At the end of a murder trial in New York City, the twelve jurors retire to consider the verdict. The man in the dock is a young Puerto Rican accused of killing his abusive father. The opening scene shows the judge instructing the jury about their responsibilities, looking bored and perhaps assuming the jury would quickly find the young man guilty. Eleven of the twelve jurors do not hesitate in finding him guilty. The twelfth, played by Henry Fonda, is reluctant to condemn the young man to death without debate. No names were shared – they were known only by their number.
This is not an action movie. The setting is predominantly the jury room. There is some dramatic music as the jury left the courtroom, but no music at any other stage in the movie. It is hot and stifling in the jury room – reflecting the heat of the arguments to come. Representative of the era in which the movie was filmed, the jury members are all male; the majority are smoking. Gradually the split moves towards not guilty. When the count moves to equal guilty/not guilty, a change in the weather heralds a change in the room – rain starts, the light is switched on, the fan starts working, the atmosphere starts to cool down.
Our discussion noted how easy it could be to convict or acquit based on prejudice, or interpretation of evidence, even though the role of the jury is to decide on guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Everyone agreed that the movie was riveting.
It was interesting to see the development of the various characters and relationships. Many points were brought up showing that the claims of innocence by the young man could possibly be correct, and that the statements from the witnesses were possible flawed. All the characters brought different perspective to the discussion, but the standout characters apart from juror 8, the part played by Henry Fonda, were jurors 3, 9 and 10. Juror 9, Joseph Sweeney, was observant and logical, not getting caught up in the “heat” of the arguments. Juror 10, Ed Begley, displayed his prejudice against the Puerto Ricans, calling them all liars, not caring about lives, killing recklessly when they felt like it. Eventually after a rant about this, all the other jurors turned their backs on him – symbolic of the realisation that possible his guilty judgement was based on his prejudice. It took Juror 3, Lee J Cobb, longer to realise his prejudice – not based on race, but on his experience with his own son. It was only as he tore up a photo of his son he perhaps realised he was judging on the age of the accused, and failed father/son relationships.
I am in the process of planning our early sessions for 2017. Ideas include some of the classics which are shorter than some of the more recent films, and fit comfortably in the time we have available while we are meeting in W4. I hope some confirmed ideas will be available at registration in January.