To most people, this was a clear-cut case. A young man accused of patricide with a gun, a mountain of evidence against him and a jury of 12 people that are more concerned with getting home as early as possible than to serve in the name of justice. After the hearing, the jury was sent into a small room to come to a singular decision - a simple choice of guilty or not guilty. The vote was cast, hands shot up in agreement to the guilty verdict, yet one man stayed his hand: juror number 8 (Henry Fonda). In the face of incredible unilateral pressure, he was the only one that dared to look closer at what had perspired that fateful night of the crime. At that point the entire room goes up in a furor, the tension rises, the temperature shows no sign of going down and as the sun sets alongside the ensuing discussions, things only get more complex.
In principle, this set-up is incredibly simple, most of the film happens in one room with a small cast of only 12, all focusing on one set plot point: did the accused perpetrate the crime? The simplicity, however, is only superficial. Every single juror in the room has his own story, his own background, that not only explains what lies behind their decision in the vote, but also highlights the overall character of each juror outside the courtroom. There's the father that's slowly but surely grown distant from his only son; there's the foreigner who's just trying to keep a low profile. One juror is timid, another brash, even another cold and calculating. So what seems to be a room full of like-minded people (with a single exception) progresses into one that is filled with arguments, conflict and turmoil. It's within this battlefield of emotions that the film gets its strength. It may be from its theater-inspired atmosphere or the increased focus on argumentative discourse among (quite) intelligent men, but the film is simply magical. Transforming a jury room into a place of almost palpable excitement is no easy task.
Yet this is what Sidney Lumet (director) and Reginald Rose (screenwriter) do with relative ease, squeezing every ounce of character from each juror. As mentioned earlier, this resembles as much a theater piece as it does a movie, lending it a touch of proximity that would otherwise have been impossible to achieve. Together with the brilliant acting, the transformation from the mundane to the fascinating (noteably something that Sidney Lumet achieves later on in Dogday Afternoon) is accomplished. Though some actors play far bigger roles than others (the salesman for instance gets only a few lines), no-one feels out of place or inconsequential. The big fish is of course Henry Fonda, who plays the single dissenter who has the gargantuan job of convincing everyone else to take a few steps back to analyze the situation. Oddly enough, though, his character isn't one of brimming self-confidence and a foolproof plan of execution. He often seems unsure and in fact confirms that feeling on more than one occasion - his desire lies in holding a fair trial, not one that is governed by a unilateral verdict on either side. With every step in the deliberation, he ponders about each piece of evidence, its implication and connection to the murder. Even the viewer can't help but feel that everything points to a guilty verdict for the boy. However, like pieces of a puzzle, juror number 8 puts forth simple truths that had been forgotten in the heat of the moment, not to mention the heat of the day. Thanks to the movie's set-up, even the person watching gets to join in (albeit indirectly), putting things in perspective as the tale goes along. Other great performances include that of E.G. Marshall as a stern pragmatist and Lee J. Cobb as a distraught, obstinate father. Lee is particularly memorable, being one of the most interesting jurors in the room and one you get to know incredibly well as time passes.
Thanks to its mesmerizing script, diverse and talented cast, and contained direction, 12 Angry Men is doubtlessly a classic. In fact, it is one of the prime examples of brilliant filmmaking from its time. Don't doubt whether or not you should see it; the only question is when!