Movie of the Week: 12 Angry Men (1957)

Sidney Lumet directs Henry Fonda, Lee J Cobb and E.G. Marshall in this courtroom drama where a murder trial jury debate an ‘open and shut case’ when one man decides to go against the room and vote “Not Guilty”.

Juror No.1 – Martin Balsam: Just trying to be the foreman, no one wants the job, a decent sort, he thinks the kid’s guilty but happy for procedure to run its course. He’s most of us – affable, quietly intelligent, takes responsibility grudgingly but dutifully, just don’t insult his hard work trying to keep some order and rationality to the debate.

Juror No.2 – John Fiedler: Whiny, weak willed, possibly gay. The least masculine of the men, unsure of himself, struggles to gets his point across among all the machismo and chest thrusting, even when correct. An idiot with cough drops who works only off his own mundane experiences.

Juror No.3 – Lee J Cobb: A blowhard, authority figure, hates youth because of his poor relationship with his son. He’s brought more than just some emotional baggage to the case, knowing he could be the murder victim… the father who “disciplines” his son too much. Quick to anger, but never actually loses the support of the room… the other men would follow such a man (he probably represents a lot of their own volatile fathers) if the reasoning and heart of Juror No. 8 didn’t eventually outfox and obliterate his black and white view of the world. Exemplary piece of screen acting.

Juror No.4 – E.G. Marshall: DOES. NOT. SWEAT. Strange how your favourite performance swaps around on every rewatch. This time (possibly my twentieth??) it was the stone cold stockbroker, the man of unwavering logic who really caught my eye. He commits to Guilty based on the evidence and its going to take a lot more than conjecture and wobbly theorising to alter his view. He’s also an assassin with the deadpan zinger. When he talks, arguments end. Fantastic bit of holding back from Marshall amongst all the grandstanding and fist shaking.

Juror No.5 – Jack Klugman: Grew up in the slums, knows how a flick knife is held. Not much else to say except he is mirror for various jurors prejudices to be reflected and deflected off of.

Juror No.6 – Edward Binns: The quiet man, decent, grafter. An Italian American house painter; he could be Joey Tribiani’s great uncle. Be rude to the elderly and he’ll knock your block off. I like him. He and Martin Balsam are probably the only characters you’d have a beer with.

Juror No.7 – Jack Warden: Brash salesman, impatient to get to the baseball game, always joking and bullying to get his own selfish way. You meet a lot of these pricks in life… they’ve figured overconfidence and fake geniality gets them exactly what they want in nine out of ten situations but they have no morality or code. In many ways their willingness to go with the flow as long as it benefits them with no care for the negative effect on others makes them just as evil as your racists and fascists. These are the people who allow evil to happen as it is more convenient than engaging with good.

Juror No.8 – Henry Fonda: Watching him take a minute to centre himself and collect his wits before he takes his seat at the jury table is a masterstroke. He’s about to stand alone. He is about to make 11 disparate but convinced personalities change their way of thinking. He needs to find a way to be heard when there’ll be 11 conflicting opinions struggling for attention. Some men will listen, others cannot. He is going to have to grind them down with facts, conjecture and logic. Take a deep breath Juror No.8 and patiently show us your blueprint for reasonable doubt. In his immaculate white suit, I question whether any of us could really ever be a Henry Fonda. He’s an angel of reason, decency and emotional intelligence.

Juror No.9 – Joseph Sweeney: Observes and recognises the humanity in all, looks like a turtle, will stand by your side in a pinch.

Juror No.10 – Ed Begley: The feckin’ racist! Strange to think 63 years down the line that prejudiced stains like this still think we all secretly share their nasty, harmful views. The moment where the entire jury room turns away from his crumbling bluster and ignore him is a classic… but definitely liberal wish fulfilment back then. Now… probably still… sadly. White people have to stop politely enduring hateful bellends like this. THERE I SAID IT! 😉

Juror No.11 – George Voskovec: The immigrant who escaped European fascism, the one who understands how democracy works better than those born into ‘freedom’, the one who speaks English better than those who spout it out with overconfidence. Very likeable and well utilised character. The watchmaker. He appreciates Fonda’s well structured and well timed salvos to attack the prosecution’s case. He’d probably appreciate just how well Lumet directs this amazing piece of cinema. The script rehearsed weeks before cameras started rolling so every actor knows their lines and arc intricately. The walls closing in as tempers fray. The gripping varied voting sequences. The claustrophobic study of masculinity and resolve and democracy and social responsibility. 12 Angry Men is a hothouse of how Western males interact. Exposing how politics, business and friendships operate under male egos, overconfidence and upbringing.

Juror No.12 – Robert Webber: The advertising dick in a sharp suit. A weaker willed variant on Jack Warden’s cocksure weathervane. Note how he likes the presentation rather than the substance of the prosecutor’s case. It is the vapid, surface based currency he himself trades on. He’s the type of slick customer we now elect or promote. Looks great on paper, can hold his own in an interview, has very little of value beyond that to add to society. He’s the reason Western capitalism is going to the dogs. First against the wall… CLASS WAR!…. Sorry… 12 Angry Men remains one of the most unimpeachably marvellous movies ever made.


Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

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