They’re talking about a switchblade. If the murder weapon in question is one of a kind, linking the young defendant to his father’s death, they can return a guilty sentence — and the mandatory capital punishment — in mere minutes. “But what if it isn’t?” Juror 8 asks. He pulls an identical knife from his pocket and sticks it into the table. Still incredulous, the eleven angry men now on their feet leer at him. “It’s just a trick, a stunt,” they say, the story he’s telling so unlikely — another person bought a knife identical to the one the boy owned and murdered the father with it while the boy was out — that “the odds are a million to one.”
“It’s possible!” he implores them, setting off the chain of events that make Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” (1957) such a searing portrait of the American justice system. And so reasonable doubt is born.
Lumet’s feature-film debut, available Tuesday in a beautiful new transfer from the Criterion Collection, marked one of the high points of midcentury American social realism. As Thane Rosenbaum writes in his liner notes, Lumet was one practitioner of many, ranging from Elia Kazan (“On the Waterfront”) to John Schlesinger (“Midnight Cowboy”). But something about Lumet’s work– unflashy, utilitarian even–stands out: its formal and emotional rawness, as though he were filming our unhealed wounds. It’s a style that permeates nearly all of his subsequent films, from the incomparably crazy “Network” to the bloody, caustic “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” In “12 Angry Men,” though, it’s at its peak, emerging almost fully formed from his moral fabric.
Juror 8, cut from the same cloth, is played by Henry Fonda, the only bonafide star in sight (although anyone familiar with film and television from the 1950s is sure to recognize Ed Begley, Lee J. Cobb and other character stalwarts in the ensemble). Upright, emotional but not hysterical, Fonda plays his character with such cool aplomb that his passionate moments take on extra weight — as when he yells “it’s possible,” voice straining with a tinge of desperation. In this cramped, sweaty room, it’s easy to be angry, or dismissive, or distracted, or self-serving, or otherwise unfit to make the decision about whether someone will live or die. What it’s not easy to be is calm enough to understand the consequences.
Shot in gritty black-and-white with lenses ranging from soft focus to telephoto, “12 Angry Men” (like much else in the canon of realism) has too often been maligned for its formal simplicity. Beautiful it isn’t, but neither is it quite so simple as it appears. Varying the depth and composition, the temperature and precipitation, the delicate leadership dynamics and the intensity of the anger, Lumet is less directing than choreographing, assembling the pieces for maximum effect.
What occurs as Juror 8 begins to win converts to his side bears that out. Emotions begin to simmer rather than boil over (though the holdouts are fierce), and it turns out the powers of persuasion work in more than one direction. Yet even in the gradual discovery of reasonable doubt there remains some intimation of fear — fear that you’ve got the wrong guy, or that you’ll let the right guy free, fear that you’re not thinking clearly, not being fair, being too hard or not being hard enough. The speed with which they are swayed, though I think they’re swayed in the right direction, is nearly as disconcerting as the speed with which they want to convict in the film’s harrowing first ten minutes, all so they can get to the Yanks game. But that’s what our justice system is about, for better or worse — the ability to convince and be convinced, the ability to tell a story, and to buy into one you’ve been told. I’m not sure how much credulity I’d give to the attorneys in the murder trial at the margins of “12 Angry Men, but I buy the story Lumet’s telling without pause. There’s no reasonable doubt in my mind.