Retro Review: '12 Angry Men' still a cinematic masterpiece

I first watched “12 Angry Men” in high school for a class on juvenile law. By that point, the film was already over fifty years old. After re-watching the film, however, I’m very pleased to report that the Henry Fonda classic still holds up today.

1950s New York City is the setting for this drama, which is filmed in black and white. We join 12 jurors, whose names are not given, during the closing arguments of a murder trial. The defendant, a young man with a gaunt, hopeless expression, watches the twelve strangers shuffle out of the room.

These men gather in a small room with a busted fan, which irritates several jurors to no end. One of the things that’s great about “12 Angry Men” is that there are only four locations used in the film: the courtroom, deliberation room, bathroom and the steps outside the courthouse, which we don’t see until the end of the film. So they gather together, and we really get into the meat of this film.

The characters are very realistic for the period: twelve white men of various ages and professions, all with differing personalities and attitudes towards the case. As soon as they sit down, eleven of the twelve men vote that the defendant is guilty. Only one, Henry Fonda’s character, says, “I’m not sure.”

For the next hour and a half we witness one of the greatest debates ever put to film. Fonda’s character argues about the evidence in the case, picks through witness testimony and harshly criticizes the rest of the jurors for their racist and elitist attitudes. He takes gambles and stands up for his fellow jurors when they are bullied, but never asserts that the boy from the courtroom is innocent, only that he doesn’t know.

It’s that last bit that makes this film so interesting. Even Fonda’s character isn’t certain of the defendant’s guilt or innocence, but he argues that the jurors owe him more than just a few minutes of deliberation.

Very few movies can manage to pull off a strong character story without special effects or some similar gimmick to distract the audience, but “12 Angry Men” is a shining example. Each character, from the nervous, introverted accountant to the racist, overbearing old man fill a role in American society, which makes those moments where they break the mold all the more interesting.

By the climax of the film, when another juror openly threatens to kill Fonda’s character, the audience has a good impression of who everyone is. We feel as though we know their stories, their struggles and what their values are. Fonda’s character knows that too, as he responds to the threats with a cool, “you don’t really mean you’ll kill me, do you?”

Every student of law or cinema should watch “12 Angry Men.” It’s a cinematic masterpiece that draws audiences to the edge of their seats without needing explosions or other gimmicks, and “12 Angry Men” remains one of the greatest films of the 20th century.


Edward Pankowski is life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at edward.pankowski@uconn.edu.