A Reasonable Doubt: 12 Angry Men (1957)
Sidney Lumet’s debut film 12 Angry Men is a seminal classic of legal cinema. The film is often taught or referenced in law schools and sociology classes. The 1957 film is highly influential within and without pop culture. The film’s depiction of groupthink, jury deliberation, and problem solving within a clashing, varied group of people is stunning to this day. The 1957 film stars Henry Fonda, Martin Balsam, Jack Warden, and Ed Begley among others. The film was an adaptation of a teleplay written by Reginald Rose. Also existing as a stage play, 12 Angry Men has since been adapted to include more diverse jurors.
After hearing closing arguments at a murder trial, twelve distinct men come together to deliberate. Upon initial voting, eleven men vote the defendant, a Latino young man, is guilty. Only Juror no. 8 (Henry Fonda) votes not guilty, much to the disappointment of his fellow jurors. Many of the jurors are influenced by outside or personal factors. Some just want to go home, some want to catch a baseball game, and some just don’t care enough. Over the course of the film, Juror no. 8 tries to persuade the others to rethink the evidence and testimony
The idea of a film with only 12 major characters in a single room talking about an off-screen crime is likely to feel stagey. But Lumet’s closeups and the dramatic editing (by Carl Lerner) are key to the success of the film. Through these twelve men and their faces, Lumet shows a capsule of America at the time. As diverse as a film starring only white men can be, 12 Angry Men shows men of different classes, upbringing, and national origin. Now the film can read as a document of midcentury white male anxiety. The postwar euphoria of the late 1940s/1950s gave way to paranoia. The feeling that assumptions and speculation cannot be completely trusted is scary for this group of men.
12 Angry Men offers a brief shot of the defendant, and his scared, brown face sets the film up to question the biases of the jurors. I can’t imagine a future remake or production could get away with an all white male cast, but the makeup of the jurors offers an interesting contrast to the young man of color whose life is at stake. One juror in particular, Juror no. 3 (Leo J. Cobb), is the most openly hostile to the defendant and wants him to be guilty because of his own personal history.
This movie might be a classic depiction of jury deliberation, but it is not without its cinematic liberties. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke highly of the film at Fordham Law, citing it as an inspiration for her to pursue law. She did, however, note that some of the actions of the jurors would lead to a mistrial should the jurors be forced to disclose their deliberation. Juror no. 8’s independent investigation of the murder weapon was the major example, as jurors are not allowed to look into the case outside of the room. She also admitted that the jurors reached some of their conclusions through speculation rather than hard interpretation of the facts. It’s not completely unrealistic for jurors to break protocol, but these indiscretions should be accounted for.
Sidney Lumet’s film is important for its depiction of groupthink and the legal principle of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It finds cinematic tension through close-ups and camerawork, with 12 compelling, convincing performances to match. The class and race themes are fascinating as well, especially within the late 1950s context. It was an outstanding beginning to Lumet’s illustrious career. The film takes great care to show that no juror is completely objective. Try as they might, no jury can be free of personal opinions, backgrounds, and prejudices.