Yes, we can acquit

12 Angry Men

In the year of Obama, it seems appropriate to celebrate the liberal-humanist aesthetic of Sidney Lumet’s jury-room drama/civics lesson 12 Angry Men, recently rereleased to DVD for its 50th anniversary.

Well, technically, it’s the 51st anniversary, but what’s one year when clear-eyed American stalwart Henry Fonda is fighting for morality and democracy as the noble, white-suited Juror No. 8? TV veteran Lumet made his film debut with 12 Angry Men, an adaptation of the 1954 Studio One teleplay by Reginald Rose, first shot with Robert Cummings in the Fonda role.

The film opens at the end of a homicide trial on the hottest day of the year, with the unnamed jurors informed by the judge that a guilty verdict will bring a mandatory death sentence for the teenage defendant. Initially, the case seems like a quick, slam-dunk conviction—especially for those weary jurors with axes to grind or ballgames to attend (the others just seem to go with the tide). Then Fonda returns the lone “not guilty” vote, and as he chews over the facts of the case, it becomes increasingly apparent that it was an unjust show trial (notice the judge’s bored countenance in the opening scenes). Slowly, Fonda wins over some of the fence sitters, and a moral battle of wills erupts in the cramped confines of the jury room.

But 12 Angry Men isn’t quite as great as its AFI 100 reputation suggests—it’s a bit of an overdetermined sociological study, in which the biggest jerks fight the hardest for conviction. Still, the performances by producer-actor Fonda and a cast of familiar faces (including Jack Klugman, Jack Warden and Martin Balsam) peel the paint off of the claustrophobic setting, and then-rookie Lumet directs with the confidence of a seasoned pro.