12 Angry Men (1957)

I’ve lost track of the number of people who’ve recommended this film to me. Sabrina Mathew’s blog was where I first read a review of 12 Angry Men (and a comparison to Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, which I’d seen ages back). Anu reviewed this film on her blog, too, and blog reader oldfilmbuff recommended it to me. So: Sabrina, Anu, oldfilmbuff: this one’s for you. Thank you for telling me about this one.

A tense scene from 12 Angry MenThe twelve angry men of the film’s title don’t look angry when we first see them. In fact, most of them look downright bored. Or at least apathetic. The film opens in a courtroom, the camera dwelling very briefly on the accused, a dark-haired youth, before it moves on to the members of the jury and the judge. The judge announces that the defence and the prosecution have both pleaded their cases over the past several days (six days, to be precise, as we later learn). It is now time for the jury to withdraw and to give their decision.

The judge reminds the jury of two things: firstly, that this is a case of murder and that the accused, if found guilty, will be executed. Secondly, that their decision must be unanimous. They can pass a decision of guilty or not guilty only if each member of the jury is convinced beyond any reasonable doubt of the accused’s guilt or innocence.

In the courtroom - judge and jury
That done, the scene shifts to the small conference room where the members of the jury are now to be shut in, with a guard on the outside. They have to remain inside, with only a restroom attached to the conference room, until they come to a decision.
The first few minutes help set the atmosphere. In various ways.

Firstly, it establishes the fact that it’s very hot. One man, a salesman, wiping his sweating face and neck, says that this is predicted to be the hottest day this year. He tries to turn on the small fan mounted on a wall, but it refuses to start. A couple of men open the windows. Nearly all are perspiring and obviously uncomfortable. A good reason, as someone says, to get this over and done with.

A hot day in a cramped little room
As it is, it’s an open and shut case, as somebody else points out.

This is the second aspect of the atmosphere: the mindsets of the jurors. They have all been summoned here to sit in judgment over a man with whom they have no connection. They are the laymen, the non-judicial, so-called unprejudiced representatives of the people. They have heard the evidence, they have to decide the fate of the accused.

The jury sits down
These are men drawn from very different backgrounds, different walks of life. One is an architect; another’s a football coach. One man is a watchmaker, of European origin. Yet another is from the wrong side of the tracks—he grew up in the slums. There is the flippant advertising executive, who jokes about the entire affair and seems inclined to treat this as just another job they must complete quickly.

Some jollity and laughter, ill-placed
That, sadly, appears to be the view of more than just one man. The salesman is impatient to get this over and done with because there’s a ball game he doesn’t want to miss. Others are snappish (perhaps the irritability is exacerbated by the heat?) and urge the foreman of the jury—Juror#1 (Martin Balsam)—to hurry up and get everybody to take a decision.

The foreman (we do not learn the names of these men—except two, and that too right at the end of the film) proposes the simplest way of coming to a decision: by casting votes.
It seems a simple enough exercise. Several of the faces here show complacency: this is going to get done fast. And it does seem to be that way. One after another, beginning with Juror#1 and going all the way to Juror#12, the men state their opinion. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty… until it is the turn of Juror#8 (Henry Fonda), who says “Not guilty.”

The dissent sparks off such a furor—with some men confronting Juror#8 right there—that the foreman has to call everybody to order so that the rest of the jury gets to cast its vote too. The others vote the expected way. 11 say guilty. 1 says not guilty.

Votes are cast
And that, really, is it. If they cannot come to a unanimous decision, they have to sit and discuss the case. Whether or not someone is getting late for a ball game, whether or not it’s hot and terribly uncomfortable.

There is, initially, a barrage of questions and remarks—some of them downright insulting—aimed at Juror#8.

Juror#8 pleads his case
In the course of this, the details of the case begin to be revealed. All of it, not through flashbacks or other scenes, but through the words of the jurors themselves, and through two exhibits—the switchblade knife that was the murder weapon, and a diagram of the apartment where the murder was committed.

It emerges that the accused, who lived with his father right next to the train tracks, had grown up in an atmosphere of violence and cruelty. He has been convicted, in the past, of comparatively minor offences. This time, at 10 minutes past midnight, an elderly neighbour heard the accused quarrelling with his father (with whom he lived). The neighbour said he heard the youth shout, “I’ll kill you!” This was followed by the thud of the falling body, and when the neighbour—who lived in the flat below—came out, it was to see the youth going downstairs.

There’s more evidence, even more damning. The switchblade knife is of a rather unique pattern, identical to one bought recently by the accused. He insists his knife fell out through a hole in his pocket.

The murder weapon: a switchblade knife
Worse, there’s actually an eye witness who’s seen the crime take place. This is a woman who lives in the apartment directly opposite the one where the man was killed. The windows of the two homes face each other across 60 feet, with a train track running between. On the night of the murder—at 12:10—the woman, unable to sleep, and tossing and turning in bed, had glanced out of her window as a train went by. Through the windows of the last two carriages of the passing train, she had seen the young man—the accused—stab his father in the house beyond the train.

The more belligerent of the jurors turns on Juror#8. How can he deny evidence like that? It isn’t merely circumstantial. The old neighbour heard what he heard, and saw the boy go down the stairs. The woman opposite actually saw him kill his father. It is downright idiotic to imagine him anything but guilty. A few of the men—especially Juror#3 (Lee J Cobb), Juror#4 (EG Marshall) and Juror# 10 (Ed Begley) are especially aggressive or assertive in their opinions.

A face-off between opposing sides
The others are either annoyed at him for delaying proceedings and prolonging things, or are (among the more mature, and there seem to be relatively few of these) cautiously curious. Why does Juror#8 think the boy is innocent?
Juror#8 tries to reason with his colleagues. This, he reminds them, is a case of execution. The boy’s life is in their hands. A wrong decision, and they could well send an innocent man to the electric chair.

That is what the rest of the film focuses on: how these twelve men, , drawn into two clear opposing camps (and heavily skewed, too—11:1 is not an equitable ratio), begin to interact. How Juror#8 sets about showing the others why he thinks the accused should be acquitted. How the others gradually start changing their minds. How the day changes, how group dynamics change, how everything changes…

Glancing through the IMDB message board discussions for 12 Angry Men, I was a little taken aback at the number of people discussing whether the boy had done it or not. While the details—the facts—are all in place, making this an interesting set-up for a detective story (with Juror#8 being a pretty good sleuth), for me the crux of this superb film is not whether the boy was guilty or innocent. This film is about people. Not the boy, but the men deciding his fate. It is about their prejudices, their hatred, what they stand for.

This is about the man who, when he realizes that at least some of the jurors are simply voting ‘guilty’ because the boy is not one of them, speaks up—because he, too, grew up in the slums and has been at the receiving end of that very same prejudice. It is about the man who, despite having withstood all pressures to sway his opinion, finally does accept the logic of a truth he has seen for himself.

It is about the man who is so self-absorbed that he doesn’t really care whether the boy is guilty or not; all he wants is for this long-winded discussion to get over.

The tension mounts
It is about following the herd and being safe. It’s about flying alone. About standing up for what is right, versus being blinded by one’s own prejudices. It about complacency, arrogance, ‘us’ and ‘them’. And the blurring of the lines when ‘they’ meet ‘us’, or willy-nilly become a part of ‘us’.

12 Angry Men is listed at #7 on IMDB’s list of top 250 films ever made. That’s, of course, an extremely subjective listing—as any of this type would be—but if I were to list the best films I’ve seen, this one would certainly be among my top ten.

What I liked about this film:

Just about everything, from the acting (Lee J Cobb, as Juror#3, is particularly brilliant) to the story and screenplay (by Reginald Rose) to Sidney Lumet’s excellent direction. Among the things that work especially well is the way the film is picturised, beginning in the relatively spacious courtroom, and then shifting to the smaller room where the jury is closeted. Lumet begins by depicting a scattered bunch of men who have little (or nothing) in common—by showing them sprawling all over the room, some of them at the windows, others lounging on chairs, one in the restroom. Even their expressions at this stage are relaxed: they are not yet angry, because to almost all of them, the decision is clear.

Then, as the story moves forward and the tension begins to mount—as the anger builds—the camera work changes, with closer and closer shots, until almost every other frame is filled with the face of one or the other of the jurors.

Lee J Cobb as Juror#3 in 12 Angry Men
I admire, also, the fact that the feel of this entire film is so taut. We are not distracted by externals. Except for three minutes, including the courtroom scene at the beginning and a very brief scene at the end, 12 Angry Men is completely shot in that little conference room. Combined with the dialogues, the cinematography, and the story itself, this makes for a film that really pulls a viewer in. I could feel myself in that hot, stuffy room, wondering what the verdict would be…

What I didn’t like:

Nothing. Period.

Comparisons, comparisons:

Oddly, when I was watching 12 Angry Men, one Hindi film that came to my mind was Kanoon. A very different film, of course, but one which touched on a common theme: that of capital punishment, and how easy it can be for a flawed decision to snuff out an innocent man’s life.
Not that Kanoon was a remake of 12 Angry Men. No; 12 Angry Men was remade, in 1986, as Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, which I first saw on TV around the time it was released.

To compare Ek Ruka Hua Faisla to 12 Angry Men is like comparing apples to… well, wax apples. Because Ranjit Kapur (who wrote the screenplay) and Basu Chatterjee (who directed the film) have remained so true to the original [without giving it credit, it may be noted] that there is very little perceptible difference from the story, setting, and plot of the Hollywood original. True, the language is different (and even there, some almost verbatim dialogues are brought in, merely translated).

The jurors’ identities, even their numbers, are the same—with Juror#8 (played by KK Raina) being the one who first believes in the innocence of the accused, with Juror #3 (Pankaj Kapur), Juror#4 (SM Zaheer) and Juror#10 (Subbiraj) being among the most stubborn believers in his guilt. There are some minor differences—for example, shots are shown of the old man and the woman who were presented as key witnesses for the prosecution, and there’s a brief (wordless) scene of the jurors visiting the scene of the crime.

Where 12 Angry Men far exceeds Ek Ruka Hua Faisla is in the overall characterization of the jurors. In the Hollywood film, there are only two men who are downright aggressive in their attitude towards the others: Juror#3 and Juror#10. The others occasionally get annoyed, but it’s a more contained anger than is shown in Ek Ruka Hua Faisla. In Chatterjee’s film, except for a handful of the jurors (Juror#4, 8 and 9 among them) almost everybody else comes close to fisticuffs with someone else during the course of the film. Most of the characters are too highly-strung to be believable.

A scene from Ek Ruka Hua Faisla
Oddly enough, the one actor I did remember from my early viewing of Ek Ruka Hua Faisla—Pankaj Kapur—proved, during this rewatch, one of the most irritating elements of the film. He plays an elderly man with a paunch (his posture is rather obviously contrived) and a habit of stretching his lips and licking them, lizard-like, especially when he gets emotional. This got so vastly annoying by the last half hour of the film that I found it difficult to watch.

Pankaj Kapur with KK Raina in Ek Ruka Hua Faisla
“So?” said my husband when I told him about these two films. “Should I watch both? One? Which one?”

One, I said. It’s not as if Ek Ruka Hua Faisla is bad—it isn’t; it’s a taut, mostly well-acted, well-scripted and tense courtroom drama, without songs or other such distractions. But it is, at best, a copy of a far superior film.

Watch 12 Angry Men. It is brilliant.

Note: I discovered an odd coincidence here, which links Ek Ruka Hua Faisla to the last film I reviewed (Boot Polish). Subbiraj, who plays the cantankerous and extremely prejudiced Juror#10, was the husband of Naaz, who had played the central role of Belu in Boot Polish.

Subbiraj as Juror#10 in Ek Ruka Hua Faisla

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29 thoughts on “12 Angry Men (1957)

  1. 12 angry men is a brilliant film, among the best ever made IMO. I am surprised that you had not seen it till now, just cause it gets talked about/recommended so many times. I would have envied you the fact that you were seeing it for the first time, but I remember that when I revisited the film a few years back, it drew me in emotionally just like the previous times I had seen it. Each time I saw the film, I was about a decade older and I found myself focusing on different aspects of the film. The first time, it was more about whether the accused was guilty or not. The second time, it was about the motivations and characters of the jurors. And the third time, my focus was almost completely about the direction and the way that Lumet has created an atmosphere – the heat exacerbating their frustrations, and as you pointed out the way they bunch together as the movie progresses.
    One thing that I am surprised that you did not dwell on was Henry Fonda. Every time I saw the film, I was amazed at his ability to hold his own, both as the character and as an actor, against a group of angry people, all of whom are strong characters and are great actors in their own right. The script is actually quite centered in the way it projects each person (except one, if I recall right). There are really no villains per-se. But Henry Fonda held my attention each time I watched the film.
    Now to the comparison to “Ek ruka hua faisla” – I have only seen this film once, when it was first shown on Doordarshan in 1986 (just before I left India to come to the US). I remember liking it a lot at that time, and it led to my thinking that this was the golden age of Doordarshan (with Hum log, Khandaan, Yeh jo hai zindagi, films like this one and Tamas, etc). I think this film was shown on TV before it was shown in theaters (if it ever was). Even though I own a copy of the film, I have not gotten around to watching it again. Primarily because of what you mentioned DO – the fact that when I think about the film in retrospect, it was an over-wrought film with some over-acting – something that Hindi cinema has a hard time getting away from. And so, I have pulled back each time I pick up this film to watch. Based on your refresh of some of the details of the film, I may revisit it in the next few weeks.
    It always bothers me that Hindi cinema has not really mastered subtlety. It is not that it has never happened, but it is rare. I don’t know if that is because of the sensibilities of the larger audience that is consuming the cinema or if it is what is considered “good” by the people behind the camera. If you did a blog (completely subjective of course) on subtle films in Indian cinema, I would be really interested in knowing what 10 films you would pick.
    I will end by saying I am glad you watched this classic film and COMPLETELY empathize with the fact that you could find nothing wrong with it.

    • Sangeetbhakt, you bring up some very interesting points in your comment.

      When it comes to Henry Fonda as Juror#8, while I agree that his acting is good (and, equally importantly, the character is very well-etched – and an admirable one), somehow what stayed with me was the acting of Lee J Cobb. I guess it’s to do with the fact that Juror#8 is easy to like – he’s kind, sensitive, balanced, everything one expects of a ‘hero’, so to say. Juror#3 (Cobb) is belligerent and self-opinionated and rude, so he’s easy to dislike. But Cobb manages to do such a good job with that role, even lending it nuances (that scene towards the beginning, where he’s showing the photo of him with his son), that he becomes a more interesting character, and it’s easier to understand his motivations.

      You are so right about Hindi cinema not doing subtlety well! I was thinking the same thing when watching Ek Ruka Hua Faisla. Except for KK Raina and SM Zaheer, everybody was so over the top, it really got on my nerves. (And if you go to the IMDB message boards for the film, you’ll see lots of praise for Pankaj Kapur’s acting). Most Indians, it seems, prefer OTT acting. :-( Finding 10 Hindi films that are subtle might be a real problem. Teesri Kasam, I suppose, might be one. Let me think…

  2. Ever since I first watched Ek Ruka Hua Faisla on Doordarshan, I have been wanting to see its original 12 Angry Men. I think it is there on You Tube, but I never had the time. Going by the Hindi version, I agree with you there is nothing not to like about this film, as I was quite involved while watching the Hindi version, so the original has to be good. I think I should now make time for this one— Shilpi

    • Do make time for this one, Shilpi! It deserves time, it’s such a gripping and brilliant film. And (even though I thought, till a few days back, that Ek Ruka Hua Faisla was excellent), it’s far better than the Hindi version.

  3. Great review, Madhu… When you mentioned you were reviewing a film that I (among others) had recommended, I must confess that it never occurred to me that it would be 12 Angry Men. :) I must say I’m thrilled you liked it as much as I did. *grin*

    • ps: Thanks for identifying Subbiraj for me. I have seen this actor in many TV serials – never knew his name, nor would I have connected him to that Subbiraj who was Naaz’s husband. :)

      • Yes, I’ve seen Subbiraj in various TV serials back in the 80s (he also acted in a number of films through the 80s and 90s, though because I’ve watched very few films from that period, I don’t really recall him in anything except the TV shows). It is a coincidence that I should have discovered him in this, because while his face was familiar to me, I’d never even heard of him until I read a brief bio of Naaz on Cineplot last week.

        • Naaz and Subiraj (man, the Kapoor family resemblance is strong!) acted together in Sohrab Modi’s “Mera Ghar Mere Bachche.” The lovely “baharon se puchho” was picturized on them. I know you may be tempted, but take my advice and don’t watch the movie.:-)

          • This one?

            What a lovely song; I hadn’t heard it before. And there is a certain chemistry between the two of them.

            I will take your advice and steel myself to not watch the movie, even though I’m very tempted! ;-)

    • I loved it, Anu! It was such a brilliant film. Of course, having seen Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (and having heard praise for 12 Angry Men from several people), I expected something pretty phenomenal, but this exceeded my expectations. Thank you!

  4. Madhuji,
    Great review. I watched 12 Angry Men for the first time. Earlier I had watched Ek Ruka Hua Faisla on Doordarshan. Both the films were good and engrossing. But 12 Angry Men stands out. I feel,the story is more about personality conflict, racial and class prejudices influencing and blurring the judgement of ordinary people. It also depicts how personal experience and emotions affect our opinion and judgement.

    • Thank you, Venkataramanji! Yes, I agree both films are good and engrossing. For me, too, though, 12 Angry Men is the better film. That perhaps has something to do with the fact that it’s more subtle. Also with the fact that I find it hard to stomach plagiarism, and Ek Ruka Hua Faisla was a stellar example of the art of copying something.

  5. Its such a great study of human nature – how our experiences and prejudices shape our perceptions and also how often we tend to go with the herd.

    While I love this film, I must admit to liking Ek Ruka Hua Faisla better, probably because I watched it first, and also probably because I can recognize the characters’ prejudices and preconceptions better in the Indian context.

    In Chatterjee’s film, except for a handful of the jurors (Juror#4, 8 and 9 among them) almost everybody else comes close to fisticuffs with someone else during the course of the film. Most of the characters are too highly-strung to be believable.

    :D That sounds very much like the participants of “discussions” on all the “news” channels in India! I was shocked at the language and argument etiquette displayed by most of the political leaders who turn up at these programs – its not hard to imagine them coming to fisticuffs if they were all “discussing” in the same room (they seem to be scattered across various locations). So, by extension, not hard to imagine our fictional jurors doing the same. (OK, so I never watch news programs in Canada, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen them in India because these programs weren’t around on TV when I left a decade ago.)

    • I wasn’t going with the herd, bollyviewer, merely expressing my own opinion.

      Before I watched 12 Angry Men, I thought Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (from what I remembered of it, since I hadn’t seen it since the 1980s, when I was a teenager and a lot more forgiving) was very good indeed. Now I see its characters as too overwrought (I must admit I don’t watch TV, so I’ve no idea how ‘discussions’ on news channels play out). Plus, Pankaj Kapur’s acting got on my nerves no end – it was just too, too hammy.

      There is also the fact that Ek Ruka Hua Faisla is, all said and done, a completely plagiarised work. The dialogues are mostly translations; the entire plot is lifted as is from 12 Angry Men, and there are only a very few changes from the original – like the fact that the salesman has tickets to watch a film, not a baseball match, or that the man who knows how to wield a switchblade knife has a scar to prove it.

      And, of course, it’s factually incorrect, since Ek Ruka Hua Faisla is set in the 80s while the last case to be tried by a jury in India was the Nanavati case, sometime in the early 60s, if I’m not wrong.

      So, yes. Give me 12 Angry Men, any day.

  6. I did think you were going with the herd! I am sorry if that’s how my comment came across (happens when you comment at 3:00am!). I was referring to a human desire to not go against the majority, either because the matter is not important enough or because the majority is vocal and vociferous and normal people want to avoid a confrontation. Here, there are some jurors who view the facts through their perceptions, and some who just go with the herd because they don’t care or are not assertive enough to stand out against the crowd. The jury room in this film is a beautiful microcosm of human nature.

    And I was not denigrating 12 Angry Men either – it is definitely a better film than Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, I just have a soft spot for the latter. (Though I was very sad when I first discovered that it was a copy!)

    And do tune in to some news channels between 7-9:00pm (just a few minutes is enough!). My father calls them entertainment channels! ;) People shout and screech at each other, talk simultaneously with other show guest, exchange insults and generally indulge in the kind of behaviour that would never be tolerated in any debates I remember from college days!

    • I’m assuming that was a typo in sentence#1 of your comment, bollyviewer! ;-)

      I happened to be at the Bangalore Literature Festival earlier this year, and attended a session which was very political in nature, and everybody around me later said that it was basically like a TV discussion. So now I know what it’s like. And, thank you, but that was more than enough for me! I came out of that – even though I’d only been in the audience, not one of the panelists – feeling as if I’d been put through a wringer. :-D

      Talking about going with the herd, there’s actually this one juror – the ad guy – who personifies that when he keeps changing his decision, based on how the tide turns. He has no opinion of his own. I guess that’s how a lot of people go. Pretty much like saying Guide and Mother India are among the best Hindi films ever made, simply because everybody says so…

  7. Surely one of the best films, ever made!
    Loved every frame of it. I was surprised to read that people at IMDB are discussing that if the boy is guilty or not. It is like discussing Ustad Zakir Husain’s locks rather than his mastery over the tabla.
    Anyway, when I saw Ek Ruka Hua Faisla on DD in my teens, I was spellbound. Found out that it was a copy of 12 Angry Man the next day in the TOI.
    Such a beautiful play of emotions on different levels. Love it!

    • “It is like discussing Ustad Zakir Husain’s locks rather than his mastery over the tabla.

      LOL! Harvey, you’ve hit the nail on the head. It is absolutely inconsequential, isn’t it? And the odd thing was that it wasn’t as if there was only one thread on IMDB about it – there were lots, dissecting all the evidence and trying to figure out whether he did it or not. As if 12 Angry Men was a mystery, first and foremost. Those people certainly missed the point.

    • Such a relief to know I wasn’t the only one who found him irritating! Everybody on IMDB – and just about everywhere else, it seems – was raving so about Pankaj Kapur’s acting, I began to fear there was something wrong with me.

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