Everyone already knows that the 1957 Best Picture nominee 12 Angry Men is a classic. We all know the film’s story — a teenage boy is on trial for murdering his family. 11 jurors want to convict. 1 juror doesn’t. Over the next few hours, that one juror tries to change 11 minds. Some of the jurors are prejudiced, some of them are bored, and some of them just want to go home. And, as the film reminds us, all 12 of them have a huge responsibility. You don’t need me to tell you that this is a great movie. Therefore, consider this to be less of a review and more of an appreciation of one of the best movies ever made.
1) The film is the feature debut of director Sidney Lumet. As any student of American film can tell you, Sidney Lumet was one of the most important directors in the history of cinema. After beginning his career in television, Lumet made his film directing debut with 12 Angry Men and he was rewarded with a much deserved Oscar nomination for best director.
2) The film’s story is actually a lot more complex than you might think. 12 Angry Men is such an influential film and its story has been imitated so many times that it’s easy to forget that the film’s plot is a lot more nuanced than you might think. Despite what many people seem to think, Juror Number 8 never argues that the defendant is innocent. Instead, he argues that the state has not proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt and, as a result, the defendant cannot be convicted. That’s an important lesson that is too often forgotten.
3) The movie celebrates the power of one person determined to do the right thing. Again, that’s a lesson that remains very relevant today.
4) As Juror Number Eight, Henry Fonda makes human decency believable.
5) As the angry and bullying Juror Number Three, Lee J. Cobb is the perfect antagonist.
6) As Juror Number Ten, Ed Begley makes Cobb seem almost reasonable. To be honest, the scene where Begley’s racist ranting causes all of the other jurors to stand up and turn their back on him feels a bit too theatrical. But it’s still undeniably effective. Alone among the jurors, Juror Number Ten is the only one without any hope of redemption. It’s a bit of a thankless role but Begley does what he has to do to make the character believable.
7) E.G. Marshall makes the wealthy Juror Number Four into a worthy opponent of Fonda without crossing the line into prejudice like Cobb and Begley. In many ways, Marshall’s role is almost as important as Fonda’s because Marshall’s performance reminds us that not all disagreements are the product of ignorance or anger.
8) As the Jury Foreman, Martin Balsam is the epitome of every ineffectual authority figure.
9) As Juror Number Seven, Jack Warden is hilariously sleazy.
10) As Juror Number Nine, Joseph Sweeney grows on you. The first time I saw the film I thought that Sweeney went a bit overboard but, on more recent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate Sweeney’s performance.
11) As Juror Number Twelve, Robert Webber is hilariously shallow. Juror Number Twelve is in advertising and Webber seems like he was right at home on Mad Men.
12) Though they don’t get as much of a chance to make an impression, John Fiedler, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, and George Voskovec all do good work as the other jurors. If there’s ever been a film that proves the value of a great ensemble, it’s 12 Angry Men.