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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.