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12 Angry Men

Updated on March 30th, 2019

A jury holdout attempts to prevent a miscarriage of justice by forcing his colleagues to reconsider the evidence.

The defense and the prosecution have rested and the jury is filing into the jury room to decide if a young man is guilty or innocent of murdering his father. What begins as an open-and-shut case of murder soon becomes a detective story that presents a succession of clues creating doubt, and a mini-drama of each of the jurors’ prejudices and preconceptions about the trial, the accused, and each other. Based on the play, all of the action takes place on the stage of the jury room.

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Movie Reviews: “12 Angry Men

Movie Review: Time Out

12 Angry Men

Pound for pound, Sidney Lumet still has the finest filmography of all the New York giants (sorry, Marty), and to think he began his features career with this brilliant character study is to blanch at the man’s gifts. Set in a single jurors’ room over the course of a long summer’s day and evening, Reginald Rose’s scenario started off as a teleplay—just as Lumet himself came from the quick-fire world of live broadcast drama.

But the director seized on the technical freedoms allowed him by an ace cameraman (On the Waterfront’s Boris Kaufman), ratcheting up the claustrophobia with every close-up. Often, these dozen jurors seem on the verge of blows; the movie, dealing with a murder trial, is about persuasion, but it also showcases New Yorkers’ distinct talent for coexisting in tight quarters.

Yet who would mind such company? Justly, 12 Angry Men is celebrated for its uniformly terrific cast, chiefly Henry Fonda’s soft-spoken advocate and Lee J. Cobb’s resistant blowhard, racked with daddy issues and not about to let an ungrateful teen go free. A closer look at the performances reveals a minimum of Method fussiness, the grace notes of Jack Warden’s jokey baseball fan and Robert Webber’s Mad Men–esque smoothy landing in quiet harmony. Meanwhile, too few films take on the art of arguing as a subject; we could certainly use more of them, but until then, Lumet’s window into strained civic duty will continue to serve mightily.

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Movie Review: Rogerebert

12 Angry Men

 

In form, “12 Angry Men” is a courtroom drama. In purpose, it’s a crash course in those passages of the Constitution that promise defendants a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. It has a kind of stark simplicity: Apart from a brief setup and a briefer epilogue, the entire film takes place within a small New York City jury room, on “the hottest day of the year,” as 12 men debate the fate of a young defendant charged with murdering his father.

The film shows us nothing of the trial itself except for the judge’s perfunctory, almost bored, charge to the jury. His tone of voice indicates the verdict is a foregone conclusion. We hear neither prosecutor nor defense attorney, and learn of the evidence only second-hand, as the jurors debate it. Most courtroom movies feel it necessary to end with a clear-cut verdict. But “12 Angry Men” never states whether the defendant is innocent or guilty. It is about whether the jury has a reasonable doubt about his guilt.

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Movie Review: Cinemaphile

12 Angry Men

There is a grueling paradox to the concept of putting legal decrees in the hands of normal citizens sitting inside a jury box. While democracies function better when they are influenced by the conviction of commoners exercising their voice, a system that necessitates their use in a decision in which livelihoods are at stake is not easily defined by black and white principles; with variables such as human error consistently undermining the dependability of due process, one often finds themselves at odds with the moral crisis of the situation.

None, perhaps, is as significant as those involving defendants facing the death penalty – a notion that certainly remains persistent in a time when capital punishment laws remain such a hot button. How can one be sure, after all, that legal findings are sound enough to support such a result? Doesn’t it raise more questions about the obligation we owe to our fellow man than it does to our allegiance to the hammer of justice, even apart from the certainty of a result? In the era before forensic and DNA specialization could be used for something conclusive, gray areas must have felt like tethering weights to one’s heart and mind.

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