"I don't really know what the truth is. I don't suppose anybody will ever really know."
That statement sparks one of the main arguments of the 1957 film 12 Angry Men, where Juror #8 (played by Henry Fonda) clearly delineates the basis of "reasonable doubt", and its role in the American justice system. The film, set almost in its entirety in the jury room of the courthouse, features twelve jurors with the obligation of determining the fate of a young man accused of murdering his father. If found guilty, the kid will be sentenced to death; if not guilty, he'll be acquitted, but the verdict has to be unanimous either way.
The jury is formed by a hodge-podge of characters from various backgrounds and personalities, meant to be a picture of the America of the day. And therein lies one of the strengths of the film, in the way that Reginald Rose's script and Sidney Lumet's directing manage to establish the personalities of each character seamlessly and without expository dialogues or flashbacks. From the beginning, Juror #8 is portrayed as a thoughtful and patient man willing to go against the flow in an effort to fulfill his duty fairly. He doesn't know the truth, but he wants to prove that neither do the other jurors.
From the initial vote, he is the sole dissenter, against the other eleven. However, he constructs his arguments with caution and common sense against the tide of opposing arguments. Most of the other jurors offer little to their cause. Prejudices, disinterest, indecision, complacency, lack of analysis, bigotry... all of those traits are bubbling inside the other eleven who, for the most part, are unable to counter the arguments of Juror #8. But there's also a disturbing argument being made about how our justice system works, and how swiftly can we gamble on the fate of others, as long as it doesn't interfere with our lives, or just because we didn't give it the thought we should have.
The main antagonistic figure is Juror #3 (played by Lee J. Cobb), who initially appears to be carefully analytical, taking out his notes before saying "I have no personal feelings about this". But as the plot progresses, we can see he brings an emotional baggage that might bias him. The other relevant antagonistic figure is Juror #10 (played by Ed Begley), whose remarks grow more prejudiced and bigoted as the film advances.
The rest of the jurors are a meek banker, a smart and rational stockbroker, a paramedic from the slums, a humble painter, a laid-back and careless salesman, an observant old man, a foreign watchmaker, a chatty ad executive, and the complacent foreman. Through their dialogues, we know enough about the characters without it feeling forced. We find out about their jobs, their backgrounds, their families, and how all that might play a part in their decisions.
But most impressive is the evolution of Jurors #3 and #8 as they continually square against each other, battling arguments back and forth. From bully to bullied, and viceversa, both Fonda and Cobb play their characters masterfully, as they both wag the other jurors from one side to the other, until Fonda declares "You're alone".
12 Angry Men is a unique character study full of excellent performances, a thought-provoking script, and a careful direction. I remember seeing the 1997 TV remake a long time ago and enjoying it, but I think this one sets itself apart quite nicely. Grade: A
(All pictures belong to United Artists, MGM, and its affiliates)