What Makes “12 Angry Men” So Good?

12 Angry Men (1957 film)
12 Angry Men (1957 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The 1957 drama “12 Angry Men” is considered to be one of the best motion pictures of all time. It is set almost entirely in a jury room, with the twelve jurors being the only characters. Despite the closed setting, it is one of the most compelling and well-written films ever made.

Plot Synopsis

In New York City, testimony has ended in the trial of an 18-year-old male who is accused of killing his father. The judge instructs the jury to reach a decision and reminds them that a verdict of “guilty” will result in an automatic death sentence for the defendant. In the jury room, the twelve men struggle to reach a verdict while their attitudes, prejudices, and personal demons are exposed.

How the Film Builds Tension and Suspense

As the jurors enter the jury room, it is immediately established that the time of year is summer and it is “the hottest day of the year.” One juror attempts to turn on the only fan in the room only to find that it doesn’t work. In this way the film’s first order of business is to make sure that the audience is aware of the physical discomfort of the jurors. After some casual chatter among the men, it is decided that they will take a preliminary vote. The vote is 11-1 in favor of a guilty verdict. Juror 8, played by Henry Fonda, is the only juror to vote “not guilty.” This creates a situation that is as socially awkward; the jury must come to a unanimous decision.

The story progresses with Juror 8 presenting evidence of reasonable doubt. On the second vote, one other juror votes “not guilty,” making the vote 10-2. Now one step further from a unanimous verdict, the jurors become more agitated. Throughout the film, each round of debating results in a vote that moves more jurors to the “not guilty” side. By the final five minutes of the film, the vote stands 11-1 in favor of acquittal: a complete reversal of the preliminary vote.

Why the Closed Setting Works

“12 Angry Men” succeeds because the twelve jurors represent ordinary people; they could be any of us. The dialogue is vibrant and realistic. None of the jurors are identified by name, and we know nothing of them except for a few details involving families and careers. We instead get important insights into the personal attitudes and prejudices of the men through their statements and actions.

The film makes excellent use of visual and audio effects to set the mood. The murder weapon, a switchblade, is requested by the jury, and at one point it is dramatically stabbed into a table when a juror makes his argument. When one juror begins a racially prejudiced tirade, most of the other jurors stand and physically turn their backs to him, one by one. The heat of the day is eventually broken by a rainstorm, and at the same time, the fan in the room begins to work. This foreshadows the break in the tension and the end of the deadlock that is about to come.

At 95 minutes long, “12 Angry Men” is a brief film without a dull moment, yet the dialogue and setting succeed in making the audience sense the frustration, boredom, and increasing hostility of the twelve men as they spend one long day and evening locked together in a room with the fate of another human being in their hands.

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Glen Gates is a freelance writer based in Baltimore. He focuses primarily on legal topics, including Legal Films, Patent Law, Intellectual Property, Medical Malpractice, Brain Injuries and other topics.

JR Olson
J. Rex Olson is a freelance writer based in the greater metropolitan area of Seattle. He enjoys writing for the sake of writing, and likes to contribute material on a wide range of topics and issues. When not writing he loves playing basketball and taking in a symphony.

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