Sidney Lumet’s Complicity
Reginald Rose shared most of the blame for the manipulation going on in 12 Angry Men. However, director Sidney Lumet also is complicit. To sell the audience on Juror 8’s arguments, he relied on what I call the Henry Fonda Mystique. Because Fonda’s entire onscreen presence gave off an aura of Christ-like nobility, heroism, patriotism and integrity, very few audience members dared to question the integrity and motivation of the characters he was playing.
Lumet was aware of this hypnotic effect that Fonda had on audiences and relied on it as a crutch, much like he did in his 1964 movie, Fail Safe. You can especially see Lumet playing up Fonda’s mystique in his shots. Fonda is initially shown with a look of wide-eyed innocence and humility. As the movie progresses, he is increasingly cool, calm and collected, with cigarette in hand, almost with an expression that one could interpret as haughty.
In stark contrast to Fonda, all the other actors are shot looking as sweaty as possible and in various negative states, such as tiredness, anger, tenseness, nervousness, rage and uncertainty. This further underscores the Fonda Mystique, which in turn telegraphs to the audience why Juror 8 should be trusted implicitly while the other jurors shouldn’t be. He has things under control and therefore comes from a position of rationality, self-discipline and unquestioned wisdom. The other men don’t. They are impulsive, sensitive and too emotional for their own good.
I think this is a flawed analysis. Henry Fonda was the top billed star. But that doesn’t make him the hero of the story, or even the main prtotagonist. He is actually petty and unprincipled. He seems to have little conviction about the case. He is just willing to waste people’s time, and willing to tamper with evidence. It is a defect of the movie that Fonda allowed his role to shine more than it deserved to.
The movie doesn’t teach people to subvert logic unless juror #8 is the only one you pay attention to. The logic of the noise and illumination from the el train (which persuaded #5 and #6), and the eye witness’s glasses (which persuaded #4), and the angle of the stab wound, is compelling and reasonable.
If there’s a hero, it is Jack Klugman’s character — the first to change his mind based on the evidence and not (as with Fonda or Joseph Sweeney) some notion about how much time the decision ought to take. EG Marshall was highly principled and, though he was the next to last to change, he did so based on evidence. He was better than Fonda, who was more concerned with virtue signaling than justice. The message of the movie is that the minds of 12 men, even angry ones, can reach the right verdict DESPITE extremely flawed haters (Lee J Cobb) and lib snowflakes (Fonda).
Apart from that, you are 100% right about how wrongly the movie depicts jury deliberations.
I will disagree with you about the angle of the stab wound being reasonable or compelling. Whoever killed the father used a switchblade knife and made an overhand stab would. But #8 tries to convince everyone that someone using a switchboard knife would use it underhanded, not overhanded. What? The murderer used a switchblade knife and used it overhanded. So why would I believe someone using a switchblade knife would NOT use it that way? The murderer DID use it that way. The argument of #8 in the case of the switchblade knife seems to be, “A murderer would not use a switchblade knife in that manner even though the murderer just did use it in that manner.”
Well I think the inference is that sometimes else not accustomed to using such a knife stabbed the boys’ father, i.e. not the defendant.
So the murderer was not accustomed to using such a knife but he was able to murder a much larger man than himself with just one stab? Odd.
You are 100% wrong. In every single way.
12 Angry Men is one of my favorite movies of all-time though, I believe it is still a timeless masterpiece, sorry.
Well he doesn’t care what we think, yet he expects us to spend a few minutes reading about what he thinks? To me he’s reading far too much into all this, which is why his theories are so long and convoluted. The peice failed to do what Mr Davis did (convince me and all the others were wrong)! Fonda’s character does a very clever, and to me believeable, job on pointing out oversights during a trial that he sees as being on sided and poorly reaserched. Moverover his character isn’t perfect as he has no answer when the stockbroker say “It may of been two too many, every one has a breaking point “. All this must of been weighing on his mind as the trial went on as this caused him to go out and buy the knife. As for the analysis of the woman and the old man, these went bigoted hypocrisies, they were intelligent observations partly made for personal experiences. I won’t be getting rid of my copy.
Thanks for reading and stay safe.
This analysis makes more assumptions than actual observations.
Explain what these assumptions are. Don’t just “cut and run.”
You’re another one in the long list of people who absolutely didn’t get the point the movie was making…
What point was the movie making?
I’m gonna go out on a limb here and state that I completely agree with your article – this movie is incredibly manipulative and dishonest, especially in the context of jury deliberation. The antics going on in the film would simply not fly – as you said, the purpose of a jury is to determine guilt or innocence based on the evidence presented, period. Had the film been in a different setting, for instance, 12 people at a party discussing a certain case where they knew the facts and debated them (assuming that these 12 disparate people could stand to be in the same room that long if they were there voluntarily), it might have been a thought provoking discussion of guilt and innocence, or whether we can believe what we see and hear. In this case, it’s completely wrong.
Two things always bugged me about the movie that i don’t believe you brought up (full disclosure, I am NOT an attorney, just someone with a fair amount of common sense):
1. How in the world did Juror 8 even get on the jury to begin with? One question that attorneys ask during jury selection in a capital murder case where the death penalty is involved is “Would you be able to find a defendant guilty knowing that he would face the death penalty” or words to that effect. It’s a standard question now, and I’m assuming it was back in 1955 as well. If Juror * was honest, he would have let his views be known in the beginning, which is another way the filmmakers cheated. Lawyers are not stupid – anyone with Juror 8’s beliefs on the death penalty would have been dismissed as a potential juror way before the trial begins.
2. The second that Juror 8 brought in the second knife, that would have been an automatic mistrial if the judge or any of the attorneys found out about it. Jurors are not supposed to bring in their own evidence, they are supposed to work with what they have been given. And for Juror 8 to go around investigating during deliberation is completely wrong (that’s one of the many reasons that juries are sequestered). This sort of thing does leak out, and if anyone learned of Juror 8’s actions in that regard, it would cause a nightmare of epic legal proportions.
Hi, Scott, thank you for your comments! I always appreciate it when readers actually too the time to read what I’ve written and actually add something fruitful to the discussion rather than just leave “drive by comments” where it’s obvious they never read past the headline or even the first paragraph.
On point #1, you are a 1000% correct. Yes, potential jurors are briefed with very selective questions in order to screen out people like Juror #8 all the time. And you’re right that lawyers are extremely smart when they go about it. Just from a quick glance or maybe a question they ask in pre-screening, they can size you up immediately and know what questions to ask to either nail or recruit you with.
For example, the first time I was pre-screened for a trial, it was for a tort case. The first thing the lawyer asked me was about the McDonald’s coffee case from the 1980s. I just started laughing hysterically, as in, “OMG! BUSTED. You are soooo good!” Meaning: I knew why I had been asked that. The plaintiff’s lawyer had sized me up, knew I hated tort reform and immediately nailed me right off the bat. This is how pre-screening works and yes, like you said, the lawyers would’ve not only pre-screened Juror 8 with questions about his feelings regarding the death penalty, they would’ve sniffed him out immediately.
There’s another crucial thing that the movie conveniently leaves out in terms of how trials are conducted in the real world–that all the Woulda Could Shouldas that Juror 8 brought up about the witnesses would’ve been tested during cross-examination or backed up/dismissed by expert witnesses. The way 12 Angry Men plays it, you would think that the Old Man with the Limp or the Middle-Aged Woman with Nose Marks just gave testimony, got off the stand and went their merry way. But that’s not what happens in a trial. Witnesses are then cross-examined to test holes in their testimony. Expert witnesses are also brought in to back (or counter) what witnesses say happened.
Going back to the movie, you can be sure that the defense attorney would’ve grilled the Old Man to hell and back about his testimony in light of his limp, would’ve grilled Nose Marks Lady to hell and back in terms of how clearly she had seen the murder. You can be sure that an expert witness would’ve been brought in to back up or dismiss anything they said. But Rose has the jurors argue about their credibility using their testimony as a starting point of debate, as if to imply that there had been no cross-examination or expert witness at all.
All of this lying by omission is yet another reflection of how manipulative 12 Angry Men is. In lying by omission about pre-screening of jurors, expert witnesses and cross examination, Reginald Rose leaves the false impression in the minds of audiences that there isn’t a system of checks and balances in a jury trial that screens out shady jurors, or tests the credibility of witnesses who might be lying or confused.
Point #2: Yes, the purchased knife is a clear case of misconduct and would’ve resulted in a mistrial. Juror 8 decided to reject the evidence brought forth in the trial itself–as well as the investigation’s conclusion–to create his own investigation and bring in his own evidence. You’re not supposed to do that. Not only does it violate protocols, as one of the jurors pointed out, if you’re just going to reject everything you heard and saw in a trial, why have trials to begin with? In other words, why attorneys, lawyers, witnesses, etc., if in the end you’re going to say, “It’s all crap. I don’t believe any of it”?
Reginald Rose was keenly aware that this was jury misconduct. It’s why he has the Foreman (played by Martin Balsam) written to be a passive wimp who kind of “gives up” his leadership position because of how hot and frustrated he is, allowing for Juror 8 to act in a foreman-like capacity and not be called out on his behavior. Realistically speaking, the Foreman would never, ever in a million years do what Martin Balsam’s character did. Literally, the Foreman’s job is to call out jurors when they violate protocol and take control if they threaten to. But the audience is manipulated into accepting the passivity of the Foreman “giving up” and letting the other jurors take over, based on this idea of, “Aw, look how hot and frustrating this proceeding is. It’s only natural that the Foreman just kind of throws up his hands and lets Juror 8 and the others get carried away. Cut him some slack.”
i agree with this article I have told people for years that the movie is about a slick talking manipulative person subverting justice, not guaranteeing it. Relate that to some politicians who know that smooth talk is more important than actual facts to many voters.
Ironically, I will be playing juror number 3 in a couple of months at a local playhouse. I picked this part because juror number 3 is the man telling the truth no matter how he tells is.
Juror 8 did surmise that perhaps the defendant had a stupid lawyer.
Juror 7 – You sound like you know my brother-in-law.
A very good essay. I also am one who used to LOVE this movie. Arguments (no pun intended) like your’s have helped me see the light. Although I still think this movie has some good points and it’s message isn’t completely bad. My objection to it isn’t as detailed or researched as your’s. I simply see juror #8 as someone who wasn’t merely demanding guilt be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. #8 wanted guilt proven beyond ALL SHADOW OF A DOUBT. And that is NOT the standard our legal system demands.
I think the reason this movie gets cut so much slack might be because of, believe it or not, To Kill a Mockingbird.
In that film, there is a blatantly racist judge and jury, who are presented overwhelming evidence *during the trial itself* that the defendant is Not Guilty. The entire point of that film is about the sheer pointless cruelty of bigotry and adherence to the status quo allowing an innocent man to be killed under the guise of law and order. The all-white jury instantly votes him guilty, neglecting all moral duty to logic and honesty, and the audience is rightfully supposed to be aghast at this. The film’s deconstruction of the setting, and the narrator’s innocence lost at witnessing this injustice, is what made it such a powerful lynchpin for public outcry and pressuring the real world for change.
In contrast, the insidiousness of 12 Angry Men is that it doesn’t show you the trial. You don’t get to see whether or not the court was a noose-happy pack of racists with a hateful foregone conclusion of guilt. It instead just shows you the jury deliberations, and it implants the *assumptions* that all of the Guilty votes were made out of such lack of morals and logic by setting up easy straw men for the author-avatar (Juror 8) to bowl over.
This is just my own opinion, bordering on hypocritical ad hominem myself, but to me it’s almost as if 12 Angry Men was written directly in response to To Kill A Mockingbird, out of a gnawing moral outrage at the jury’s handling of the trial in *that* story and the author’s growing negative perception of all jurors as being biased, rushed, not caring, essentially all the character flaws he piled into that one room. The story is one of extremes, of exaggerations, of convenient deus ex machina on Juror 8’s behalf (which you pointed out) that saves his butt from any criticism. The premise couldn’t possibly have worked out in any universe in which any of the 11 other jurors were even slightly different. We are inclined to root for Juror 8 against all odds, but the universe is actually on his side.
All things considered, the movie is still compelling to watch. If you suspend your disbelief and watch it as if you *know* that the defendant is innocent (like in Mockingbird), then it’s a masterpiece and Juror 8 is a genius. But when translated to the real world, it’s terrifying to think that someone could take an open-and-shut murder case and sabotage the jury with a secret second trial-by-strawman in such a way that it overturns a unanimous verdict, letting a murderer go free. It makes me wonder if the movie reached its height of popularity during the OJ Simpson trial…
Hi, sorry but ever since I first itsaw it as a kid I had the impression that some members of the jury was biased because of underclass the accused came from. Indeed that was clearly stated in the film, other members had their own reasons not to to their job properly. For his he judge just looked disinterested in ‘yet another’ murder trial of this sort and I did note that the young man on trial appeared to be of Italian or Latino descent, but that was all. Regards.
@Robert V: Hi, and thanks for your comments.
I addressed this very thing you’re saying later on in the article. If someone is judging something according to the facts–and is using those facts to support why they feel the way they do–it doesn’t make sense to argue that we should reject their argument because they are biased.
Again, say a woman quite clearly stabbed her children to death, no question–open and shut case. A juror says they think she is guilty because she had a history of abusing her children, told people she wish they had never been born, then went clubbing the night they were killed. It doesn’t make a difference if the juror also says stuff like, “Besides, you know how mentally unstable women are.” The juror still argued the facts of the case to make their point.
On the other hand, if all the juror could argue that the defendant was wrong because all women are mentally unstable, then it would make sense to reject their argument.
Ah, then I apologise. I didn’t read it all in detail as it was a little long. However they dismissed the defendant because of who he was, not just of what he did. I still think it’s a brilliant film, well acted and way ahead of its time. Altogether a must for students, be they at school or just movie buffs.
@Daniel Morris: I would not be surprised if this movie had, in fact, been done as a response to To Kill a Mockingbird. Something that I began noticing about Sidney Lumet movies is that they were either populist or reactionary. They were populist in that they pandered to the lowest common denominator. They were reactionary, in that they reacted to things in over-the-top, extremist ways.
Case in point: in the 1950s and 1960s, there was–for lack of a better term–Holocaust porn. As you can imagine, Holocaust victims were portrayed as salts of the earth and Nazis as the bad guys. Then along came The Pawn Broker, and audiences were given a Holocaust victim who was portrayed as an unfeeling misanthrope financially exploiting black and latino victims in Harlem while living in a beautiful house out in the suburbs. The movie pretended to be giving a “balanced” view but when you think about it, it peddled the old antisemitic tropes about Jews exploiting minorities.
There’s a lot of this very subversive reactionary/populist stuff going on in Sidney Lumet movies and 12 Angry Men definitely falls in this vein. Literally, its entire premise is, “The entire system is so corrupt, you should undermine it at any cost, even if it seems to be working the way it should, even if everyone–the lawyers, the criminal investigators, witnesses, and jurors–is reasonably intelligent and conducted the investigation and trial to the letter of the law and according to protocol.” So, again, I wouldn’t be surprised if screenwriter Reginald Rose hadn’t written the play for the reasons you suggested.
BTW, it’s not ad hominem or hypocritical to question someone’s motives if it’s clear that some kind of bias is playing a part in why they feel the way they do. Reginald Rose’s stance is suspect, because he used so many underhanded screenwriting techniques to confuse or mislead the audience about his characters and the way the US legal system works. That is why it’s fair to start calling his motives into question. If his motives were pure, why rely on so many illogical leaps of logic, subversive writing techniques and bad faith arguments to make his (or Juror 8’s) case?
Not only is “The switchblade…a master stroke of manipulation,” it also works against Juror #8 in that it shows us Juror #8 was not really interested in justice. Think about it. In at least one version of this play/movie, it is stated that the trial took three days. And yet Juror #8 had purchased the knife to try to prove the boy’s innocence BEFORE the last day of the testimony. He had not even heard 1/3 of the evidence before he made up his mind to try to get the boy off on the charges of murder. And yet others tell us we should believe in Juror #8’s honesty? In his open-mindedness? Juror #8 didn’t even listen to all the evidence presented in the trial before he made up his mind. He was buying a knife to argue for the boy’s innocence before all the evidence was even presented.
Thank you very much for your very insightful commentary. You’re 100% correct. It’s as though the very second the switchblade was presented as evidence, the wheels in Juror #8’s head turned and he went, “I’m looking for that switchblade as soon as we’re done for the day. I don’t care what new evidence or testimony I hear tomorrow or the next day.”
A person could go through and destroy everything the #8 character said. For example, he has convinced many that there is no way that the old mad could have heard the kid yell “I am going to kill you” or heard the body fall to the floor. Okay, let’s say he didn’t hear any of that. Then why did he call the police to report a possible murder? There would have been zero reason for him to call the police.
Exactly right. There are a lot of illogical moments like this in the film, because the screenwriter kept exploiting the tendency of audiences to not pay too much attention to the details and to also take things at face value. You’re right that if the Old Man hadn’t heard anything, he wouldn’t have called the police. But by saying that he made up the story for the attention, 12 Angry Man is violating its own internal logic.
I agree !00% with your analysis of this overrated film.I tried to watch it again the other day but it’s just so ridiculous.Many of the cats in this film are so over written they become nothing but caricatures.
The film goes off on more stupid tangents than seems possible.
Fonda’s character in particular is so irritating that i find myself thinking that if i were in the room with this moron all i’d want to do is beat this know it all’s head in.It doesn’t help that the film presents no clear motive for Fonda’s bleeding heart.
Lastly,i personally find Jack Klugman intolerable in any situation.So that doesn’t help.
Ha! You really hit the nail on the head. Juror 8 is the textbook definition of smug and sanctimonious, which is why there were so many “angry” men. There never really were 12 angry men in this movie, just one really, really smug, condescending man and 11 other men who justifiably found him irritating.
BTW, did you ever watch the TV version of The Odd Couple, because that show actually did an episode making fun of that movie, as well as showing how irritating Juror 8 was, with Jack Klugman playing one of the jurors who wanted to throttle the Juror 8 character (played by Tony Randall). IIRC, the punchline to the joke in this episode is that after the defendant is let off the hook, he winds up in prison anyway because he assaulted Felix in the elevator as they were both leaving the courthouse.