The Breakfast Club. Murder on the Orient Express. Speed. I’ve always loved bottle movies – those that take place in one location for their entire duration, or most of it. I feel like it’s such a significant challenge for the cast and crew to make it work – to get and hold my attention from the start to the end. 12 Angry Men seemed to do that effortlessly. The dialogue together with each character’s unique mannerisms had a hold on me for the whole run. I have a ridiculously short attention span so every time I’m watching a movie alone and not in the cinema, I always double the time. If it’s 1.5 hours, I give myself 3 hours which is exactly what I initially did with 12 Angry Men. But then I quickly discovered that the only distraction I had to deal with was the buffering courtesy of a certain internet provider that my father has refused to renounce.
The film is a courtroom drama about a group of 12 jurors who have to decide the fate of an 18 year old Spanish American accused of the first-degree murder of his father. If the jury finds him guilty, he will be sentenced to death via the electric chair. In the preliminary vote, their verdict is almost unanimous save for one gentleman played by Henry Fonda.
Even in all my empathy and consideration, I wouldn’t put any blame on the other jurors because at first glance the case does seem open-and-close. In the film’s first few minutes, one of the jurors claims that the jury is lucky they got this particular case because there are no dead spots. However, when Fonda begins to tear it down piece by piece and as the prejudices of the other men begin to come into light, we consider the fragility of the judicial system and how sometimes the logic, evidence and what we consider factual (initially) could be shadowing over our humanity and ability to extend grace to other people.
The majority of the jurors make comments alluding to the fact that they believe there is no proof that shows the accused is innocent. A crucial point that Fonda lays out is that the burden of proof to leave no reasonable doubt lies with those who are on the persecution side. Fonda further points out that the jury couldn’t fully trust that the defence lawyer was giving his all especially being court-appointed. Perhaps to the court-appointed lawyer, as with most of the jurors, the case was open-and-close. Juror No. 9 points out that none of the evidence is concrete and that none of them has monopoly over the truth. This is crucial for all those involved in the judicial systems to believe in order for fairness and justice to be upheld.
Among the points that the jurors use to back up their standpoints are the switch-blade knife found in the apartment, the boy’s flimsy alibi, the probable motive because of the estranged father-son relationship, the boy’s past criminal activity and the two witnesses (an old man in the same building and a woman across the street).
It feels as if you are an invisible juror perhaps in the corner of the room when Fonda tries to sway the rest by breakdowns and propositions that catch everyone off guard. In the heat of the moment where Juror No. 3 is going on about how the knife is an unshakeable piece of evidence and the improbability of a similar one being found anywhere around the boy’s neighbourhood, Fonda dramatically reaches into his right pocket to reveal a knife that looks quite like the murder weapon which he claims he got close to the boy’s house, infuriating some of the rest but tilting others to change their minds.
A while later, Fonda tries to demonstrate that there is a slight chance that the old man’s account was not completely accurate because of two key factors: the timing and the sound. The old man claimed he heard the deceased’s body fall as the train passed by the house and that he went from his bedroom to the hallway and then to the front door only to see the boy running down the stairs. He (Fonda) recreates the man’s apartment by estimating the number of feet between where his bed and front door would be, then imitating the old man’s limp, he reenacts that it would take a little over 40 seconds.
Fonda also disputes the reliance on the memory of the boy when it came to his alibi stating that the traumatic nature of the scene of the interrogation might have shaken him. They also unravel the stabbing technique and the woman’s credibility because of her short-sightedness.
Some of the jurors, however, were influenced by their personal prejudices. Juror No. 10 spewed racist remarks as soon as he got a chance to explain his point of view. Referring to the boy as “one of them” and iterating that such criminal activity was expected because of his race. Later, we see No. 10 going on a rant saying “and let me tell you, they don’t need any real big reason to kill someone, either’’. He unknowingly sets himself up because later on when he says he believes the account given by the woman across the street who was the only eye-witness to the alleged crime and Fonda asks him why he chooses to believe her and she is also ‘one of them’. Juror No. 4 also exposes his discriminatory views by saying children from slums are trash and ultimately end up in a life of crime. Fonda reminds them that personal prejudices always end up obscuring the truth.
Later on, Juror No. 11 calls out Juror No. 7 for not having integrity – a value that is crucial in the judicial system – because he changes his vote just for the sake of wrapping up the verdict. Juror No. 7 is not able to see that any verdict given has effects and consequences that can be felt throughout the fabrics of society.
The film’s director, Sidney Lumet, said one of the decisions he made about the camera shots was using a ‘lens plot’ where he made the jury room smaller as time passed. Slowly by slowly, he moved to longer focal lengths resulting in a semi-claustrophobic feel as the intensity of the dialogue and body language of the characters increased. His camera work is beautiful with the additional use of close-ups and long takes to build up the tension that carries the whole film. Additionally, the screenplay and acting is impeccable with the lines ricocheting from one actor to another while creating an incredible flow through time.
Each juror has specific ideologies, characteristics and shortcomings. But in the end we see them accepting the power they hold as representatives of the judicial system, channelling their empathy and seeing the ramifications of their choices when they step out of the mob mentality. Something we should all emulate.