12 Angry Men (1957)
Give the viewer the least expected surprises in the most unexpected ways. This is an unwritten rule that aptly complies with writing fictions and screenplays for cinema alike. It’s hardly imaginable to think of scripting a screenplay as a nail-biting-thriller just by make few men sit and chat. Reginald Rose originally penned 12 angry men for a teleplay which was aired back in 1954. Later collaborating with Sidney Lumet and Henry Fonda he wrote it for the film of the same name in 1957. Hailed as a cult classic today among cinephiles, 12 Angry Men has its take on the prejudiced and biased mindsets that often speak judgmentally. It might also be understood as a work that indirectly puts the judicial system, its modus operandi precisely in prosecuting the convicted.
The film opens in a courtroom with the judge letting the jury to decide on the fate of a teen boy convicted of stabbing his father. As its first degree murder charge the judge insists the jury’s decision be unanimous. The 12 jurors sit in a room to discuss. No juror is given a name and addressed with numbers instead. To cut the lengthy processes of discussion the jurors take a preliminary voting on the boy. While all the rest vote him guilty juror #8 vote him not guilty. Hence discussion becomes obligatory.
The narrative structure of film is inventive for its time. While most of the films adapt flash back sequences to narrate the before-story, Reginald takes a road untaken. The audiences get to know the entire story of the convicted boy through the details the jurors provide during discussions. This boy, Jewish and a slum dweller, has an unfortunate childhood, constantly abused by his father. He is now the convict, charged for stabbing his father and killing him. On the prosecution side two witnesses testify against him which every juror, except one, find convincing. While everyone is arguing against the boy, juror #8 questions the authenticity of the prime testimonies.
The film at the psychological level tackles the methodology of our judicial system and the way it decides the fate of the convicts. The judgment always relies completely on the testimonies and evidences. All those punished may not be guilty for all the evidences may not be true. The actuality may hide somewhere. The film takes this philosophical stand.
Some of the highlights of the film make this work unique. The juror from the start insists only of the alternate point of views. He establishes his points logically and reasons out and cross examines the evidences those every other don’t. He refuses to accept the popular opinion and resists the judgmental mentality of the fellow jurors. In very few scenes we get the glimpse of the mentality of the jurors differing widely. Each approaches the case from their biased point of views and is more convinced about their view and unwilling to think from an alternate angle.
The first frame of the film opens with a tilt up shot of the camera looking at the court building and the shot cuts to the interior where the camera now tilts down. The former could be taken as the approach of a citizen with submissive, seeking justice. The later may be the visual representation of the judicial system looking down the seeker.
The plot takes the opportunity to explore more vividly on the human behavioural patterns, via the demonstration of the jurors. We see people who talk for the sake of winning the argument and also those who speak so as to bring out the truth. As a poster quote one could say ‘Their NO costs a life and YES saves it’.
Undoubtedly this cinema would find itself a place in everyone’s favourite list easily. But during its release though it was overwhelmingly received among critics it doomed in the box office. The film managed to gain the public attention it actually deserves only after it got aired in the television. In fact much of its revenue game from video rental and sales.
This is a rare film to have come out from the 60’s Hollywood, the period where the cinema-scope colours and glitzy mega budget films kept firing up the screens.