It's a cynical truism in the eyes of many that a suspect is Guilty until proven Innocent (as a character says in Star Wars spoof Troops, "all suspects are guilty, if they weren't guilty they wouldn't be suspects!") - certainly in a jury like this one. In all the times I've listened to or read about court cases, it perplexes me how seemingly obvious guilty (or innocent) suspects can be forensically scrutinized and pared down to the bone so that the slightest bit of evidence can be disproved. This I realise, is too often the syndrome of personal prejudice.
Step into this corrupt world the man in the white suit: Henry Fonda, as the anonymous (as they all are) Juror No. 8, imbued with all of Fonda's integrity and just a hint of suppressed insecurity; a pet project of Fonda's, it was he who successfully lured Sidney Lumet into faithfully transferring Reginald Rose's gripping TV play onto the big screen, for which international cinema can be eternally grateful.
There can be fewer better first films than this one, exemplifying the theory that when unleashed on a new medium for the first time the artist is at his greatest: I confess I find much of Lumet's work (with one or two exceptions) painfully laboured and dull, but here his camera angles and build up of tension make it his most cinematic film of the lot, and all practically within the setting of one room.
That the subject itself was also riveting and unusual probably helped: in 90 per cent of films with court cases the jury is the bunch of people who retire (and in some of the more cliched trials don't even have to do that) to consider their verdict. The twist here is that this is the first scene of the film and not the last. We are briefly afforded a glimpse of the defendant himself, which is perhaps a dangerous move as his nervous little face clearly informs how the drama will develop - whereas without him we the audience can become just as prejudicial as those in the jury room.
Not just Lumet, but his brilliant ensemble cast (who were so well rehearsed in their roles to have done the play on tour had they wished) all deserve their mention, not just Henry Fonda. Starting with the Foreman himself (Martin Balsam), an inwardly proud but humbled, self-effacing man, like so many of Balsam's later characters, who performs his tricky role as coordinator of the 12 as meekly or as unobtrusively as he thinks he ought to, and never tries to make his personal opinions or prejudices known, either one way or the other. Balsam quickly became a Lumet favourite.
The Foreman however is upstanding and strong-willed in coparison to Juror No. 2, a funny little man as played with expert diligence by John Fiedler, but much smarter than he looks or sounds, often spoken down to by the bigger brutes in the jury who think they Know Better, of whom the most ballistic of the lot is Juror No. 3 (the explosive Lee J. Cobb), a man of deeply troubled convictions who can't help but compare the accused in the dock with his own troublesome son, and thereby becomes the hardest of the twelve nuts to crack. Next to him comes the second hardest, Juror No. 4 (E.G. Marshall) who is in some ways, the flip side of Fonda: an intelligent, educated man, but also very clinical, and for whom the supposed facts of the case easily match the crime.
Juror No. 5 (Jack Klugman) is on the surface, the vulnerable weakling of the jury, quickly betraying his slum origins similar to those of the defendant. It is to the credit of Klugman's skill and versatility that he can play such a nervous outcast as expertly as his later TV work (such as Quincy and The Odd Couple).
Edward Binns is Juror No. 6, another brilliantly versatile character actor, playing to his minor misfortune the least dramatically interesting of the twelve jurors: a principled working man - but only as far as it goes ("I don't suppose, my boss does the supposing..."), perhaps the typical average juror.
The most enjoyable of the twelve is the goofy but still prejudiced Juror No. 7, whose only passion is getting to the ball game on time - the first of many splendid star character roles for Jack Warden.
Next to Fonda is the wonderful Joseph Sweeney as Juror No. 9, the elder statesman of the group who naturally shrivels into the crowd at first (sympathising with one fellow elderly gent in the witness stand), but as the discussion in the jury room grows, so too does his confidence, and it is he who uncovers the key piece of evidence that swings the jury's verdict...
...unlike Juror No. 10 (played with commendable belligerence by Ed Begley), a racist bigot who huffs and puffs (and coughs) his way through his one-sided point of view, ultimately into self submission.
He is also irritated by the obsequious politeness of Juror No. 11 (Russian character actor George Voskovec), who has the perfect riposte to No. 10: it's the way he was brought up. A token immigrant New York presence in the twelve perhaps, but once again, brilliantly and thoughtfully played and sympathetically written. Finally there comes the slick operator Juror No. 12, whose vacuous world of advertising is as far removed from the defendant's as can be possibly imagined ("We were lucky to get a murder trial. I figured us for an assault or burglary, boy those can be the dullest. Hey, is that the Woolworth building?") and played to perfection by another future TV face, Robert Webber.
From all this it is apparent how the verdict will turn out, but it makes the process of watching it unfold all the more riveting. It is rare to find a film where all of the actors give excellent, well-thought out characterisation in almost every level of the drama, not only in the jury room but also in the judge's summing up at the end of the trial...and the finale where all the jurors descend the steps of New York's County Courthouse (below), taking all their prejudices - good or bad - out with them, but not without effect: the last of the jurors to descend the steps is the soberly thoughtful Juror No. 3.