Film & TV

Iconic Films: ‘12 Angry Men’: A Masterpiece of Taut Drama and Intense Acting

TIMEJanuary 8, 2022

Approved | 1h 36min | Crime, drama | 10 April 1957

As someone who was never impressed by courtroom dramas in films or on TV during his younger years, it’s taken me awhile to warm up to them. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that a close relative used to binge-watch Perry Mason episodes ad nauseam—so much so, that I felt I could practically pass the bar by the time I was 16 years old.

However, after seeing such exceptional courtroom extravaganzas as 1982’s “The Verdict” with Paul Newman and 1962’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” with Gregory Peck (only this past year), I’ve come to appreciate the genre. And having recently watched the highly regarded courtroom drama from 1957 “12 Angry Men,” I’ve been swayed even more.

But “courtroom drama” is a bit of a misnomer. You see, just as with the other aforementioned films, most of the action in “12 Angry Men” takes place outside of an actual courtroom. Instead, things play out near the conclusion of the legal process, as jurors have retired to the jury chamber to discuss the case’s details and determine its outcome.

’12 Angry Men’

In this case (pun unintended), the life of a Latino teen (John Savoca) lies in the balance. The youth has been accused of stabbing his physically abusive father to death with a switchblade knife.

What I initially found fascinating about the film is how most of the details of the murder trial aren’t disclosed right away. Instead, they are gradually unveiled as the 12 male jurors discuss and argue the fine points of the case—many of which were glossed over during the actual trial where it seems that expediency took precedence over actual facts. In other words, it seems like a rushed job.

Most of the jurors simply assume that everyone will agree that the boy is guilty, since there’s a murder weapon (the knife) and an eyewitness’s supposed account of the murder. But one man isn’t so sure.

As most of the men mull about in the hot and stultifying jury chamber—anxious to arrive at a quick conclusion so that they can get on with their lives—Juror No. 8 (Henry Fonda) has some reservations about the case. He broods while gazing out of the room’s windows. His calm and quiet demeanor belie a steel-trap mind bolstered by many years as an architect.

henry fonda in 12 angry men
Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) isn’t sure the case is closed, in “12 Angry Men.” (United Artists)

On the opposite side of the spectrum are men like Juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb), a blustery hothead who likes to throw his weight around to intimidate those who don’t agree with him. There’s also Juror 7 (Jack Warden), a sports junkie who’s upset that Juror 8 is hesitant to arrive at a guilty verdict since drawing things out might make him late to a baseball game. To him, deliberating the fate of the young man’s life is little more than an inconvenience.

man looking out window and man clipping nails
Opposites don’t attract: Juror 8 (Henry Fonda, L) and Juror 7 (Jack Warden), in “12 Angry Men.” (United Artists)

Through the dialogue between the men, bits of their personalities are revealed by degrees—similar to peeling back the layers of an onion. For instance, while Juror 4 (E.G. Marshall), a stockbroker, seems to be similar to Juror 8 when it comes to reasoning and deduction skills, it becomes apparent that he is frigid and detached. Like Juror 7, he regards the initial 11 to 1 jury vote as little more than a disruption of his workday.

One by one, the jurors are swayed by Juror 8 as he begins to poke holes in the prosecution’s case. Things that may have initially seemed trivial or swept under the rug are brought up by the doubting architect for deliberation—much to the ire of the men who would like to get on with their lives.

Convincing Performances

Most impressive about this movie is the lifelike and natural exchanges between the men. As the discussions heat up, one character might talk over another—so convinced he is of his point of view. I wouldn’t doubt that at least some of the exchanges were deftly improvised. With this ensemble cast of magnificent actors, what could have come off as disjointed instead seems hyperrealistic.

Another thing I appreciate is how the actors controlled their bodies. While I’ve read that this film is bereft of action, characters don’t have to be swinging at each other with wild haymakers for there to be action.

For example, the way that Lee J. Cobb’s character maneuvers his barrel-chested body around within the cramped jury room crackles with menace. Anyone who disagrees with him is met with sudden shouting combined with intimidating walk-ups and aggressive body posturing—action enough to convey barely contained threats of violence.

reenacting the crime in 12 angry men
Juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb, R) attempts to bully Juror 8 (Henry Fonda), in “12 Angry Men.” (United Artists)

Under the direction of Sidney Lumet and starring some of the finest character actors of the day (or any other day for that matter), the confined space of the jury chamber serves as a pressure cooker of sorts—squeezing the most out its ubertalented cast.

This film is not only a gripping exposé of the inner workings of the legal process but also a realistic depiction of how ordinary people from different backgrounds relate to one another. “12 Angry Men” is a masterpiece of filmmaking in every conceivable way.

‘12 Angry Men’
Director: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam
Not Rated
Running Time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Release Date: April 10, 1957
Rated: 5 stars out of 5

Ian Kane
Ian Kane is an U.S. Army veteran, author, filmmaker, and actor. He is dedicated to the development and production of innovative, thought-provoking, character-driven films and books of the highest quality. You can check out his health blog at IanKaneHealthNut.com