Reginald Rose’s Cynical Enterprise
As the famous saying goes, looks can be deceiving. Nowhere is that truer than with 12 Angry Men. The premise of the film is that a young disadvantaged teen is being tried for murder, at a time when the only penalty was the electric chair.
When the trial closes, 11 jurors immediately render a verdict of “guilty.” One of them, Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) is shocked and horrified that his fellow jurors are rendering a verdict almost immediately, as if they’re not conscience of the fact that they’re basically sending someone to death. And, as someone who’s conscientious, he’s not comfortable with the idea of rendering a verdict so quickly. He wants everyone to really talk everything out so that they’re really sure they’ve made the right decision.
Initially, when you watch 12 Angry Men, you come away feeling that it’s a very noble, well-meaning film that’s all about the importance of taking jury duty seriously and understanding the stakes in a murder trial in which a guilty verdict can end a person’s life. However, when you take a more critical look at the movie, you will realize that there’s something far more sinister going on beneath the surface. What you realize is that Reginald Rose is using a real-life murder case to play out a smug intellectual exercise, with Juror 8 as his alter ego. The exercise is this:
You’re serving on a murder trial in which the only punishment is the electric chair. The defendant is undeniably, absolutely guilty without exception. As a juror, you have the responsibility to convict him. The problem is that you’re anti-death penalty, so handing in a guilty verdict would be going against your principles. To make matters worse, it’s an open and shut case, so chances are that the verdict will be unanimous. What can you do to save this defendant from the electric chair?
In a situation like this, there would be nothing you could do to “save the defendant.” The reason why is that as a juror, you have a sworn duty to find a defendant guilty or innocent based on whatever arguments and evidence were presented during the trial itself. In other words, you can’t feel in your heart that the defendant was undeniably guilty but then decide to vote not guilty because it would be against your principles to vote otherwise. If the defendant is clearly guilty, then you vote guilty. If he’s clearly innocent, you vote innocent.
But what if you simply couldn’t vote guilty no matter what, because you were anti-death penalty? What do you do then? Especially in an open and shut case in which all the other jurors agree that the defendant is guilty?
Using Juror 8 as his alter ego, Reginald Rose imagined how he would deal with this conundrum. His solution wasn’t to simply do what he was sworn to as a juror and vote guilty in spite of his misgivings about the death penalty. It was to come up with all sorts of strategies to emotionally and mentally manipulate the other jurors into changing their votes into a unanimous “not guilty” vote.
The first thing Juror 8 does is point out how quickly the other jurors cast their preliminary vote. The point is to imply that just because they quickly voted, this means that they must not have really carefully considered what was said during the trial itself and were taking the defendant’s life lightly. So, he immediately positions himself as someone who’s more conscientious than the other jurors. Also, he couches his objections under a veneer of nobility and innocence, so no one catches on that he has an agenda. According to him, all he wants to do is “just talk it out.”
The second thing Juror #8 does is resort to emotional pandering. Rather than stick to the facts of the case, he insists on pleading on the defendant’s troubled history, based on the environment he came from. As one of the other jurors correctly pointed out, this is not pertinent to the deliberation process. Nevertheless, Juror 8 insists on making a plea based on emotionalism.
The third thing Juror 8 does is make a series of arguments that seem to be about exploring “reasonable doubt”, when what he’s really doing is turning the concept on its head to confuse and manipulate the other jurors. According to him, reasonable doubt doesn’t mean that the trial proceedings might have left enough room for doubt as to whether the defendant was guilty. It means that the two attorneys, the witnesses and the actual expert witnesses who worked on the case should all be second guessed. Why? Because there’s always the possibility that they were stupid, not thorough in their investigations and were mistaken about what they saw and heard.
Naturally, this type of argument is one that can be easily rejected. The reason why is that unless you’re a police officer, detective, lawyer, witness or someone who had insider information about the case, you cannot presume to know better than any of these people what they saw, heard, investigated or examined. The most you can do is take what they said at face value and use that to gauge whether what they said is trustworthy or not.
The other jurors in 12 Angry Men start to defiantly argue with Juror 8 on this basis, particularly The Bigot (Juror 10, played by Ed Begley), The Sports Fanatic (Juror 7, played by Jack Warden) and The Bully (Juror 3, played by Lee J. Cobb). But not to worry, folks! Juror 8 has another trick up his sleeve. Clearly anticipating that the other jurors would denounce him for this very reason, he goes shopping for a switchblade during the course of the trial, then dramatically brandishes it the exact moment everyone calls him out on his arrogance.
The switchblade is a master stroke of manipulation. By presenting it as a smoking gun, he undermines the criminal investigators and the prosecution by implying that they didn’t do a thorough enough job of finding out whether the switchblade used in the crime was as rare as was claimed. This manipulates the other jurors into believing that he has some kind of superior insight that enables him to second guess what everyone said at the trial, whether we’re talking about the detectives who investigated the murder, the witnesses who saw and heard the murder, and even the two attorneys that tried the case.
Once Juror 8 pulls this stunt, he successfully takes over the deliberation process (even though he’s not the foreman), so that the jurors can argue the case based on what he says and thinks, not based on what was actually said or presented in the trial. In short, what Juror 8 does is redo the entire trial from scratch. However, instead of using actual testimony, evidence and arguments made by everyone in the trial, he makes up scenarios that were never brought up, talks about the “possibilities” of what might have happened, ascribes motives to the two attorneys and second guesses what the witnesses may have seen and heard. He brings in his own “evidence” (the switchblade). Juror 8 even goes so far as to reenact a scene that a witness experienced–even role playing him with a limp–to make the point that he couldn’t have made it to the end of a hallway in time to see the defendant run out of the building.
Juror 8 does all of this with such flair that he coaches the dumber and more impressionable jurors to follow his lead. After a while, they, too, learn to reject the facts by conjuring up scenarios and picking the brains of the witnesses, defendants and attorneys. The Old Man (Juror 9, played by Joseph Sweeney) decides that the witness who heard the defendant scream, “I’m going to kill you” made up the whole story for attention, based on how the witness was dressed.
Other jurors decide that the woman who saw the murder happen through the windows of an elevated train couldn’t have seen it because she wears glasses. And how do they know she wore glasses? Because she looked like a middle-aged woman desperately trying to look ten years younger. (Never mind that if she did wear glasses regularly, there was no way of knowing whether they were sunglasses or that she was farsighted.)
One of the most shocking and stomach-churning moments of Juror 8’s handiwork is when The Milquetoast (Juror 2, played by John Fiedler) argues that the marks on the woman’s nose is “evidence” and that they can’t send someone to the chair based on this kind of “evidence.” The reason why The Milquetoast makes such a ridiculous statement is that Juror 8 has successfully blurred in the minds of the other jurors the line between actual evidence that was presented during the trial and pure conjecture.
The next trick up Juror 8’s sleeve is to cherry pick parts of everyone’s justification for voting against the defendant, to the point of stripping out the larger context in which those justifications were made. For example, Juror 8 seems to hit a “slam dunk” when he makes The Stockbroker (Juror 4, played by E.G. Marshall) realize that he doesn’t remember what movies he saw several days before.
Although it seems as if The Stockbroker has blown his own argument that the defendant was guilty because he couldn’t remember what movie he’d seen the night of the murder, it really doesn’t. The reason why is that the argument was made taking into consideration all the other things that implicate the victim and the context in which the alibi was made. To put it another way, if The Stockbroker had based his entire argument for the defendant’s guilt solely on not remembering what was seen that night, Juror 8 would be right. But The Stockbroker was so adamant on this point because no one else could vouch for the defendant being at the movies; and besides, the alibi contradicted everything else the defendant said happened that night.
Another skeevy trick Juror 8 does is throw the spotlight on other jurors when confronted with cold, hard evidence and facts that can’t be disputed. For example, there’s a moment when The Bully (Cobb) demands to know what Juror 8 thinks about a certain indisputable fact that a female witness saw the murder happen through the windows of a passing El. Instead of answering The Bully directly, Juror 8 immediately turns to The Ad Executive (Juror 12, played by Robert Webber) to ask him, “What do you think?” So, in that case, when he was confronted with a question he couldn’t answer, he passed the buck to someone else.
Speaking of throwing the spotlight on jurors, a sixth tactic that Juror 8 uses is to put jurors he disagrees with on trial. For example, to undermine The Stockbroker’s very logical assertions about the defendant’s guilt, Juror 8 suddenly “grills” him as if he were under cross examination. He asks The Stockbroker to remember what he did every night for the past several days and then demands to have him recall exactly what movie he saw and who starred in it. This is done to undermine his credibility, even though he did, in fact, remember what he saw several days before but merely had gotten the details wrong.
One last tactic that Juror 8 does is play coy whenever his adversaries, The Four Holdouts (The Sports Fanatic, Bigot, Stockbroker and Bully) call him out on the fact that he’s not sticking to the facts of the case. Whenever the heat’s on, he always says in so many words that this is all just some kind of exercise to prove a point and that it doesn’t really care one way or the other what verdict is rendered; what matters is that everyone takes their time and be thoughtful before rendering a verdict. Juror 8 also frequently acts as if he has no idea whether or not the defendant is guilty, like he is still confused about the matter and trying to sort things out in his mind by discussing the case.
However, curiously, when the other holdouts make very valid arguments for why they feel the defendant is guilty, he goes right back to arguing to death about why they’re completely wrong. When Juror 8 is cornered, he even resorts to personal attacks. In the case of The Bully, he calls him a personal avenger and sadist. (So much for just wanting to “talk things out!”)