What happens when the prosecutors have laid their evidence, the defense have argued their case, and the witnesses have said their piece but before the judge chooses a sentence?
You won't find the answer in most courtroom dramas. Movies tend to prefer focusing on the theatrics of the lawyers, or the mucky-muck that occurs behind-it-all. The reason why the jury discussion is almost never shown in movies or your average Law & Order episode is simple: they want to milk every last drop of suspense out of that moment where the head jury stands up and announces the final verdict ("Guilty!" *gasp!* *shock!*). However, in 12 Angry Men, director Sydney Lumet and writer Reginald Rose turn that notion upside down and inside out; as they not only show you what goes in the jury room, but base the entire movie out of it.
In what seems like real time, taking place mostly within the chamber, the film starts with the closing arguments of a homicide trial and ends with the jurors reaching their unanimous call. What happens in-between is a fierce powerhouse of a drama that sends the twelve members of the jury paddling arguments back-and-forth on the innocence of the accused teenager, who's on trial for the murder of his own father.
It appears to be an open-shut case. The evidences are overwhelming, there are witnesses who saw the murder, and the defense attorney didn't make a lot of counter-arguments. Eleven men vote guilty, but Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) votes not guilty. Not because he thinks the boy is innocent, but because he' not 100% sure of sending the young man to the electric chair. As all the men give their reasons and debate their opinions with one another, one-by-one the incriminating evidence and witnesses begin to show faults. Juror #8 grows more confident of the boy's innocence, and slowly but surely he converts his fellow jurors to his side.
In a movie that only has one very small location and is essentially one long scene, director Sidney Lumet still proves that he's not only a great actor's director, but also keen on controlling the look and mood of his movies. He makes use of the limited space by using different camera lens to subtly go from wide, open shots in the beginning of the movie to tight close-ups towards the end creating an illusion of claustrophobia. He also introduces elements just as the right moment. The movie begins with the hottest day of the summer; making way for cranky, sweaty juries. As tides change and opinions are swayed, they are represented in the form of temperature changes. Day turn into night, rain pours and goes, bathroom breaks are taken, and a lone electric fan comes on at a turning point. You don't have to notice these things, but they are always there to affect the atmosphere of the scene. There's a big difference between a man ranting angrily in the sweltering heat and a man doing the same but with heavy rain pounding on the windows behind him.
Watching twelve anonymous people, the twelve men remain nameless throughout the film, identified only by their seating position around the table cramped up in one room can theoretically get tedious very fast, but 12 Angry Men is never boring. Not once; thanks to the electrifying actors involved who give their characters the much-needed personality. Each man carries a distinct personality with him, and this also comes into play in the story; every man's personal feelings affect the verdict they vote on.
The movie not only portrays the jury process, it also criticizes every single aspect of it. Prejudice and apathy are two things that shouldn't be around when deciding a person's life, but they are anyway. One juror decides that the kid is guilty just because of who he is; it's never confirmed, but it's strongly hinted at that the accused is a minority. Another juror votes whatever's convenient just because he wants to get out of there quickly and see a ball game. Even Juror #8, the one with a conscience, is not without faults. He finds reasonable doubt in every evidence, and willing to argue every little detail. If the accused is really a murderer, he'd be the man who let him walk.
And that's the glaring flaw of the judicial system that this film brings to attention: nothing is certain, and "justice" is merely something that can be talked into or out of. The film makes that clear by putting us right there in that hot sweaty box as a witness to "justice" being served by twelve angry men.
"12 Angry Men" opens January 1, 1957 and is rated . . Written by Reginald Rose.