I shouldn’t have done it, I know, but last night I watched 12 Angry Men again on television. Its principal interest is sociological. It preserves in celluloid a representative collection of liberal stereotypes circa 1957 — bloviating bigot Ed Begley, Lonely Crowd adman Robert Webber, hypersensitive slum-dweller Jack Klugman (looking positively fawn-like, if you can believe it), neurotically precise broker E.G. Marshall, short-fused martinet Lee J. Cobb, broad-minded and tolerant architect Henry Fonda. What is it with Hollywood and architects anyway? How come they always get a free pass? Why are there doctor and lawyer jokes in store, but no architect jokes? One of the funniest running gags in Seinfeld was George, pretending not to be unemployed, continually masquerading as an architect. It’s so respectable, and you probably won’t have to answer any embarrassing technical questions. If I ever write a screeplay, I’m going to make my villain an architect, out of sheer perversity.
One thing you can’t help but notice, after you’ve seen this movie a few times, is how obviously guilty the boy is. Henry Fonda demolishes the eyewitness testimony, on which E.G. Marshall, the voice of prosecutorial reason, foolishly bases his case, but eyewitness testimony is usually unreliable anyway. Consider the murder weapon instead. The accused owned a switchblade with an elaborately carved handle, supposedly unique: the storekeeper where he bought it said he had never seen another. A switchblade of the same design was found in his father’s chest. The accused, questioned by the police about his own switchblade, maintained that he lost it through a hole in his pocket. (We’ll presume, though we’re never told, that his pocket actually did have a hole in it.) His alibi is that he went to the movies, whose titles, plots and actors he could not recall. Architect Fonda’s first gambit is to show the jury an identical switchblade that he bought in a pawnshop, reasoning thence that someone else could have done it. Maybe, but if the accused is innocent one is obliged to believe the following: first, that the real perpetrator committed the murder, coincidentally, with a knife identical to the one the suspect owned; second, that the accused lost his own knife on the very same night; and third, that he watched two movies and was unable to recall, when questioned immediately afterwards, a thing about either one. Reopen the deliberations, dammit! I want to hang that jury.
(Update: Jim Valliant, a district attorney, notes in the comments that by not turning the knife he bought over to the judge, Henry Fonda was also guilty of misconduct.)
(Another: Brian Micklethwait comments.)