Abraham Lincoln once said, “Mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” The opening shot of 12 Angry Men lingers on an inscription that reads, “Administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good.” This would seem to imply Men is a story primarily about justice. In fact, it is about mercy, or rather, that peculiarly American brand of justice which insists on mercy – that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty, that there cannot be a conviction when there is a reasonable doubt.
Biographer Joanna Rapf described Sidney Lumet as an “independent director” – a man who made films about “men who summon courage to challenge the system.” Lumet’s debut is one of his simplest variations on this theme, but it may be his most potent. Based on a play by Reginald Rose, 12 Angry Men is unique among courtroom dramas in that it centers not on the court case itself but on the deliberations of the jury, comprised of the twelve titular men. These men must decide on the fate of a boy accused of killing his father. In the film’s opening minutes, the judge quickly establishes the stakes: “In the event that you find the accused guilty, the bench will not entertain a recommendation for mercy. The death sentence is mandatory in this case.” A preliminary survey reveals that eleven of the twelve believe the boy is guilty. The lone dissenter is Juror #8 (Henry Fonda), Lumet’s courageous and independent hero, who believes there is room for reasonable doubt. Apart from its brief prologue and denouement, the entire film takes place in the jury room, where, over the course of a 90-minute argument, #8 slowly begins to win the others over to his side. Lumet’s direction, Rose’s script, and the uniformly phenomenal cast elevate this seemingly mundane premise to a cinematic masterpiece, which was nominated for Best Picture and took a place on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 American films.
Roger Ebert wrote that 12 Angry Men was “a film where tension comes from personality conflict, dialogue and body language, not action.” As such, the film is particularly dependent on the strength of its cast, and they support it effortlessly. “We’re all grown-ups in here,” blusters Ed Begley’s #10, but the film swiftly questions this characterization, as each juror becomes less and less reasonable, while being efficiently developed into a tangible and distinct personality. Fonda, whose performance ranked #28 on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 50 movie heroes of all time, is a portrait of ordinary, quiet, and utterly admirable integrity, giving one of the finest performances of a long and industrious career. Lee J. Cobb, known primarily as Marlon Brando’s nemesis in On The Waterfront, is a worthy antagonist for Fonda here. Cobb owns the role all the way through to a heartbreaking final rant, which may be the film’s finest moment. He’s backed up by E.G. Marshall, one of the few jurors who remains driven by reason rather than emotion, and Ed Begley, who roars magnificently as the film’s ugliest character, a blustering bully who is frighteningly believable in his blind “us vs. them” mentality. Jack Warden provides much of the film’s comic edge, as an exuberant, baseball-obsessed salesman who is by turns humorous and painfully idiotic. Joseph Sweeney, known for most of the film as simply “the old man,” becomes one of Fonda’s firmest supporters, dispensing wise observations and taking umbrage at the others’ bullying ways. The cast also includes Jack Klugman, whose origins in a slum afford him unique insight into the defendant’s background, John Fiedler (better known as Piglet, of Winnie the Pooh fame) as a meek banker, Ed Binns as a stolid workingman who is initially content to follow the crowd, George Voskovec as a polite European watchmaker, and Robert Webber as a shallow and indecisive advertising executive. Martin Balsam rounds out the cast as the passive-aggressive foreman, who struggles to keep the more rambunctious jurors under control. “Everyone has a breaking point,” observes #4, and as the characters begin to take shape, the audience gets to know them well enough that we can begin to forecast where those breaking points might be.
While the cast is its most tangible merit, 12 Angry Men’s success is also largely dependent on Lumet’s masterful direction. Along with cinematographer Boris Kaufman, Lumet showcases complete control over his camera. Consider the first shot inside the jury room, which moves around the room, introducing and deftly establishing all the major characters, before we cut to Fonda. This first cut establishes Fonda’s importance and also subtly clues the audience in to his separation from the other jurors. The cinematography is not showy, but functional, enhancing the story and never distracting from it. Rose’s script (adapted from his own play) is also a master class, wringing tension from a simple premise and developing characters effortlessly with only spare backstories– the jurors don’t even have names. It would be easy for twelve nameless white men in a room to become indistinguishable, but here, they are universal archetypes invested with distinct personalities. One can point to any character in the film and say, “I’ve known someone like that.” The film is driven by Rose’s dialogue, which ranges from hilarious to poignant, ingeniously balancing the needs of character development and plot advancement. Elements are introduced and then pay off masterfully. The film is almost entirely devoid of musical score, but Kenyon Hopkins’ brief interludes are seamlessly integrated, while also being great pieces in their own right.
Beyond being simply a great telling of a great story, the film tackles a myriad of themes. Rose’s dialogue weaves in repeated motifs, such as truth and sanity (“You must be losing your minds” is a frequent outburst). “Do you think you were born with a monopoly on the truth?” #9 challenges #10 after a bigoted remark. There is also an underlying theme of prejudice, exemplified most strongly in #10, whose bigotry keeps him from a clear-headed approach to the case. In one of the film’s greatest scenes, the other jurors stand and leave the table one by one during a lengthy, bigoted rant from #10, leaving him to retreat to a corner in defeat. Soon after, #8 solemnly observes, “Prejudice always obscures the truth.” 12 Angry Men is also preoccupied with the ideal of the American legal system. “This, I have always thought, is a remarkable thing about democracy,” says #11, praising the way complete strangers are notified and told to decide the verdict of a person they do not know. Yet #11’s idealistic characterization does not go unchallenged – clearly, bias has not been entirely eradicated from this courtroom.
For all its fascinating themes, though, 12 Angry Men is not strictly about truth or democracy. It is about one thing: mercy. The story does not actually hinge on whether or not the boy is guilty. The jurors, having only listened to the court case, are one step removed from the direct truth of the events. The audience, having not even seen the court case, is doubly removed from the truth. Our only direct connection to the events is one impenetrable shot of the defendant’s face. We are no more privy to his innermost thoughts than the jurors are. In the absence of solid fact, we are placed in the same dilemma: to show mercy, or not to show mercy. Even #8 admits, “I don’t know what the truth is. I suppose none of us will ever really know.” In contrast, it is the antagonistic #3 who insists, “These are facts. You can’t refute facts.” Prejudice may obscure the truth, but a search for cold, hard facts, not rooted in warm humanity, can impede mercy. Nor is the story about the American legal system, which serves as a backdrop to its events. Just as the film does not hold truth as the greatest virtue, it does not champion a strict adherence to the law. When #8 is reprimanded for breaking the law to bring a crucial piece of evidence into the jury room, he responds with a casually defiant “That’s right. I broke the law.” If the film is about the law, this moment is baffling: if it is about mercy, it makes all the sense in the world. Mercy is a higher prerogative, overriding the law when necessary, guiding #8 all the way to one last quiet gesture to a defeated opponent. In his unfailing adherence to the ideal of mercy, #8 may be one of cinema’s purest Christ figures, challenging his opponents with quiet authority, seeking not to condemn, but to save. If the letter kills but the spirit gives life, 12 Angry Men is more concerned with the latter.