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The “12 Angry Men” Film by Sidney Lumet Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Jul 13th, 2022

Introduction

12 Angry Men (1957) is a classic courtroom drama directed by Sidney Lumet in times of so-called “McCarthyism” — the age of strong right-wing campaigning in American social, cultural, and political life. Unlike many courtroom movies, 12 Angry Men does not state the verdict regarding the actual defendant’s guilt (Ebert). Instead, it focuses on humans behind the U.S. judicial system — the ordinary people, who have the power to decide fates, and how do they use that power. By choosing that approach, Lumet created an image of the 1950s American society and highlighted its critical underlying issues: injustice and bigotry. While uncovering the fragility of human life in the jury’s hands, his film also provided valuable insight into psychology. Although 12 Angry Men was aimed at revealing the cultural and social problems of 1950s America, these problems and the film itself are still relevant for contemporary perspective.

Cultural and Social Importance

The plot of 12 Angry Men is centered around a murder case in which an 18-year-old young man allegedly stabbed his father to death. A standard 12-man jury has the responsibility of returning a unanimous verdict after the deliberations. The defendant will receive a death sentence if found guilty, so his life depends on the juror’s decision. Despite the instructions from the judge, the jurors are ready to shut the case and essentially send a teenage boy to his death. Only one man, Juror 8, casts a not guilty vote, reminding the others about the possibility for reasonable doubt. After the long, winding struggle, Juror 8 manages to win over the whole jury to his side of the argument. In the end, every juror casts a not guilty vote, even the most belligerent and indifferent to the defendant’s fate.

Despite its seeming simplicity and one-dimensionality, 12 Angry Men can offer much more than the story of a single hero defeating the antagonist. Given the atmosphere of McCarthyism, Lumet had to finish the film with a “happy ending.” To some extent, 12 Angry Men can be considered patriotic: after all, the American judicial system allowed one brave man to turn the tide and save a possibly innocent life. However, Lumet exposed several issues of 1950s America in his “praise,” and these issues are seemingly relevant not only for today but also for the future.

Justice

Juror 8, a protagonist played by Henry Fonda, represents justice itself — he is calm, impassive, and follows the judge’s instructions. It is crucial to understand his motivation: Juror 8 does not necessarily believe that the defendant did not commit murder; however, he believes that the evidence against him is doubtful. Therefore, Juror 8 simply exercises his right, or even the obligation to express a reasonable doubt. He has no preferences; he is not trying to be a bleeding-heart hero or please anyone. Juror 8 simply wants to evaluate all possibilities before sending a man to certain death (Toney). In other words, he acts as a responsible citizen and a proper juror. The other jurors, who previously had no courage, or wish to examine the evidence, must have felt the justice of Juror’s 8 attitude. As a result, his efforts were enough to gradually turn the tide — an important message for those who think that one individual can achieve nothing against the unfavorable odds.

Prejudice

While Juror 8 represents impartial justice, his main opponents — Juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb) and Juror 10 (Ed Begley), are driven by prejudice. The reasons behind their prejudices are different; however, they still force them to disregard justice and cast guilty votes despite all logical arguments pointing at the weakness of the evidence. Juror 3 cannot see the reason due to relations with his son. The young man could not stand how his father tried “to make a man outta him” for years, hit him in the jaw, and ran away. In some sense, Juror 3 expresses his anger and frustration at his son by trying to avenge the defendant’s father.

Juror 10 is biased in a different way — for him, social status and ethnicity are the perfect reasons to assume the defendant’s guilt. The fact of belonging to an ethnic minority or socially vulnerable group should not mean that the defendant is necessarily innocent. However, Juror 10 makes such ridiculous claims and assumptions to support his case that even Juror 3 turns his back on him. If anything, he only discredited his position and discouraged the other jurors from casting a guilty vote. Therefore, 12 Angry Men shows a valuable example of how prejudice impairs the vision and obscures the truth.

Logic Versus Emotions

The courtroom became a battlefield between logical and emotional arguments. As the proceedings were getting more and more heated, all 12 men turned quite emotional. However, Lumet clearly showed his sympathy for logic and common sense. Juror 8 attempted to bring logic into a “straightforward” case. Several other jurors, for example, 1, 4, 9, and 11, approved his approach and helped to sway the less decisive colleagues. In the end, the logic and careful deliberation ensured the just resolution of conflict.

On the other hand, Juror 3 tried to immediately assert his dominance over the jury on the emotional level. He became increasingly enraged as Juror 8 undermined his self-imposed authority over the deliberations. In the end, Juror 3 experienced an emotional breakdown, showing his true motivation behind the guilty vote. In his example, Lumet explained that one should beware of overly emotional individuals who try to dominate the minds with aggressive rhetoric.

Filming Style

Throughout the film, Sidney Lumet used camera work to gradually create tension from what seemed to be a usual business. The film begins with a judge presenting the case in a formal, almost bored manner. The camera slowly passes over the jurors, the strangers, who soon will be deciding the young man’s fate. As the action goes on, Lumet unfolds what he called, in his own words, “a lens plot” (Rapf). By slowly shifting to longer lenses, the director creates an illusion of the courtroom becoming smaller and smaller. An already confined space starts feeling almost claustrophobic, and the brewing conflict between the jurors builds the lead to the climax point. As tension mounts and more jurors change their votes, Lumet adds more low camera angles and close-ups to underline the growing drama (Renee). Additionally, he uses close-up shots to stress the antagonism between Jurors 3 and 8. Juror 8 mostly stays impassive and composed, while his opponent tries to look intimidating and delivers aggressive speeches. Ironically, Juror 3 says, “you’re not going to intimidate me,” as he tears up a photograph of him and his son and starts crying. Given the lack of scenery and effects, camera work has a crucial impact on film’s perception.

Conclusion

12 Angry Men is still relevant, not only for America but for humanity in general. This film provides a proper understanding of justice as treating everyone equally, regardless of ethnicity, race, or social status. It also teaches to avoid prejudice in decision-making, no matter what is the reason behind them. In addition, Lumet exposed demagogues and emotional speakers, who distract people from critical thinking. Overall, 12 Angry Men is a perfect example of how it is possible to create a great film with a single room and several talented actors.

Works Cited

Ebert, Roger. Roger Ebert, Web.

Rapf, Joanna, E. Library of Congress, Web.

Renée, V. No Film School, Web.

Toney, Nick. “ Cinemania, Web.

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