I first watched Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957) in my bed, and at the very instant the film was over, I regretted watching it like this instead of in a theater. Little did I know that our local independent theater will screen it only a couple of months later, and I finally got the opportunity to rewatch this masterpiece in its full glory. And if I had to relive Groundhog Day, I would choose this film over and over again.
12 Angry Men may seem like a courtroom drama, but we only see the aftermath and the effect on people involved, compared to the world of the Greek tragedy, where murder and death were never shown on stage. Lumet does not care about the peculiarities of the trial, the ethnicity of the suspect, nor did the suspect really commit the crime or not. We should not be asking ourselves those questions either. It is not a story of finding out whether a man is truly innocent or not, we are not playing Poirots here: this is a story of acknowledging reasonable doubt. We are looking at the evidence from a second-hand perspective, rethinking the testimonies because Henry Fonda’s character Juror #8 does not know whether the suspect is guilty or not, but the needs certainty when he’s deciding another man’s fate:
I don’t really know what the truth is. I don’t suppose anybody will ever really know. Nine of us now seem to feel that the defendant is innocent, but we’re just gambling on probabilities — we may be wrong. We may be trying to let a guilty man go free, I don’t know. Nobody really can. But we have a reasonable doubt, and that’s something that’s very valuable in our system. No jury can declare a man guilty unless it’s sure.
Reginald Rose’s screenplay was initially produced for television, and Henry Fonda and Rose recruited Sidney Lumet to direct a film adaptation, knowing that Lumet had extensive experience and held a reputation of staying within the given budget and on schedule. When they started shooting, Lumet had all the actors stay in the same room for hours and make them do their lines over and over again, to force them to think as the jurors cramped in a tiny room with an unknown bunch of people would. At the beginning of the film, Lumet is using a wide-angle lens angled downwards, focusing on the whole jury and letting us know the space inside out. And, even more important, the people involved. Juror #8, dressed symbolically in white, is the only one not eager to raise his hand to reach a unanimous vote of a guilty verdict. The cameras are positioned above eye level and showing us a greater distance between the characters. In Making Movies, Lumet stated:
I shot the first third of the movie above eye level, the second third at eye level and the last third from below eye level. In that way, toward the end the ceiling began to appear. Not only were the walls closing in (due to progressively longer lenses), the ceiling was as well. The sense of increasing claustrophobia did a lot to raise the tension of the last part of the movie.
On the final shot, an exterior that showed the jurors leaving the courtroom, I used a wide-angle lens, wider than any lens that had been used in the entire picture. I also raised the camera to the highest above-eyelevel position. The intention was to literally give us all air, to let us finally breathe, after two increasingly confined hours.
The story then unfolds, new information is gain from revisiting the known facts. In the middle of the film, one juror has a racist rant about the ethnic group (which was never revealed) of the suspect. Such a speech was condemned even by jurors agreeing that the suspect was guilty. At a slow pace, every single one of them is distancing themselves from the words Juror #10 is uttering, whose judgment is obviously clouded by prejudice. Such a powerful scene is again granting us with some space to breathe, shot from a wider angle, in order to encompass the whole room, with the discriminatory juror carefully positioned in the middle. The shock of being ignored and silenced even by people on his side is accentuated by his body movement, and Lumet is able to create a sense of isolation in a confined space.
Sidney Lumet made 387 setups in 12 Angry Men, and over half of those were to be used in the last half hour of the movie. This movie lasts for only an hour and a half and seems almost shot in real-time. But the cutting tempo was slowly accelerating throughout the first hour, and, in the words of Lumet, breaking into a gallop in the last thirty minutes.
Henry Fonda never went to see the screenings and rushes (unedited footage) of his movies, but he was a producer for 12 Angry Men, so he had to come. After showing the first-day rushes, Lumet states that he leaned forward, squeezed his shoulder, whispered “It’s brilliant” and walked away never to return. Henry Fonda’s character gets that sense of liberation in the end as well, walking out from the courthouse, making a brilliant decision, never to return again. Whether the verdict was truly right — no one knows, but the only decision that had to be made was to take into account if something opposite was possible.
The jury here seems like an ideal jury, and Michigan Law Review paper states that all of the jurors are active participants, almost all of them contribute new information that makes a difference. Everyone has a chance to speak, everyone has a difference to make. It was a hot day, the air conditioning didn’t work, and the jurors believed the decision would be a matter of minutes. But every human life should have a chance to speak, at least by proxy through a jury discussion. The burden of the proof lies on the prosecution side: its evidence is insufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. And a tiny speck of a mere possibility is enough for not sending a person to an electric chair. Because every human life deserves at least a discussion.
Juror #6: You think he’s not guilty, huh?
Juror #8: I don’t know. It’s possible.
Ellsworth, Phoebe C. (2003). “One Inspiring Jury [Review of ‘Twelve Angry Men’]”. Michigan Law Review. 101(6): 1387–1407.
Lumet, Sidney (1995). Making Movies. Vintage Books.