Lawyers, judges, precedent, legal statutes, expert witnesses, forensic evidence and the power of subpoena all play their litigious parts in the criminal justice system. They also make for much ado when it comes to dispensing drama for the American moviegoer. But little thought or screen time has really been given to the body that must discern all the technicalities to make the outcome compatible with simple human nature and fairly preserve the fine line between life and death. As such, 1957’s 12 Angry Men does not fail in its deliberation.
The Sydney Lumet film opens as the trial of an 18 year old Puerto Rican boy ends for the murder of his father following a family fight. Dispatching the jury, the presiding judge details their duties in rote form – thus essentially juxtaposes a system that is supposed to presume innocence. The jury then clearing the courtroom, the bewildered boy clearly has a read on his chances and understands his fate is no less reassured upon the faces of twelve men who look nothing like him.
Fading out, the detachment extends seamlessly into the jury’s chambers – the twelve making idle chatter around a case that seems open and shut. As such, they quickly choose a foreman and take to a show off hands.
11 go up to Henry Fonda’s one. “There’s always one in every group,” bemoans Jack Warden as Yankee tickets for later that day, “burn a hole in his pocket.”
In the face of this, the American film icon presents his veto under a cloak of caution in order to slow the wheels of justice to a speed more in step with the monumental death penalty decision in front of them. But he also understands the inherent flaws read on the face of the accused at the outset.
Citing some of the omissions from the defense lawyer’s presentation, Fonda poses the public defenders limits. “How interested in this case is he really and how many other cases are on his docket. There’s no money in it for him and nothing to gain politically.”
But that’s all inconsequential, according to Fonda’s key opposition. “He got his fair trial and he’s lucky he got that,” Lee J. Cobb defends the excess of the system as he sees it.
Ed Begley then broadens the scope by finally stating what the subtext had been implying from the beginning. “You can’t trust those people, they are all born liars,” he reasons.
Up against all that and varying degrees of apathy, Fonda masterfully chips away at the evidence and sways opinion amid the rapidly rising temperature of the room.
Beading perspiration everywhere, E.G. Marshall serves as an apt coolant to Fonda’s dispassionate onslaught. “Don’t you ever sweat,” asks Jack Warden.
“No,” he calmly responds among the swelter, and Fonda has one piece of key evidence to refute before Marshall can throw his lot with the new majority.
Well, we know how that goes, but just because all the facts are finally in order doesn’t mean everything else falls into place. Cobb holds a personal bias against the boy that burrows deep into his soul and serves as a metaphor for a system that seeks to eliminate emotion irrationality from the process, but must ultimately fail because human beings are at the heart of it.
We can only hope that there are more Henry Fonda’s out there than all those both complacent and angry enough to follow along.