I was a teenager when I first saw the movie 12 Angry Men, and watching it I was perplexed. I was so used to seeing films end on a conclusive note that I didn’t know what to make of it.
In virtually any other movie one might care to mention, the purpose of the action is to deliver a convincingly unified resolution to the plot. Loose ends always get tied up. Mysteries are always unravelled. Yet in 12 Angry Men the movement is in the opposite direction entirely.
To be sure, the film begins with certainty and clarity. A boy is on trial for murder. All but one of the jurors finds the evidence of his guilt to be overwhelming.
These twelve men of the jury are shown as pillars of a society steeped in fairness and egalitarianism. They come from all walks of life. There is a garage owner, an architect, a stockbroker, a house painter. What bridges the gaps between them is their certainty, their fresh and clear assurance that the accused boy is a guilty criminal and should face the death penalty.
In these opening scenes, the jury room is an orderly space. The camera dwells in mid-shots. Yet as Fonda’s character slowly, almost meekly, unpicks the certainties of each of the other jurors’ assumptions, so the claustrophobia of the film builds. The jury room gets hotter; the camera moves from above eye-level to below and the number of close-ups increases.
By the time the film reaches its conclusion, all certainly has been disproved. Through carefully judged argument, about how certain each juror can really be about their position, Fonda’s character has won the day. But it is a curious victory. Nobody can say for certain if the evidence is convincing or not. The prejudices and shortcomings of the members of the jury have been exposed, that is all. The room has filled up with muggy doubt, and so the film has delivered its fascinating rationale.
The film ends with the light of doubt cast in every corner. At its resolution, there is no case for certainty at all.
This is a fascinating aspect of a film that began as a teleplay, then was remodelled as a stage play, and finally brought to the big-screen in 1957. The cycle of rewriting and recasting undoubtedly distilled the elements of the story into increasingly defined forms, so that the film version, made three years after the teleplay production, is now regarded as a moment of greatness in twentieth century art. Henry Fonda is the unassuming voice of dissent against characters that are generally louder and more aggressive. They represent bullish conviction. Henry Fonda is never convinced one way or the other; he is merely unsure.
The movie’s resistance to film-making norms is extraordinary. The narrative dynamic may be explained by saying that the film’s purpose is to confront the human predilection for certainly. The underlying premise, that which makes the film successful, is that certainty can be a destructive force. By the end credits, the audience has had all the familiar elements of resolution taken away. All that is left are loose ends.
In today’s society, when people seem more divided than ever and less willing to consider opposing sides of the questions that divide us, this film remains an important essay in doubt. 12 Angry Men, in its conflicted and ambivalent way, makes a case for uncertainty as a truly worthwhile and democratic way of encountering the world.