Wait a second, I’ve seen that guy before, what movie is he in?
I have likely posed that question hundreds of times when watching films with my father. Luckily, he has a keen penchant for placing character actors in their many unmemorable but important roles. Top billed actors or actresses often overshadow character actors, but character actors have an effective tool at their disposal—anonymity.
12 ANGRY MEN is an underdog story of sorts. Henry Fonda fought for the film’s production; he backed it financially and convinced United Artists to take it on after many other rejections. 12 ANGRY MEN’s plot was already readily known to audiences – it was an Emmy Award winning teleplay on CBS three years prior to the film’s release in 1957. The film also gambled on the film debuts of every actor except for top billed Henry Fonda.
Character actors are often formulaic fillers for film. Like the main cast, character actors are subject to typecasting. Nevertheless, they are able to retain a level of anonymity. Character actors have the wonderful ability to play a part with greater authenticity because the audience has not built up an extensive opinion or knowledge of their career. They do not garner the instantaneous recognition of a Hollywood star. The use of character actors in 12 ANGRY MEN is a perfect casting match for the overall feel of the film. This is a cast of anonymous people playing a jury of anonymous people devoid of personal backgrounds, even names.
To compliment the unassuming cast of characters, the setting of 12 ANGRY MEN is equally ordinary. The set strips away obvious markers that indicate a time period or provide information about the characters or plot. With these markers removed, the audience is forced to consider more subtle and abstract concepts. One architectural element that demands consideration is windows. Windows symbolize openings or paths that offer a glance into something obscure or hidden from view. In 12 ANGRY MEN, windows symbolize both the looking out into the world we inhabit and the inward reflection of our justice system that attempts to maintain order.)
One scene involving Juror #1 (Marty Balsam/the foreman) and Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) uses windows to illustrate the themes of introspection vs. extrospection. The foreman and Juror #8 remove themselves from the other jurors and direct their gazes outward, through the window. The foreman begins a personal vignette about his coaching career. This story distracts not only the foreman and Juror #8 from the ruckus inside the jury room, but it temporarily distracts the audience. We forget, for the moment, about the case. We see instead two men creating a human connection through story telling. They look together through a window at the world they inhabit. This connection reflects through the window back onto the two men. Despite all the elements working against them (including the fact that at this moment in time, both disagree on the verdict), they forge a bond, illustrating the resilience of humanity.
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The word “what” is typically used to ascertain further knowledge or specific details. We see this usage employed only in a singular exchange at the close of the film between Juror #8 and the older gentleman (the older gentleman asks “What is your name?”). The other 49 instances of the word “what” serve no purpose of acquiring specific details or answers, but are instead used as a method of deflection.
The brunt of the usage comes from the most outspoken and defensive juror, #3 (Lee J. Cobb). Juror #3 exclaims a series of rhetorical questions: “What do you mean?” and “What difference does it make?” He’s not looking for a response or explanation from his fellow jurors; instead he is expressing his anger (which stems from his broken relationship with his son), by deflecting it upon the other jurors and ultimately the accused.
Juror #3 is able to sustain his personal agenda of vengeance through verbal and emotional deflection. However, as the supporters of the “guilty” verdict dwindle, Juror #3’s character unravels and self-destructs. As we saw with Juror #10 (Ed Begley) whose motives are racked with unfounded prejudice, silence is also employed as a tactic. When the other members of the jury refrain from indulging in the sporadic outbursts of Juror #3, he has no one left to deflect his anger upon. He is forced to direct his personal views inward and only has himself to answer to. Like a parasite, Juror #3, latches onto the opinions and beliefs of other jurors to support his own twisted view of the case. When left to his own devices, Juror #3 reveals his unfounded motives for his verdict of “guilty”.
12 ANGRY MEN endures as a courtroom thriller because it plays against the instincts of a typical thriller films. Instead of relying on quick cutaways and abrupt edits of action sequences, the screenplay offers fast paced action. Vast cities and exotic locations are replaced with a singular, minimalist set that contains the action, creating an uncomfortable, claustrophobic arena of contention from which the audience cannot escape. The mundane process of jury duty that most would rather avoid is elevated into a thrilling tale that retains its relevance to this day.
A new digital restoration, 12 ANGRY MEN plays August 2nd-August 4th.