12 Angry Men, Sidney Lumet’s most famous movie, is deceptively simple in its presentation. The tricks employed are famous: the continually sinking camera and the continually narrowing lens bring you closer and closer into the claustrophobic action; the parts of a single heated dialogue were often filmed weeks apart as part of a lighting scheme meant to keep the film within its budget. All of this heartache was for a strange purpose: having a movie that seemed to be shot in a single, small, shrinking room. The smaller the set the simpler and cheaper the production, no? If filming on the smaller set costs so much, why not work with something a bit bigger? There is a Russian adaption of this movie which sidesteps many difficulties by having the jurors meet in a gym, but by doing so the play is irrevocable altered; in such a visual medium as film the sense of place can be protagonistic in its effect.
The room into which the men first file is an uncomfortable one: greasy walls, sticky windows, a broken fan, a bare table and a dozen chairs (trials were probably shorter before the advent of AC). It is a room meant for a single purpose and demanding undivided attention for whatever case is to hand: as the truth is approached there is less room—the walls themselves force confrontation with oneself. What is it like to have the world collapse upon you?
Lee Cobb, credited as ‘Juror 3’ and known as ‘The Big Man’ in our discussions about the film, expresses his boredom and feigns an open mind when he attempts to label the matter a clear-cut case. Since only Henry Fonda’s character does not immediately agree with Cobb the focus seems to shift to Fonda, and also, since Fonda is thwarting a quick and easy decision, around him the conversation centers. There are ways to understand this film while taking Fonda as the protagonist, but I believe there is more here than a good man willing to make space for the truth, and that Cobb is the man to watch—if Cobb had held out for another ten minutes he may well have been the only man left in the room threatening him with isolated self-reflection.
We do not wish to be found guilty of our sins, we hope to deny them, or, finding that impossible, we wish others to take them upon themselves. Not thinking the latter is likely, we choose to impose the guilt upon those around us and use their supposed grime to wash ourselves clean. A man might wish to blame his boss for his own lousy performance or a father his son for their differences; an uncompromising man, however, would know that to rest there is not to escape guilt, for who is party to the strife but themselves? It must go further, the blame must be attributed to a nature, the nature of bosses, of sons, of whomever else can have the accusation laid at their feet: ‘If all sons, if all bosses, are like this, then clearly it is simply accidental that I am involved—the blame couldn’t be mine’.
There is another way, a way which ends in admitting that all are guilty for all before all. ‘I am guilty’ is the beginning of this way, and an understanding of universal guilt the result of seeing the evil around you. Once you can understand this, you can love Him who is willing to come and take your guilt upon Himself although He alone can truly say ‘I am not guilty’. And in that love, and through Him, you can love those around you for the good He has universally given.
Holding to a belief in your innocence will lead you to a solitary isolation as those around you necessarily abandon you and you abandon them to your despair. In your mind, if not in further ways, they shall switch sides and stand against you and your world shall shrink heedlessly into a cell built of your own pride and hate. Forced to confront the truth you must despair or cave beneath the pressure of a collapsing world, condemn yourself, and say of the other: ‘not guilty’.