Once again, we have an example of a movie that was made some time ago, and then there was a more recent remake. Though I do not believe I have seen it, I recall the more recent version of 12 Angry Men (1997). Hence, when somebody simply puts that title on my social media as a suggestion for a film to watch, I have to do some guessing as to whether the one from 1997 was meant, or the one from 1957. Since it was my dad who put that one forward, I figured he wanted the original. I am not trying to make a joke about my dad’s age. If you looked at him, you probably would not be able to tell how old he is anyway. As he does not pay attention to film the same way I do, he probably did not realize they had done an update to his pick. To be fair, I had forgotten about it. It was not until I looked it up to watch it that some faint bell in a distant corner of brain rang as to the newer one’s existence. At any rate, I watched the first and it was pretty good.
Despite the title, 12 Angry Men is not about a bunch of dudes wandering around upset about the kinds of things that bother the average person. Instead, it focuses on a jury. They have been summoned for a murder case, and they are deciding the fate of a young man (John Savoca) accused of killing his father. After the judge (Rudy Bond) gives the jurors their instructions, they are adjourned to a room where they are asked to unanimously decide whether or not the young man is guilty. If they do come to that decision, it will mean the electric chair. Once they are locked in the room where the overwhelming majority of the film takes place, the lead juror, or Juror 1 (Martin Balsam), arranges the first vote. On the surface, it seems like an easy choice to make, and many of them are talking about their plans for later that evening. This is how it is for eleven of them. The twelfth, Juror 8 (Henry Fonda), is the one dissenter. Most of the others are not pleased by Juror 8’s apparent obstinacy. Juror 7 (Jack Warden) has tickets to a baseball game that night. Juror 12 (Robert Webber) is more interested in the finer points of the advertising business. Juror 8, though, is insistent that they not rush to judgment. Besides, he feels like the facts of the case are not as neat and persuasive as the others see them. This is news to the majority of them, and the more forceful of them want to see the accused punished as soon as possible. This is particularly the feeling of Juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb). He has an estranged son, and he sees in the person on trial much of the same qualities of his rebellious son. Hence, his motivation throughout is to see the accused pay because he cannot make his son do the same for the pain he has caused his father. It should be mentioned that the facts of the case do seem compelling. There was a witness to the murder. There were others that placed the young man at the scene. They could positively identify the murder weapon as having belonged to the accused. Everything points to a guilty verdict. At first, Juror 8 only has the possibility that the young man might be innocent. From there, he takes on each of the so-called facts of the case, and in so doing makes it apparent that there are undeniable holes in every aspect of what the prosecution presented. Slowly, he begins to turn the more open-minded jurors to his side. With each passing vote called for by Juror 1, or any of the others as is their right, the number of people favoring innocent swings to Juror 8’s side. The last four were the toughest to crack. Juror 7 finally gives in when his motivations for making any decision are called into question. Juror 10 (Ed Begley), who sees the accused as “one of them,” meaning a lowlife from the wrong side of the tracks, is shamed into acquiescence after a racist rant about the young man’s “kind” that none of the others can stomach. The cold and calculating Juror 4 (E. G. Marshall) is convinced when his main contention for guilt, the eye witness, was proved to be an eyeglass wearer. As such, the witness could not be sure of what she saw because it was dark, there was some distance, and an elevated train went by at the moment of the killing. The last to crack is Juror 3. Despite all the holes poked in the case, he remains steadfast that the accused needs to pay for his supposed crimes. It is only when he realizes that he is letting his bitterness over his own son affect his thinking that he finally opts for innocent. What was once eleven to one in favor of guilty, has now become a unanimous innocent decision. They then all quietly go their separate ways and the movie ends.
Nearly the entirety of 12 Angry Men takes place in one room. It is a hot summer day, and they cannot get the fan to operate, which I suppose is what adds to the tension. I think the makers thought it needed more, thus you get a rain storm. These are artificial constructs. The real tension is what to do about the young man on trial. Obviously, it is a serious decision, and that is why this Catholic appreciated Juror 8. Officially, the Catholic Church does not condone corporal punishment, which, of course, includes the death penalty. If you asked your average pew dweller how they feel on the subject, they will probably tell you that they have no qualms about killing those accused and “proved” guilty of murder. I put “proved” in quotation marks because every once in a while, a jury of our peers will get it wrong. There is a saving grace in our judicial system in that anyone on trial for a criminal offense must have their guilt demonstrated “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This means that it has to be an established, metaphysical fact that a person did commit the crime for which they are accused. This is especially important in murder trials where, if they get it wrong, a second innocent person could die beyond the victim or victims. As with everything our Church teaches, I stand with the concept that no one deserves to die for their sins, at least not at our hands. If somebody is truly unrepentant for what they have done, there is an ultimate punishment for that person far worse than anything we can imagine. Yet, more often than not, even when a person truly is guilty of such a horrendous act as murder, they will want to make amends in some fashion for what they have done. That is all God wants for us, and usually a genuinely repentant heart will not return to their former ways. The cavalier way the majority of the jurors in the film want to consign the young man to a gruesome execution speaks to the casualness with which this subject is viewed in society as a whole. Thank God for people like Juror 8.
For those more used to excitement in films, 12 Angry Men might not be for you. It is a philosophical film that will make you question your preconceived notions about criminals and the justice system. Any time you can challenge stereotypes, I believe you are doing a good thing. As such, I recommend this movie.