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12 Angry Men

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: 12 Angry Men

Starring: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb
Director: Sidney Lumet
Rated: NR
RunTime: 95 Minutes
Release Date: April 1957
Genres: Classic, Drama

*Also starring: Rudy Bond, Ed Begley Sr., E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, George Voskovec, Robert Webber, Edward Binns, Joseph Sweeney

Reviewer Roundup
1.  Dragan Antulov review follows movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review
2.  Steve Rhodes read the review movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review

Review by Dragan Antulov
4 stars out of 4

There are many ways in which Continental and Anglo-Saxon schools of law manifest their differences in the area of Criminal Procedure, but usually the most notable, at least for outside observers, is the use of lay jury in the latter. The advantages and disadvantages of both schools could be the subject of lengthy debates, but there is no doubt that the criminal trials in Anglo-Saxon countries provide better drama and, consequently, better material for movies. Hollywood filmmakers came to such conclusion long time ago and, as a result, created whole new sub-genre of courtroom dramas. However, the most important and possibly the most interesting element of such trials - jury and its deliberations - was mostly absent from Hollywood films. One of the rare films to break such taboo and deal with juries was 12 ANGRY MEN, 1957 directorial debut by Sidney Lumet.

Plot of this film is based on the play by Reginald Rose, who had been allegedly inspired by his own experiences as juror. The movie begins one hot summer day in New York courthouse. A teenager has just been tried for the murder of his father, and the judge sends the jury to deliberate about his guilt or innocence, warning them that the guilty verdict brings mandatory death penalty. When jurors enter the room, things aren't looking very well for the defendant - jury members are eager to pronounce him guilty as soon as possible. The only exception is Juror #8 (played by Henry Fonda), who votes "not guilty" only because he thinks that the decision on someone's life and death should be made after careful examination of the evidence. The rest of the jury is upset with such dissent, but Juror #8 gradually convinces them to review the case. As a result, reasonable doubt about boy's guilt emerges and more jurors are ready to vote "not guilty", while, on the other hand, some jurors are becoming quite passionate about sending defendant to the electric chair.

Today, 12 ANGRY MEN is a considered to be classic, one of the greatest films made by 1950s Hollywood. Unfortunately, it also belongs to those films, which are not made in Hollywood today, since it is hard to imagine big studios spending money on films based on stage plays, shot in black and white and with plots set in a single room during one afternoon (1997 remake was shot in cable production). On the other hand, some filmmakers in today's Hollywood would find the theme of this film quite to their tastes. Reginald Rose's play doesn't just reveal dramatic tensions, usually hidden behind locked jury room doors; it also reveals the role prejudice plays in judicial, as well as any other important collective decisions in American society. If made today, and without some constraints Lumet had in 1950s, this film would be considered very "politically correct". Of course, subplot about prejudices could be hidden for those accustomed for more direct and more preachy ways of socially conscious American cinema of 1990s. All person in the jury room are white men; but even they are object of social stratification and prejudices. Through the escalating drama anonymous jurors slowly reveal their different social backgrounds and the ways in which they perceive the world and each other. The biggest prejudice is, of course, racial one - directed against "people from the slums", who are, same as jurors themselves, anonymous for the viewers, but their ethnic background is presumed to be Puerto Rican. Because of such prejudices, many jurors were ready to make their fatal decision before they were really examining the evidence. The microcosm of the jury room could be perceived as metaphor for the American society in 1950s and the struggle of the lone Juror #8, whose background is intellectual, could be seen as a metaphor for the struggle for civil rights of American ethnic minorities.

With or without politics, 12 ANGRY MEN is a powerful film, and its director Lumet should be really praised for making it such with small budget and in so unappealing setting. Lumet's achievement is even greater when we take into account the fact that it was his first major film. On the other hand, we could say that he had easy time, since few directors enjoyed privilege of working with such stellar cast. Always reliable Henry Fonda is only a nominal lead, being partnered with eleven great character actors. Thanks to Lumet's meticulous pacing and editing, each of them used opportunity to give splendid performance. Only one of them, Lee J. Cobb (Juror #3 and most ardent member of "guilty" camp), got "Oscar" for the role in this film, but each other member of the cast deserved it too. Perhaps 12 ANGRY MEN should have been the opportunity to introduce new category of "Oscars" - given for collective performances. The excellent acting was supported with good photography by Boris Kaufman and also by ascetic but suggestive musical score by Kenyon Hopkins. The only thing that doesn't look perfect in this film is the ending, which seems somewhat abrupt and the epilogue is unnecessary. However, this flaw is a minor one, and 12 ANGRY MEN completely deserved its high status of undisputed classic.

Another thing that makes 12 ANGRY MEN important is its educational value. This film is a great combination of an adult theme and the treatment suitable for younger audience. Therefore, 12 ANGRY MEN is a film that should be viewed not only by those who want to educate themselves about inner workings of American judicial system.

Copyright 1999 Dragan Antulov

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