What?
The actor that portrayed the defendant (John Savoca) is Sicilian and the racist speech above fits a stereotype for Sicilians at least as well as it would for a Puerto Rican. Most modern viewers think the defendant is Puerto Rican because of the contemporaneous musical West Side Story with world famous Puerto Rican Natalie Wood. But in reality it is not so clear cut.
Is the kid guilty?
I will go with a solid yes. The movie, in all fairness, is about reasonable doubt, not absolute guilt or innocence. The evidence, however, is pretty clear cut. Juror 8’s admonishment that they shouldn’t just give a verdict in five minutes is reasonable, (You ought to at least make it look good) but his theory that there is a reasonable doubt doesn’t hold water. The switchblade used in the murder was identical to the one owned by the kid. The kid is the only other person who had access to the apartment. The kid was the only person with a motive to kill the father (He was abusive). All the crippled or blind eyewitnesses in the world really don’t change these basic facts.
Is Juror #8 the Devil?
You know you might be onto something there. Or at the very least, since this is a film from the late fifties, he could represent a fifth columnist undermining American institutions and allowing murderers to continue to walk our streets. I am not the only one to have this notion. Some later productions of the play portray Juror #8 not as a noble crusader but as a Manipulative Bastard who’s trying to get a murderer set free basically just to see if he can. Henry Fonda’s portrayal in the movie borders that of a sociopath. It is almost a parody of the do-gooder liberal taken to the extreme. One of those types that looks down on his fellow man and sees it as his responsibility to lift them up to his higher plane. Notice how Fonda’s character has an impeccable white suit throughout the proceedings while the others, often working class, seem disheveled and dark.
How did Juror #8 get a second switchblade?
He walked into the neighborhood where the crime took place and bought one. While he was a juror on this case. Then he brought the switchblade into the juror room. So let’s break this down. Do you want to get thrown off a jury? Conducting your own investigation is a quick and easy way to get thrown off a jury. Heck, you might even catch a misconduct charge. That’s a class A misdemeanor. Now that would be the least of Jury 8’s worries. It was illegal to possess for any reason (no matter how noble your intentions) a switchblade knife in New York in 1957. Heck, it is still illegal to posses a switchblade knife in New York City in 2019 and it will catch you a Class A Misdemeanor with minimum jail time sentencing guidelines. Bring that same switchblade knife concealed into a courthouse? Yup, you have now won a class E felony. Twelve Angry Men gets a sequel.
Yikes, is there anything you liked in the movie?
I liked the film overall. I really did. As I stated above, it has good acting across the board with an incredible cast. Along with those I have already mentioned, you have such greats as Martin Balsam, E. G. Marshall, Jack Warden, and John Fiedler. The pacing of 12 Angry Men is excellent, and the use of one set is well done. (They made the set smaller as time went on, increasing the tension.) As a bonus if you are ever asked what is the best remake of a made for TV movie here is your answer right here (12 Angry Men is a remake of a 1954 teleplay for CBS’ Studio One anthology series).
Any other random complaints?
Well, the title is a lie. Only Jurors 3,5,7,and 10 ever really get angry. The other real problem is that no one on either side of the verdict seems to bring up a motive. The kid had all the motive and opportunity in the world to stab his father. The problem is that no one else really had either. No one else besides the kid had access to the apartment and no one else besides the kid had a motive to want to see the old man dead. I know I am beating a dead horse here, but why is this never really discussed? More to the point, why is this never used as a proper rebuttal to Juror #8’s non sequiturs?
The entire enterprise seems to have a stacked deck from the beginning, with everyone playing (and sometimes overplaying) their roles. It really reminds me of an old Twilight Zone episode with the easily wrapped up Aesop and gotcha moments manipulating the audience to the author’s conclusion. The fact is takes place in one room, is in black in white, and with a group of mostly character actors also contributes to the Twilight Zone vibe. A superb Twilight Zone episode, mind you, but a Twilight Zone episode nevertheless. Not the fifth greatest movie of all time.