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One skeptical viewer

I just watched 12 Angry Men, supposedly one of the top 100 movies of all time, on DVD. Before watching it told my wife that I thought based on reputation that it was going to be “improving.” Now that I’ve watched it I suppose I must be improved.

Movie-wise, it’s not exactly up there with Children of Paradise. Instead, it’s a constructed and stagey morality play designed to show its target audience—prosperous self-satisfied mid-50s liberals—how American liberal institutions (like the jury) can overcome even the gross deficiencies of actual Americans (like the jurors) through the intervention of people like themselves, as they imagine themselves to be.

The movie deals with the jury deliberations following a murder trial. It starts off with a bored and inattentive judge telling the jury he’s going to fry the defendent, a scared, swarthy, 18-year-old low-life, if the verdict comes back “guilty.” The rest of the film, except for a very brief epilogue on the courthouse steps (with the sun coming out after a storm and the Hero walking off in his white suit after receiving the homage of his most distinguished follower), takes place in the jury room.

The jurors all want to find the kid guilty immediately except Henry Fonda, who has some doubts and wants to talk it through. Fonda’s the urban liberal’s fantasy of himself as a liberal: intelligent, thoughtful, understanding, and quietly courageous. He’s also a calmly confident architect, and so an educated professional (the only one on the jury), and presumably a competent technician, a successful man of affairs, and even something of an artist. He stands his ground and can get a bit angry, when the situation calls for it, but he also connects to others and shows compassion for defeated enemies. He’s truly a man for all seasons.

The action consists of the arguments and psychodramas through which doubts grow and the characters all come around to Fonda’s view of things. Each makes his decision basically in the order of how appealing he is as a human being (and how distant he is from the mid-50s liberal view of the typical superficial, loudmouthed, bigoted, business-oriented American):

  • First the wise old man.
  • Then the dignified and soulful immigrant craftsman who idealizes America and democracy.
  • After that the brooding sensitive guy from the rough slum background.
  • The rough-hewn salt-of-the-earth workingman.
  • The wimpy bank clerk.
  • A superficial and thoughtless duo (a loudmouth salesman and a chattering ad man).
  • The prissy stockbroker.
  • Two loudmouth bigoted small businessmen, the more resistant of whom has serious personal problems that have to do with his patriarchal authoritarianism and incipient fascism.

There’s also the neutral regular-guy jury foreman, who shows his neutrality and regular guyness by following the general sense of the group with a bit of a lag. The stockbroker’s something of an outlier, but I suppose he was stuck in to supplement the posturing about anger and bigotry and thoughtlessness and the authoritarian personality (see criticism) with an actual dispute over evidence. I’m glad the filmmakers felt the need to at least some extent.

Basically, the movie’s a case study of what happens when Hollywood hires big-name actors and a socially-conscious director and gets Serious. It’s not incompetently done, but it’s really silly to consider it one of the best movies ever.

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