Twelve Angry Men
Quiet Dignity and Iron Integrity
As legend would have it, there once was a man who was on trial for public drunkenness. He showed up for his trial late in the day, after a trip to his neighborhood bar, and drunkenly demanded a trial by jury.
The judge decided to humor him, and sent the bailiff into the lobby to round up some jurors. The bailiff returned with twelve lawyers, who were summarily sworn in. The drunk was given a brief, cursory trial — which seemed to make him happy, if nothing else.
The jury went out; it did not come back. After twenty minutes of waiting, the judge summoned the bailiff, “Go in there and see what’s taking these clowns so long. It’s time to go home, already.”
The bailiff came back, shaking his head. “Have those lawyers reached a verdict yet?” the judge asked.
“No, your honor.” came the response.
“Why the devil not?”
“Well, your honor, they’re in there making nominating speeches for who’s going to be foreman.”
You never know what to expect out of a jury. There was a story on the wires the other day that a deadlocked jury actually flipped a coin to decide the verdict. Juries in civil cases occasionally use “quotient verdicts” to determine damages; everyone writes a dollar figure on a piece of paper, you add up the amount and divide by twelve to get the damage figure. Jonathan Harr, in his modern litigation classic A Civil Action, describes the utter confusion of one jury confronted with a “special verdict” that asked them to figure out when a chemical leak from the defendants’ factories reached an underground aquifer; their guesswork helped torpedo the case of families who’d lost loved ones to leukemia.
Twelve Angry Men helps balance the scales a little, showing what juries can be and what they sometimes are. It begins and ends in the jury room of a New York murder trial. We walk in knowing nothing of the case, nothing of the witnesses, nothing of the lawyers, and nothing about the jurors themselves. We learn slowly, bit by bit, piece by piece, the things we need to learn to make up our minds, about the trial, about the jurors.
I caught Twelve Angry Men on AMC recently, probably the second or third time I’ve seen it. I was surprised that I didn’t remember much of the facts about the murder case. I was most pleased. (You may know the drill; Law and Order comes on TNT, you’re sitting on the couch, snugly wrapped up in a Mexican blanket, peanut butter sandwich in hand, and you slowly come to realize that you’ve seen this episode recently enough that you know who the killer is and how the trial ended, and reluctantly switch over to ESPN.)
Anyway, the details aren’t important. What is important is the acting and the way the script uses the actors. The script all but defines the twelve jurors by their weaknesses. Martin Balsam, the foreman, is nervous and doesn’t really want the responsibility. E.G. Marshall, the businessman, is buttoned-down and reserved. Jack Warden, the salesman, is a lazy slob ready to get the whole ordeal over with. John Fiedler (who, of all things, has been doing the voice of Piglet in the Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons) is overly timid. The darker side of human nature is represented by Ed Begley’s blindly prejudiced juror and Lee Cobb’s bully.
This may sound like oversimplification, it is not. Each of these characters is as complex as they can be, given the limited time they spend in the jury room. You can see the quality of acting most clearly in the scenes when characters are silent. Watch Jack Klugman stare at his hands while Marshall denounces slum-dwellers. Check out the look on Cobb’s face when he holds the switchblade. Watch Jack Warden’s slouch. Look into Marshall’s eyes when he finally changes his mind. See what everyone else is doing during Begley’s rant.
Of course, the major heavy lifting is done by good old reliable Henry Fonda, the man in the white suit, the man whose eloquent persuasion is the key to the movie and the ultimate verdict. No one else could have played this role in quite this way, with the fundamental quiet dignity and iron integrity that Fonda brings to the silver screen. This is one of the landmark performances of Fonda’s career, and is worth seeing for that alone.
The script has some sharp, clever twists. Begley is ready to convict on the grounds that the defendant “don’t speak good English.” “Doesn’t speak good English,” corrects immigrant juror George Voskovec. Fonda questions the intelligence of the defendant’s lawyer, and Warden gruffly replies, “Sounds like you’ve met my brother-in-law.” And these are just the little grace notes; the real meat of the script is compelling and involving.
Twelve Angry Men is a black-and-white classic, with outstanding camera work that presages the hand-held movies of today. It’s got Henry Fonda in a classic Henry Fonda role, and an outstanding, diverse supporting cast. (Well, as diverse as twelve white guys get.) It’s a relevant film; the concerns about bad court-appointed defense lawyers in capital cases could be raised today. But most importantly, it gives us badly needed hope for the integrity of our jury system and its value as a bulwark against hate and prejudice.
And if that doesn’t convince you… hey, would you rather have jury duty? Didn’t think so.