Double Exposure: ’12 Angry Men’ (1957)

“Double Exposure” is a brand new column dedicated to bringing attention to classic films of note.

Written by Reginald Rose and directed by Sidney Lumet, “12 Angry Men” reigns as perhaps the most important courtroom drama of our time.

The premise is simple: On a muggy, Manhattan afternoon, twelve jurors are locked into a room to decide the guilt or innocence of a Puerto-Rican teenager sentenced to die for the alleged murder of his father. The vote for guilty appears to be unanimous — until it’s not.

Juror #8 (played by Henry Fonda) breaks the mold when he raises his hand to vote innocent, kicking the hornet’s nest in the same moment. He has one weapon in this arena, and that weapon is reasonable doubt.

His main opponent is Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb), a man who proves blindly prejudiced when he can’t see past his own personal bias.

One by one, Juror #8 must sway the others into hearing his logic. Tensions are taut; the room is in a furor as a battle of morals ensues between jurors of all different values and upbringings.

In the film’s lighter moments, it becomes a satisfying battle of wits as characters top each other with well-worded one-liners at every turn (“He’s a common ignorant slob; he don’t even speak good English,” says the bigoted Juror #10, describing the accused boy. “He doesn’t even speak good English,” corrects Juror #11, a European immigrant, with a reaffirming smile).

The colorful characters in the background may represent the juror in each of us: Juror #4 (E.G. Marshall) is starkly neutral. Juror #2 (John Fiedler) is the nervous peacemaker. Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney) is old and wise, and Juror #7 (Jack Warden) just wants to go home.

The story, quite literally a matter of life and death, acts as an extreme metaphor for daily instances of judgment and highlights its potential dangers.

“12 Angry Men” never gets old. Applicable to any time and place, it’s a whirlwind of humanity that will take you in and, by the end, leave you with a heightened sense of compassion.

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