Sunday, November 15, 2015

12 Angry Men

I just returned from the 2015 Turner Classic Movie Cruise, with Robert Osborne, Ben Mankiewicz, and guests Louis Gossett Jr., Eva Marie Saint, Angie Dickinson and Alex Trebek among others. I will be posting a summary of the cruise’s events next time around.

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.


I’m not sure “angry” describes all of the characters in this movie. For instance, I think Juror # 4 (E. G. Marshall) could be seen as just annoyed. Anyway, this was the first film directed by Sidney Lumet (although he had directed the television version of the story), and the only film produced by star Henry Fonda. The motion picture shows men confronting their own emotional and experiential pasts and those of their fellow jurors as they decide whether or not to send a youth to the electric chair for the murder of his father. Some are plagued while others are buoyed by their respective personalities in this stressful situation, but each one has to decide how to move forward. 


These men do not know each other, don’t even know each others’ names (although in the very last scene Fonda’s character is revealed to be Davis and the older juror is McCardle), and will probably not see one another when the trial is over. They discover the types of persons they are in real time as they discuss the case, and the audience is placed in the same position as the jurors. We get an inkling of a couple of the jurors’ personalities as the camera pans across their faces in the jury box as the judge says that a guilty vote will send the young Latino boy to the electric chair. Jack Warden’s Juror # 7 is fidgety, looking like he can’t wait to escape. Ed Begley’s Juror # 10 is self-absorbed with his cold, as he tends to his dripping nose throughout the film. (Perhaps the cold is an outward sign of a man with a sick way of looking at life, or how his attitudes are infecting him). However, the face of Juror # 5 (Jack Klugman) shows concern or worry, as he looks almost sad glancing at the accused.


The jurors are confined in a stifling hot deliberation room. Its pressure cooker environment mirrors the heated exchanges that follow as the men argue the points of the case. They open the windows in the room at the beginning to let in air, but we discover that some have difficulty opening their minds. Henry Fonda is Juror # 8. We find that he is an architect. Perhaps his occupation suggests that he likes to know how things are put together, and it may be one of the reasons he doesn’t feel that all of the pieces of evidence fit together in the prosecution’s case. We also learn that he has three children. This fact may be another reason why he is not willing to destroy a youth’s life without deliberation. At the first tally, all of the other jurors vote to convict based on a superficial assessment of the case. Fonda’s character is the lone “not guilty” vote. He says that before sentencing a man to death that there ought to be some discussion of the proceedings.


At this point we start to see how the other jurors think. Warden’s Juror # 7 is a selfish, small-minded man who doesn’t care that a person’s life is in his hands. He just wants to get out of the courtroom in time to catch that day’s ballgame. Begley’s Juror # 10 espouses the bigoted beliefs that some of the others share toward the impoverished living in ghettoes. He says they are all born to “lie,” are “real big drinkers,” and “violent” by nature. E. G. Marshall’s Juror # 4 says that the slums are breeding grounds for criminals. Lee J. Cobb’s Juror # 3 says he “has no personal feelings about the case.” But, this is not true. His past with his son warps his objectivity. He boasts that he is a self-made businessman who we learn bullied his son who he saw as a weakling. His boy eventually broke ties with him, and he now transfers his anger toward his child onto the youth on trial.  


Fonda’s juror tries to get the others to look past their prejudices so they can see the evidence from another perspective. When Warden’s juror says that the accused deserved to be beaten by his father because of his history of violent acts, Fonda suggests that his being beaten all of his life may be the cause of him being taught to act that way. His father was a criminal and the youth was placed in an orphanage and hit repeatedly. He tries to suggest that there is a problem with the system, and that the total blame should not be placed on the individual. He goes on to question the unique nature of the murder weapon, producing a knife that he bought that was identical to the one the boy owned. He also disputes the testimony of an old man who could not have been at his door in time to see the accused fleeing.


The statements of some of the more narrow-minded jurors begin to anger the more reasonable ones. Foreman Juror # 1 (Martin Balsam) becomes angry when Begley’s character questions the way he tries to keep order. The older Juror # 9 (Joseph Sweeney) is treated badly by Lee J. Cobb when he switches his vote to not guilty. The man who asks for respect for elders is disrespectful here. Juror #6 (Edward Binns) becomes incensed at this action, and warns Cobb’s juror to not intimidate the old man. The film suggests that closed-minded people will turn on anyone if they don’t go along with their way of thinking.

Consequently, the older Juror # 9 tells Begley’s character that his statements show that he is “ignorant.” The bigoted statements begin to anger Klugman’s Juror # 5, who grew up in a slum, and is no criminal or liar. He at first feels pressured to go along with the guilty verdict, but the negative comments cause him to question the evidence and think independently. Juror # 2 (John Fiedler), a mousy, easily intimidated man, follows a similar path of self-assertion. Begley’s juror sarcastically questions why Juror # 11 (George Voskovec) is so polite because he uses the word “pardon.” He responds by saying, “For the same reason you are not: it’s the way I was brought up.” This line is a good example of how the jurors’ respective pasts influence their present behaviors.


Fonda’s juror also shows anger when he sees Cobb’s character playing tic-tac-toe with Robert Webber’s Juror # 12 (an advertising man who is so used to phoniness he can’t tell what is true) instead of listening to the discussion. He rips the paper out of Cobb’s hands. He also is testy with Begley’s juror’s bigotry. But he is mostly even-tempered, and his urging to look below the surface of preconceived notions at the reality underneath becomes catchy. When the elder Juror # 9 remembers that he saw the marks left on a woman’s nose that could only be made by eyeglasses, her eyewitness testimony is negated by the fact that she couldn’t have had time to put on her glasses and see the youth stab his father through a passing elevated train. This revelation convinces the logical Juror # 4 (Marshall), and he switches his vote, because he now has a reasonable doubt about the boy’s guilt.


Begley’s juror’s bigotry is now viewed as repulsive to the others, and they literally shun him, walking away and turning their backs toward him. The lone holdout is Cobb’s character. He is now placed in the lonely position which Fonda originally held. He has a last rant, but during this tirade he is forced to come to terms with how his attitudes were poisoned by his anger toward his son. With this epiphany, he, too, changes his vote to “not guilty,” and the youth is acquitted.


The film is not totally one-sided in favor of Fonda’s juror’s position. Early on, Binn’s character says. “Supposin’ you talk us all out of this, and, uh, the kid really did knife his father.” But, the thrust of the narrative is one of hope about the possibility of dispensing justice fairly, blind to the prejudicial influences of our individual influences.

Next week, a report on the TCM Cruise.

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