Ok, to be honest, this addition to The Cutting Room Floor is slightly academically inspired. I’m in a law class called Judging the Jury, so I thought it only fitting to cover the one movie we all pretty much thought about when asked about our perceptions of what the American jury is really like.
As you may have guessed from the title, this movie is not a traditional courtroom saga such as can be seen in A Few Good Men (you know, that movie where Jack Nicholson screams “You can’t handle the truth!”). The movie begins when the trial of a Puerto Rican man ends, a defendant charged with the murder of his father by stabbing. We get to see closing arguments and jury instructions that reiterate what a guilty verdict will mean—the death penalty—and then all the action begins. The jurors, the likes of which include the incredible Henry Fonda, Martin Balsam (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), and Lee J. Cobb (On the Waterfront), are sequestered, and there’s no coming out until they reach a verdict. Initial opinions suggest they’re prepared for a swift conviction, but Henry Fonda, the wrench-throwing, seemingly innocuous Juror #8 isn’t so sure—“I’m not trying to change your mind. It’s just that…we’re talking about somebody’s life here. We can’t decide it in five minutes. Supposing we’re wrong?” And with that quote starts the vicious back and forth between, well, 12 angry men, who switch sides, waver on the edge of guilty-not-guilty, and try to recreate the events of the stabbing and the position of the witnesses, sometimes at the risk of injuring themselves. I’ll leave you to discover the outcome.
If you liked My Cousin Vinny, which involved the pairing of Joe Pesci and Marissa Tomei in what was undoubtedly one of the best trial scenes in movie history, then you’ll definitely enjoy this movie. Henry Fonda seriously steals the show with his aggressive, take-charge acting. The viewer almost feels as if he knew he was the star of this production; it certainly comes through in his performance. Honestly, Henry Fonda is probably the main reason this film made AFI’s list. The construction of the film is not revolutionary, but for a few camera angles, and the dialogue isn’t biting or awe-inspiring. The cast as a whole brings the fairly interesting plot to life as best they can, and I think in the 50s, this was probably a much more fascinating area of life. There are some spheres of life to which we have limited access—medicine and law used to be two of them, but today, television alone, not to mention the movies, is saturated with legal thrillers and medical dramas galore. The law is not a novel area to bring to the big screen anymore. But as far as legal thrillers go, 12 Angry Men is a pretty good example. You don’t need to watch it with sixty-year-old glasses to appreciate it; it has enough merits to stand on its own, but it’s worthy to note the context because some might be underwhelmed. Though I will say, to the film’s credit, that the director did a good job of showing how tensions can boil over just because it’s a hot summer day, and there are some quick close-up exchanges that depict this well. But Henry Fonda is the real draw and really not to be missed, so it is definitely worth a shot. So get out your yellow legal pad and settle in, because it’s going to be one big trial.