Reflecting on the movie “12 Angry Men”

Have you seen the 1957 movie 12 Angry Men? I highly recommend it. It was nominated for three Oscars: Best Picture, produced by Henry Fonda and Reginald Rose; Best Director, Sidney Lumet; and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Reginald Rose. The Golden Globes nominated the film, the director, lead actor Fonda, and supporting actor Lee J.Cobb. “A dissenting juror in a murder trial [played by Fonda] slowly manages to convince the others that the case is not as obviously clear as it seemed in court.”

Had a chance to watch it again this summer. I was doing apherisis at the blood bank which takes a couple hours, and this DVD, which I got for free about eight years ago by mailing some coupons from a Cheerios box, fit the bill at 95 minutes.

I was struck again by the racial/class issues. The defendant, who we see only at the very beginning of the film, with the judge’s charge to the jury, is young (18), Hispanic, and from a troubled neighborhood. The jury seems to think the case is a slam dunk, and quickly vote 11-1 to send the young man to his death. But as the Fonda character talks, he gets a second supporter. Immediately one juror thinks it’s the juror from the slums (played by Jack Klugman), but it’s not.

This film also starred Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, E.G. Marshall (who I know best from the 1960s lawyer show The Defenders, which also had a huge impact on me), Edward Binns , Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec (whose character has the best speech about the obligations of a jury) and Robert Webber.

The Fonda character, and his eventual allies, make observations about the inconsistencies in the testimonies, something a decent defense lawyer might have done. The young man, though, apparently had a court-appointed attorney who was going through the motions.

The film has always informed me, or reinforced in me, several issues. 1) People with means generally have better legal representation than poorer folk. 2) We ought to have the trial anyway, even though “everybody knows” he or she is guilty. 3) Because of 1) in particular, I’ve long opposed the death penalty. 4) Because of 2), I wish we had more of a limit on pretrial and trial scuttlebutt.

Incidentally, there was a TV movie of 12 Angry Men in 1997, with a cast including recent Tony winner Courtney B. Vance; Ossie Davis; George C. Scott in the Cobb role; Armin Mueller-Stahl; Dorian Harewood in the Klugman role; the late James Gandolfini; Tony Danza; Jack Lemmon in the Fonda role; Hume Cronyn; Mykelti Williamson; Edward James Olmos; and William Petersen. I feel I should check it out soon, now that the original is fresh in my mind.

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5 thoughts on “Reflecting on the movie “12 Angry Men”

  1. Roger, I first saw “12 Angry Men” in my teens. At that time, two things struck me…

    First, the racial/socioeconomic factors you pointed out. This movie highlighted the weakness of our court-appointed attorney structure years before people woke up to the atrocities in death penalty cases in places like Texas, where attys would fall asleep, etc. And of course, the young man being African-American was a slam-dunk for a guilty verdict in those days… and now. Witness “Mister” Zimmerman, who doesn’t deserve the respect of the title.

    Second was that there were no women on the jury, even in the remake. I know, it would spoil the title and all, but it struck me as odd. Kind of like watching “1776” and waiting for Abigail Adams to show up, bodice and all… and of course, Gwyneth’s mom, Blythe Danner.

    Anyway, this is an excellent take on the film. Not surprised Fonda produced at all, but didn’t know it until I read this, so thanks. Amy

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