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Weekly Classics: 12 Angry Men

May 04, 2012

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In the intense atmosphere of a crowded, hot room, 12 jurors wrestle with the decision of sending a young man to his death.

The movie, 12 Angry Men (1957) is a drama which takes place inside a court-house where a jury must decide the verdict of a murder trial. They are stuck because one of them (Henry Fonda) will not take the decision lightly.

This classic film, directed by the recently deceased Sidney Lumet, was initially a television play from 1954 written by Reginald Rose. The film is a direct adaptation, and still retains the feeling of a theatrical performance (all but three minutes of it takes place in the same room). The film has been very successful and influential. It has also inspired remakes and adaptations, on television, on stage and even other movies - including an Indian remake, titled “Ek Ruka Hua Faisla”.

The movie lives on as a timeless classic because of the profound subject matter that it deals with, and the grave conundrum in the plot. It is an engrossing exploration of many themes such as human prejudices, class barriers, moral fortitude, and justice. In 2007 it was selected for preservation in the US Library of Congress

The film was constrained to one set, not just to make it realistic or minimalistic, but also to create a strong sense of drama, tension and claustrophobia. The 12 actors do an excellent job of creating this atmosphere, and we soon find ourselves so absorbed that we can feel the heat in the room, the tension in the air and the burden on their shoulders.

Lumet actually had the actors stay in the same room for extended rehearsals. They did their lines repetitively in unrecorded takes. This was done in order to give them a real taste of claustrophobia and friction after being stuck in a room with the same people. The technique was very successful because the resulting film conveys a very strong and accurate portrayal of close conflict between people. In fact, the movie is actually used as an illustration of team dynamics and conflict resolution techniques in various academic and business institutions.

The sense of constricting space is also created with cinematography in this film; Lumet continues to use longer and longer focal lengths as the film goes on, making the frames tighter, the angles lower, and forcing the perspective to shrink. You can observe this yourself when you notice that in the beginning the view from the window looks far away, but towards the end of the film, this same view looks flatter and closer, creating a sense of less space even outside the room itself.

The story takes place in New York, and starts out with a courtroom where a young 18-year-old is being tried for allegedly stabbing his father to death. The trial is closing and final statements are being presented. With the facts laid out on the table, the judge then instructs the jury to decide whether the boy is guilty of murder. If he is found guilty, he will be hanged.

The 12 men of the jury then move to a private room and get acquainted with each other. The room is hot, and almost all of them look unhappy and impatient. We soon get the impression that most of them have already decided that the boy is guilty, and that they don’t really consider the matter worth discussing. However, when they take a vote and tally it, there is one exception; It turns out that Juror 8 (Fonda) is not convinced and has voted “not guilty”.

To the great chagrin of his peers, he declares there is too much at stake, and that he wants to discuss the case before voting again. This is where the conflict begins.

Throughout the rest of the film we witness the jury arguing and tussling over the matter. There is a mixture of contempt, impatience, and frustration from them as they fail to reach a unanimous verdict.

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Henry Fonda, Jack Klugman, Lee J. Cobb and E.G. Marshall in a scene from 12 Angry Men.

Juror 8 makes his case to them: he says that the evidence is circumstantial, the witnesses are weak, and that there is not enough to condemn the boy to a death sentence because there is reasonable doubt of the his guilt. He seems to have made little progress however, until another (this time secret) ballot reveals otherwise.

The argument grinds on and slowly we see the different mindsets of all the jurors. We begin to see all the reasons that led them to jump to conclusions; from impatience and prejudice, to personal ghosts and anger.

As all these reasons start to peel away, the angry men in the room start to come face to face with them. By the time the drama reaches a climax, both the jurors and the viewer can sense that this trial is not just about a boy, but about our humanity as a whole.

In the end, the film reflects on a lot of issues that America was facing in that time and many that it still faces today. Moreover these problems, such as immigration, racism, youth violence, social responsibility, and justice as a whole, are not just relevant to America in the 50’s but even to our part of the world today.

Though the movie does sometimes over-simplify issues and exaggerate personalities, it still stands as a great commentary on such issues, and a great representation of their effect on our humanity.

Finally, it also seeks to point out that the discrimination in the justice system that takes place based on class, race, and religion etc. is constantly fuelled by the prejudices and indifference of the majority in society. We are reminded that sometimes, if one person stands up, courageously points out these flaws, and then refuses to compromise even in the face of opposition; he or she can often cause a big difference.

In case you want to see it now, here’s the full version of the movie:

View Dawn.com’s weekly classics archive here.


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Nadir Siddiqui is a photographer and interactive producer at Dawn.com. You can view some of his photography here.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.