1957’s courtroom drama, 12 Angry Men, starring a young Henry Fonda clocks in at #87 on our list.
The film opens with a judge giving instructions to a jury in a capital murder case. We see a brief shot of the defendant. The film then moves to the set where it spends almost all of its time, a jury deliberation room.
The details of the deliberation are too many and too long to lay out, but the basic synopsis of the case, as revealed to us through the jury deliberations are that an 18 year old boy, who has had a troubled upbringing and has previously been in trouble with the law, is accused of stabbing his father to death with a switchblade. There are two witnesses – one a woman who says she saw him commit the murder from her bedroom window 60 feet away and another an old man from the floor below who claims to have heard the defendant shout out that he is going to kill his father, then heard a thud, then saw the defendant run away down the stairs form his apartment door.
The deliberation starts with an 11 to 1 vote in favor of conviction with the juror played by Henry Fonda being the lone hold-out. The hold out juror successively picks apart the evidence. He shows that the knife used in the murder isn’t, in fact, as rare as the prosecution claimed. He show’s that the downstairs neighbor’s testimony is likely embellished due to his lack of mobility and background noise. That the kid’s story that he went to the movies but couldn’t immediately remember details of the film is plausible. That the woman’s eyewitness testimony is questionable since she wears glasses but likely wasn’t wearing them when she claimed to witness the murder.
As each part of evidence is picked apart, the jury slowly shifts. First to 10-2, then to 9-3, then to 8-4, then to 6-6, then to 9-3 for not guilty, briefly again back to 8-4 for not guilty, then 11-1 for not guilty and finally 12-0 for acquittal.
This film tackles a number of meaty social issues through the deliberation – personal biases about people socioeconomic status and where they are from, biases about immigrants (the accused is not an immigrant, but one of the jurors is) and questions about the effectiveness of jury trials (what happens if there isn’t a Henry Fonda character?)
The film is quite unique in terms of being essentially a single scene play on the big screen. The telling of a trial without actually showing the trial through the lenses of a jury deliberation is surprisingly compelling and allows us to simultaneously learn about the case and the jurors and their biases.
This film is exceptional. The issues raised in the film are as relevant today as they were 62 years ago. This should be a must-watch for anyone discussing criminal justice reform. I remember a cousin of mine telling me about being the lone hold out on a jury and this film seems to conform exceptionally ell too is experience. The screenplay is brilliantly laid out and revolutionary for the time. Henry Fonda is simply outstanding in the role, as are many of the supporting actors. Many of us struggle with watching films this old, but this was actually a very easy watch that held my interest throughout and was highly thought provoking. There are some heavy-hitting films from the 1950s, including one of my favorite films, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, that we will be covering as we move up the list, but this movie has a case to make as the best film of that era. If you haven’t seen it, even if you aren’t into 1950s cinema in general, this is worth watching.
Production Quality 8/10
Rewatch Value 9/10
Overall Score 37/40