“One man is dead, another man’s life is at stake, if there’s a reasonable doubt in your minds as to the guilt of the accused, uh a reasonable doubt, then you must bring me a verdict of “Not Guilty.” If, however, there’s no reasonable doubt, then you must, in good conscience, find the accused “Guilty.” However you decide, your verdict must be unanimous. In the event that you find the accused “Guilty,” the bench will not entertain a recommendation for mercy. The death sentence is mandatory in this case. You’re faced with a grave responsibility, thank you, gentlemen.”
After those words are spoken by the presiding judge, twelve men leave the courtroom in order to deliberate the fate of an eighteen year old who is accused of stabbing his father to death with a switchblade knife. The scene is one of only three minutes of screen time, during the black and white film’s 96 minutes, that takes place outside of the room the jury will be deliberating in. Premiering on April 10, 1957, in Los Angeles, California, Sidney Lumet’s (Dog Day Afternoon) first feature film is an absorbing and compelling drama. Written for the screen by prolific television writer Reginald Rose, based on his original story, despite receiving critical acclaim and three Oscar nominations, the movie was a commercial failure upon its initial release. Only with the passing of time has its importance in cinematic history grown, and has it achieved the reputation of a dramatic masterpiece that it so richly deserves.
Once the jury, none of whom use names, but instead only numbers, except for two of them during a brief scene at the end of the film, is behind closed doors, the foreman, Juror #1, Martin Balsam (Psycho) calls for a preliminary vote. The result of the vote is 11 – 1 in favor of a guilty verdict. Henry Fonda’s (The Grapes of Wrath) character, Juror #8, is the lone dissenting vote, much to the chagrin of the rest of the members of the jury; especially Juror #3, Lee J. Cobb (On The Waterfront). Cobb’s complex character has no desire to talk about the facts of the case and is constantly trying to shoot down any reasonable doubt that is brought up. “Wait a minute, what are you trying to give us here? The phrase was “I’m gonna kill you;” the kid yelled it at the top of his lungs… Don’t tell me he didn’t mean it! Anybody says a thing like that the way he said it, they mean it!” Juror #3 is not alone; he is joined by the vociferous and repugnant Juror #10, veteran television actor Ed Begley, who only wants to find the boy guilty because of the teenager’s ethnic background. “Listen to me. We’re… This kid on trial here… his type, well, don’t you know about them? There’s a, there’s a danger here. These people are dangerous. They’re wild. Listen to me. Listen.”
Fonda’s character is interested in talking through the facts of the case. If this had been a real life scenario, and he hadn’t spoken up, the accused would have hurriedly been found guilty and put to death by the electric chair. As viewers, we have not yet been privy to the facts of the case, because unlike many courtroom dramas, the movie doesn’t concern itself with showing clips of the actual trial. Usually there will at least be clips of a defense lawyer raising elements of reasonable doubt as to his client’s guilt; conversely, a valiant crusader for the prosecution is normally showcased imploring the jury to hand down a verdict of guilty in order to remove a menace to society from the streets. Instead, the viewer learns the facts of the case through the dialogue that is spoken during the jury’s deliberations taking place in a small, stuffy room that doesn’t have air conditioning or a working fan, as the men who comprise the jury raise their voices in anger, take cheap shots at one another, sweat bullets and smoke cigarettes. If tensions weren’t high enough, the sweltering day happens to be the hottest of the year in New York City, according to Jack Warden’s (Heaven Can Wait) Juror #7, who is aching to get done with the proceeding so he can go to a baseball game he has tickets to for later that evening between the Yankees and Cleveland Indians.
After Fonda’s initial holdout of a guilty verdict, he methodically goes about persuading the other men as to the reasonable doubt involved in the case. He’s not trying to convince the men of the boy’s outright innocence, he just wants them to re-examine things that bothered him during the course of the trial.
“According to the testimony, the boy looks guilty… maybe he is. I sat there in court for six days listening while the evidence built up. Everybody sounded so positive, you know, I… I began to get a peculiar feeling about this trial. I mean nothing is that positive. There’re a lot of questions I’d have liked to ask. I don’t know, maybe they wouldn’t have meant anything, but… I began to get the feeling that the defense counsel wasn’t conducting a thorough enough cross-examination. I mean, he… he let too many things go by… little things that…”
For the most part, the film doesn’t concern itself with arriving at a finite answer as to the teenager’s guilt or innocence. No, what it does instead is champion the concept of reasonable doubt; the belief that an accused individual is innocent until proven guilty, which is the cornerstone of American jurisprudence. Juror #8 discusses everything from the possible uncaring attitude of the boy’s court appointed lawyer to the validity of the prosecution witnesses. One is an old man who claims he ran to the door from his bedroom at the end of a long hallway, even though he walks with a limp. He claims he saw the boy fleeing the scene of the crime seconds after the murder took place. Fonda imitates the steps the old man would have had to have taken, and has it timed by Juror #2, portrayed by character actor John Fiedler in his film debut. A woman, approaching fifty years of age, who tries to make herself look ten years younger, testified that she was tossing and turning in bed, and happened to look out of her bedroom window located sixty feet away from where the murder took place. She states in open court that she witnessed the boy kill his father, while a moving elevated train passed, but what she doesn’t tell the jurors is that she wears eye glasses, which she wouldn’t have worn to bed, something which Juror #4, E.G. Marshall (The Defenders), who wears glasses, attests to. A staunch holdout, even though he admits Juror #8 has raised excellent points, he is convinced of the boy’s guilt, until he, an eye glass wearer, recognizes that reasonable doubt exists, when he states that no one who wears glasses wears them while sleeping. And then there is the question of the switchblade knife that was used to kill the boy’s father; a father, who was a full seven inches taller than his son, who managed to kill him by stabbing downwards. The murder weapon was a knife that a store owner claims was one of a kind. Fonda has some tricks up his sleeve when it comes to the knife and he is aided by Jack Klugman’s (The Odd Couple) Juror #5, whose character knows a thing or two about knife fights. As to the knife fight, I won’t reveal what happens, as I don’t want to spoil it for those of you who have not yet seen this classic gem.
Does Juror #8 persuade his fellow jurors to find the boy not guilty by a reasonable doubt? Will the deliberations end in a hung jury, forcing another group of people to decide the boy’s fate? Will Juror #8 finally succumb to peer pressure and ignore his conscious in order to appease the other jurors? All of those questions are answered at the conclusion of the film’s runtime. For fans of classic films, and outstanding dramas in general, this is a movie that must be seen.