Works of art in any medium, including film, may be sorted in two broad categories according to the methods chosen by their creators: art addressing intellect and art targeting emotions. Having stated that, I feel I must immediately emphasize that intellectual art obviously doesn’t preclude emotions, and neither is emotional art the enemy of intellect. At the climax of any film worthy of its celluloid, logic and emotions blend into a single explosive. Still, some of the films employ mainly emotional leverage to produce the climactic effect, while others captivate the audience through the force of logical argument.
I’m convinced that, despite all the turbulent emotions in “12 Angry Men” (and notwithstanding the emotion of anger that made its way even to the title), this film is, at its very core, a purely logical, crystal-like structure – and I’m also certain that all the violent emotions in this story just serve to underline (and sometimes probably even disguise) its sharp, clear, cold analytical edges. Being a work of intellectual art, “12 Angry Men” permits certain level of abstraction, making its theme and idea range wider and deeper than the subject of justice, typical to the genre of courtroom drama, or that of relationships between children and parents, revealed in the powerful climactic scene performed (or rather, lived through) by Lee J. Cobb.
But before we get to the analysis of this film’s message, let’s talk a little about its aesthetic and technical qualities. A viewer caught in the dynamic unwrapping of the story may experience the deceptive feeling of watching a stage play performed in front of the camera. Nothing can be further from the truth. Most of cinema enthusiasts are familiar with the basic imperative that the camera must not cross the eyeline (a.k.a. line of action) between any two shots of two people talking. Breaking that rule destroys the flow of the scene and creates confusion. Things become a little more complicated when a scene involves three people and three corresponding eyelines. A scene with four people has six eyelines. A twelve-people scene contains sixty-six eyelines. Don’t forget that neither of the twelve jurors in the film just sits in one place – each of them moves all over the room in the course of an hour and a half, interacting with each other, entangled in a complex web of constantly changing eyelines. A camera crossing any of those sixty-six dynamic eyelines would ruin the continuity. To make things more challenging, the characters stand up and sit down, changing the vertical angles of each eyeline. Every actor, addressing every other actor, looks exactly in the direction where the eyes of the other character should be at this moment; if they address more than one character at once, they shift the direction of their gaze between those multiple characters. Because of the specifics of lighting setup in one enclosed space, the film was not shot in continuity; so to maintain all the eyelines, the exact position of every character at every moment of story had to be exactly known. There’s more: every object on the desk had to be where it belonged no earlier and no later than necessary. Some shots include rain outside, others don’t; the rain affects the look of the shot even if not filmed directly. It’s hot in the room, and the jurors sweat profusely. Perspiration stains on their shirts had to be smaller or larger depending on each specific moment in the narrative. The camera had to be positioned above or below the eye level and equipped with wider or longer lens, depending on when within the story the currently filmed scene should occur (as the film progresses, lenses become noticeably more long-focus, creating the illusion that the walls are moving in closer, almost squashing the jurors – but the scenes weren’t filmed in sequence, so the lenses had to be changed depending on lighting of each specific scene being filmed ). “12 Angry Men”, from technical point of view, must have been a continuity hell, and it would deserve to be considered a directorial tour de force even if just for that. The acting of every member of the cast is pure Stanislavski – even the actors in non-speaking bit parts are superb. Obviously, none of it would matter without the tight, well-structured dramatic narrative (by Reginald Rose). I was particularly impressed with how skillfully he introduced the necessary breaks of logical flow of the story: having established the order of speaking for the 12 jurors, he quickly breaks that order to make the structure seem loose and spontaneous, almost improvisation-like. Absorbed in suspense and mystery of the story, the viewers may not be as acutely aware of its humor, but the comical is there all right, and adds a lot to the overall style. I must also mention of course the crisp, striking, dramatic cinematography of the great Boris Kaufman (the younger brother of the Russian documentary filmmaker Dziga Vertov and the collaborator of Jean Vigo, Elia Kazan, and Samuel Beckett, among many others) – and masterful, assured editing done by Carl Lerner. But enough accolades; let’s focus on the meaning.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the main theme of “12 Angry Men” is truth: the obstacles one may encounter searching for it, and the ways to find it.
It impressed me as the clear sign of writer’s logical and moral depth that he didn’t allow himself an easy solution of declaring truth as something certain and perfectly defined. No, the truth in “12 Angry Men” is realistic: it’s bound within the limits of human perception. The truth we can find is never perfect, and yet we must pursue it to the best of our ability. Henry Fonda’s character, Davis, is not claiming that he knows the truth. He only claims that he cannot be positive that he or the others know it, and that having reasonable doubt, the jurors must assume that the accused is not guilty; that’s the positive truth accessible within his human limitations. This position is not agnostic: it’s objective. “I don’t really know what the truth is, I don’t suppose anybody will really know… Maybe we’re just gambling on probabilities. We may be wrong. Maybe we’re just trying to let the guilty man go free, I don’t know. Nobody really can. But we have reasonable doubt. And it’s something that is very valuable in our system.” The truth exists; it must be searched for and found. The truth is simple (one bit of information: “guilty” or “not guilty”) and practical. Discovering the truth or, rather, eliminating the fallacious assumption of already knowing it, is demonstrated in “12 Angry men” as the matter of life and death: physically – for the accused, and morally – for the jurors, who risk becoming murderers of an innocent boy.
The film doesn’t tell us who really committed the murder; it doesn’t even tell us whether the boy accused of murder was indeed guilty or not. But within the realistic limits of human knowledge, “12 Angry Men” shows a perfect example of logical reasoning that brings out the practical and meaningful truth.
The same principles and the same method can and should be applied to any search of truth, and especially to the search for the ultimate Truth. As long as we can have reasonable doubt, we have no moral or intellectual right to choose “guilty”. (As I’ve already mentioned earlier, the value of “12 Angry Men” reaches beyond the thematic borders of its genre. We can even use the methods described in this film to discover snippets of truth in other films or any other works of art.)
Interestingly, in the beginning of the story, Juror # 8 (Henry Fonda’s character) doesn’t seem to have noticed all the inconsistencies in the witnesses’ accounts of the murder. As he explains, he has chosen “not guilty” simply because he couldn’t bring himself to send a young boy to the electric chair without at least talking about it first. This illustrates the notion that the search for truth may be initially motivated by humanism – even though I must note that in many situations humanism may also be a trap (see “Farewell, My Concubine”, dir. by Kaige Chen, 1993). In “12 Angry Men” though, reason and empathy go hand in hand: “I kept putting myself in the kid’s place”.
Another, probably much more important motivation for the search of truth is the feeling of disturbance, lack of inner peace, the irritation experienced when facing the untruth. That sensation is the greatest indicator of the truth not being found yet, and if we pay heed to the sensation and follow it, we can take the first and strongest stride toward the truth. (When everyone sounds too positive, when everything seems to be unquestioned, it may be the sign that everything is false.) On the other hand, if we force ourselves to disregard such inner disturbance, we make a dangerous philosophical mistake that can have far-reaching consequences in our destiny.
What I’m about to say is a platitude perhaps, but lack of indifference to truth is the most important character trait for any seeker of meaning. Everything really is the matter of life and death, and our decisions deserve a lot more depth than we’re normally willing to give them. Not all decisions we ever make are final and irreversible like the one in this film, but all are important. Our choice does matter. Superficiality may be caused by our indifference to the outcome – we tend to neglect our own lives and lives of people close to us a lot more often than we would want to admit. But it is possible to know the truth if we really want to, and it is possible to infect other people with our urge to know it. These things are illustrated in the character of the Juror # 8. His is the angelic presence in the story: he wears the symbolic white suite; he has 3 children (a possible allusion to the Trinity); he’s an architect (the Creator). His last name is Davis (another possible allusion: to David, the underdog vanquisher of Goliath.)
What qualities make Juror # 8 a positive character, a hero, a protagonist in the story? He looks deeply into the matter, striving to avoid and omit nothing. He bought the knife identical to the one used in the killing. He analyzed the testimonies and found inconsistencies. He understood the consequences of his choices and realized that he must take every choice very seriously. This is maturity. But more importantly – he is objective (“Nice bunch of guys, huh? – They’re about the same as anyone else.”), and his reason is in full control of his actions.
The positions and behavior of the rest of the jurors in “12 Angry Men” illustrate various fallacies that block away the truth. The film tells the story of overcoming these obstacles one at a time, so I think it would be important for us to consider them one by one.
Juror # 1 (the foreman; played by Martin Balsam): authority challenge. A high school football coach, he represents authority to his students while being aware of not having any real authority or any significant social status. His urge to gain leadership makes him want to take a secure, popular position, and forces him to ignore the signs of untruth in that point of view – as a result, while nominally being a leader, he is, in fact, a follower. He may know the truth before many others, but he can only acknowledge it when he sees that it’s become the position of the majority (exactly the way it happens in the film).
Juror # 2 (the nerdy bank clerk, played by John Fiedler): this character illustrates the power of the subjective opinion based on the phenomenon of “trust to authority” (or trust to someone else’s point of view, or to superficial appearances). The opinion of this type of person may be based on feelings (mainly on the feeling of comfort) – or even on a random choice. It’s the character who settles for the untruth simply because “it just feels right”. This challenge is rooted in his deep lack of self-confidence. This character is not without common sense, so it’s relatively easy to make him recognize the truth simply by offering facts and strong arguments; finding the truth helps him to gain self-esteem and makes him a different man in the end.
Juror # 3 (the monster father, played by Lee J. Cobb): aggressive denial. This core issue is revealed as soon as he opens his mouth to argue his case: “I have no personal feelings about this. I just wanna talk about facts.” (no matter what he says, he is the most emotional and personally involved man in the room, which makes him ignore the facts). This character functions as the antagonist in the dramatic structure of the story, and I’ll come back to him yet.
Juror # 4 (the stockbroker, played by E. G. Marshall): this man is convinced of his intellectual, moral and even physical superiority not only over the accused, but over everyone in the room. It may not be very obvious, but having this unique brand of subjectivism, he is the most comical character in the film. (“Pardon me, but don’t you ever sweat?” – “No I don’t”). Neither does he smile or go to the bathroom (while the rest of the jurors run in and out of the bathroom all through the film). Naturally, he can only become aware of the truth after he’s forced to face his imperfections: very characteristically, once the flaws of his memory are exposed, he does sweat. It’s not enough to just make that kind of man face his imperfections once; only by being reminded again of his human limitations, he accepts the fact of his metaphorical (moral) myopia and stops being judgmental.
Juror # 5 (the man from the slums, played by Jack Klugman): suffers from ambivalence brought about by his sense of social inferiority. That’s why he skips his turn to prove the defendant’s guilt. Having been born in the slums, he apparently made a great deal of effort to put maximum distance between his current self and his lowly background– and yet he never quite managed to leave it completely behind. Even though this man’s lower-class past constitutes sharp contrast with his soft-spoken, mellow, guarded persona, it’s eager to reveal itself at the first available opportunity (as soon as he feels offended in his sense of affinity with the proletarian defendant). He has more in common with the defendant than he wants to admit to himself, so his initial verdict – “guilty” – is a form of self-punishment for feeling socially inferior. Recognizing and accepting the objective value of his past helps him to see the truth very soon.
Juror # 6 (the house painter, played by Edward Binns): this character’s challenge in accepting the truth is so general and widespread that it can be considered as the key to everyone else’s. He illustrates the mechanism of arriving to erroneous conclusions just out of need for any conclusion. This fallacy is very common. The uncertainty is frightening, it threatens the hardwired belief in our ability to assess the environment correctly – and therefore makes us fear for our survival. We are so desperate for definite conclusions that we rather prefer to choose something wrong but definite and final than to face any uncertainty. We may try to persuade ourselves that our false conclusions are true, because being persuaded like that may make us feel safer. That’s why this juror is so eager to hold on to something clearly unconvincing but superficially truth-like: the questionable motive for the killing. When forced to deal with the uncertainty, he concedes to the truth.
Juror # 7 (the marmalade salesman, played by Jack Warden): indifference, selfishness, agnosticism and cynicism. (“I don’t care, it’s all the same thing!”) This type sees the reality in terms of personal advantage; that’s why he interprets Davis’s effort to uncover the truth as “soft sell” and wonders if Davis does it just for kicks. He is also more obviously materialistic than anybody else in the room – something that is vividly expressed in his choice of costume, in his shallow charm and in his little tricks. Very characteristically, he is also prone to having great belief in the system and to valuing a socially accepted position higher than the truth (which shouldn’t be surprising, considering that to cynical people social status indicates obvious benefits). “The kid had a lawyer, he presented this case, and he couldn’t say anything to defend that kid.” Even when he finally accepts the truth, he does so partly because he just wants to save time for hedonistic pursuits. An agnostic can be swayed, but it’s almost impossible to make him change. Only after his indifference is attacked, he admits that the truth, and not personal interest, must motivate decisions.
Juror # 9 (the old man, played by Joseph Sweeney): a misguided urge for importance and actualized existence. Luckily, this character, thanks to his old age, or perhaps in spite of it, is blessed with profound self-knowledge (metaphorically expressed as his 20/20 vision). This power of understanding allows him to recognize his own negative qualities in the old man on the witness stand. That’s why this character becomes the first of the jurors to support the Juror # 8. It takes a lot of mental flexibility and great courage to change one’s mind and become a single supporter of someone who alone stands up against the majority. His choice to support Juror # 8 is what turns the tide. That may be the reason why the old man’s name is revealed in the end of the film as MacCardle (“of high valour” in Gaelic).
Juror # 10 (the man with the head cold, played by Ed Begley): bigotry – the most primitive and easily identifiable psychological aberration, and yet the one among the hardest to defeat. Still, after this juror is motivated by his peers to experience deep shame, he is transformed to such degree that not only he discards his prejudice, but also remains speechless through the rest of the story.
Juror # 11 (the watchmaker, played by George Voskovec): it may seem strange, but this articulate, intelligent character suffers from one of the most insidious and dangerous problems among all the characters in this story – mental inertia and stagnation. Not only he does know the truth, but he also offers strong arguments for it, and yet he has a really hard time deciding to say “not guilty”.
Juror # 12 (the advertising man, played by Robert Webber): superficiality. Everything in this character – his occupation, his inability to focus, his humor – shows that almost through the entire story he isn’t taking anything seriously, being more interested in clever wordplay than in truth. A superficial man is necessarily fickle because nothing concerns him very deeply. That’s why Juror # 12 is characterized by fluctuating between “guilty” and “not guilty” , rather than changing his opinion only once. In the end, his superficiality is outweighed by the old man’s attention to detail that proves intellectually contagious.
So, we now considered the positions of the twelve men and analyzed the foundations of their points of view (even though we still need to take a closer look at the Juror # 3 and his confrontation with the Juror # 8).
This may be relatively unimportant, but I think it would be interesting to recap and see in what sequence the various false notions have been dispelled in “12 Angry Men”. Perhaps that sequence can give us the idea of which fallacies are the easiest and which are the hardest to overcome.
1. Juror # 8 senses the inconsistency of testimonies for the prosecution and is moved by humane considerations to declare the defendant “not guilty”; he stands alone against the rest of the jurors.
2. Juror # 9, thanks to his unusual mental clarity and sense of justice, triumphs over his misdirected need to be important, and supports Juror # 8, thus becoming truly important.
3. Juror # 5 realizes the value of his low-class background, which allows him to let go of his social ambivalence and see the truth objectively. The importance of his background will be further confirmed later in the story, when his expertise at handling a switchblade knife provides a crucial bit of information.
4. Juror # 11 makes several forceful arguments for the truth, then struggles to accept his own arguments and finally realizes that he must take the position opposite of the one he held initially.
5. Juror # 2 gains self-confidence and ability to confront people who spontaneously try to intimidate him. As a result, he earns the nickname “Killer” from the Juror # 7 – and changes his verdict to “not guilty”.
6. Juror # 6 questions his desperate urge for certainty at the cost of truth; the truth wins.
7. Juror # 7 initially concedes to the truth out of indifference, and after being confronted by Juror # 11, expresses the belief that the defendant is not guilty.
8. Juror # 12 is persuaded by the amassed power of the preceding argument that the defendant is not guilty. (A few minutes later he changes his opinion back to “guilty”, having been persuaded by the Juror # 4.)
9. Juror # 1, who probably saw the truth a lot earlier, declares the defendant not guilty only after realizing that it’s become the position of the majority.
10. Juror # 10 exposes the full range of his bigotry and gets ostracized by the entire group. He is so ashamed of himself that he manages to overcome his prejudice, accepts the truth and remains silent till the end.
11. Juror # 4 becomes aware of his imperfections and his moral shortsightedness, rejects his neurotic urge to deceive himself into feeling superior to others, and states that he now has reasonable doubt. Juror # 12 finally becomes persuaded that the correct verdict should be “not guilty”.
12. Juror # 3 undergoes the experience that amounts to no less than a psychotic episode, and after having confronted his inner demons, re-emerges on the other side with the truth gained at the hardest cost. His verdict of “not guilty” is more important than anyone else’s: without his word, everything that took place before would still have no power.
It’s very clear through the entire film, and especially in the climax, that the main confrontation in “12 Angry Men”, the stand between good and evil, happens between the angelic character of Juror # 8 and the monstrous entity that dwells in the mind of Juror # 3. The confrontation even reaches such heights that Juror # 3 stabs Juror # 8 (symbolically) through the heart with the switchblade knife. So what is the secret nature of their conflict? What exactly happens between these two?
Juror # 8 applies a highly rational, logical approach to prove the accused boy not guilty. In contrast to him, Juror # 3 pursues his goal – of proving the boy guilty – with a great deal of passion, and is only eager to hear and accept those arguments that conform with his preconceived opinion. What makes these Juror # 8 and Juror # 3 the protagonist and the antagonist in the story is their relentless desire (to set the boy free and to administer the punishment, correspondingly): both are a lot more proactive in their pursuit than everyone else in the room. Juror # 8: “No jury can declare a man guilty unless it’s sure”. Juror # 3: “We’re trying to put a guilty man in a chair where he belongs”.
It’s rather obvious that Juror # 3 is motivated by hatred to his estranged son who offended and left him (“pierced his heart”, figuratively speaking). That’s why Juror # 3 emphasizes so strongly with the murdered man, and wants to punish his own son by putting in the electric chair the boy who is accused of stabbing his father through the heart (that boy is the “son figure” for Juror # 3). However, the father/son aspect of the story is only a particular. What is important here is that Juror # 3 identifies himself primarily as the “wronged father”, and that self-definition serves as the substitute for the true essence of his character. His denial of truth stems from the pain rooted so deeply that it appears to be the very core of his personality, and makes Juror # 3 believe erroneously that his spontaneous, uncontrollable emotional and even physical reactions to that pain constitute his fundamental values (whereas in reality they are nothing but dark replacements of those values that turn him into a doppelgänger, a sadistic social monster driven to destroy his own son).
When truth challenges what we perceive as the very core of our existence, we have a choice : either to accept the truth and give up our false sense of self – or to ignore the truth and hold on to the falsehood that we imagine as conditio sine qua non of our sanity and survival. That’s when we may fall into the trap of aggressive denial. A human being in that state is highly susceptible to violent emotions, and prone to ignore any clear fact and any reasonable argument (like many people who suspect that they may be wrong but refuse to acknowledge that suspicion, Juror # 3 gives every indication of believing that if he says something forcefully enough it may become more true). That is the hardest, most impenetrable and lethal fallacy – but it, too, can be overcome if we realize that the false things inside us that we’re trying so hard to defend are not what we truly are. That’s how, in “12 Angry Men”, Juror # 3 defeats his pain and hatred by discovering the truth about his relationship with his son. This truth equals unconditional love and absolution, the very things that every child would want from a father: “No. Not guilty. Not guilty.”
In memory of Sidney Lumet