Analysis of ’12 Angry Men’

12 Angry Men is a 1957 courtroom drama directed by Sidney Lumet and based on a 1954 teleplay by Reginald Rose. The film stars Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, EG Marshall, and Jack Warden, with Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Joseph Sweeney, George Voskovec, Robert Webber, and Rudy Bond. (Sweeney and Voskovec played the same characters in the teleplay.)

12 Angry Men was selected as the second best courtroom drama, after To Kill a Mockingbird, by the AFI for their Top Ten List. The film is also considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever made.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

With the exceptions of Jurors 8 (Davis, played by Fonda) and 9 (McCardle, played by Sweeney), who reveal their names only at the very end of the film, we never learn the names of the jurors, who are all referred to by number: Jurors 1 (Balsam), 2 (Fiedler), 3 (Cobb), 4 (Marshall), 5 (Klugman), 6 (Binns), 7 (Warden), 10 (Begley), 11 (Voskovec), and 12 (Webber).

Since it will be easier to match the faces of the characters to the actors who play them than to go by their numbers, for this analysis I’ll be referring to the characters by the actors’ names. For the sake of consistency, I’ll even refer to Juror 8 as Fonda rather than as Davis, and to Juror 9 as Sweeney rather than as McCardle.

12 Angry Men is a fascinating exploration of how a consensus of opinion can be gradually changed from one side to the other, in this case from a simple preconception of events to a more nuanced, complex view of them. We see how, in the passion of his convictions, Fonda’s character is the needed agent of change from smug prejudice to sensitive observance.

Indeed, the main theme of this film is prejudice (not just of the class, racial, or ethnic kind, though in Begley [towards slum kids] and Warden [towards immigrants like Voskovec] we see ample examples of that; but also the literal judging of events before having had a proper, full understanding of everything that has happened) and of a needed confrontation with and dispelling of prejudice.

The film begins with a shot of, first, the outside of the New York City courthouse, then, a sweeping shot of the inside (to contrast, presumably, with how the vast majority of the film is shot only in the jury room); then, there’s a brief scene in the courtroom where the trial of an 18-year-old boy (played by John Savoca), from a slum and accused of stabbing his father to death, is coming to an end. The judge (Bond), who looks bored, hot, and tired, tells the jurors in a perfunctory way that they must decide either to convict or, if there’s a reasonable doubt of the boy’s guilt, to acquit him.

A brief shot of the young defendant shows how scared he is, for the reason of his nervousness is the same as that of the judge’s smug lack of feeling about the outcome: a verdict of guilty, leading to death by the electric chair, seems to be a fait accompli. The evidence seems to show the boy to be most obviously guilty. The verdict, however, must be unanimous.

It’s hot in the jury room, with no air conditioning, and the fan doesn’t even work, annoying Wagner in particular. Begley has a “hot weather cold”; he’s sniffling and coughing, with a handkerchief to his nose all the time. This physical discomfort is surely adding to the twelve men’s irritability.

There is a relationship between the level of irritability of each of these “twelve angry men” and their willingness or unwillingness to grow in knowledge, have their preconceptions challenged, and see things in a totally new way. Wilfred R. Bion worked out a theory of thinking that explains how growth in knowledge, what he called K, comes from an ability to process external agitations (beta elements), detoxify them (through alpha function), and make them tolerable for use in thought and dreams (i.e., turn beta elements into alpha elements).

Babies need their mothers to help them develop this ability to soothe, process, and detoxify raw, external stimuli; mothers soothe their babies by receiving, through projective identification (in Bion‘s sense, a preverbal form of communication between baby and mother), all the agitation the babies cannot cope with. Mothers soothe their babies’ anxiety through what Bion called maternal reverie and containment. As infants grow in K and are repeatedly soothed by their mothers, they learn how to soothe themselves, to be the containers of their own contained agitations, and to develop a thinking apparatus. (See this link for more on Bion and psychoanalytic concepts.)

The reason for my brief digression from 12 Angry Men is to explain the model for how the ability to grow in thinking and knowledge is based on the capacity to self-soothe when irritating external stimuli assail our senses. It is significant that the three men most resistant to changing their minds about the accused–Cobb’s, Begley’s, and Warden’s characters–are the ones most easily agitated by either sensory irritants (beta elements–the heat, a cold), or in Cobb’s case, a troubled father/son relationship.

At the beginning of deliberations in the jury room, Cobb is speaking with Fiedler in uncharacteristic calmness; Cobb is in complete denial of having any emotional stake in the case, imagining it to be such an open-and-shut case, the boy’s guilt so obvious and proven, that one needn’t discuss it any further. Just convict the boy and get it over with.

We soon learn, however, that Cobb has done an unconscious transference of his own, similarly-aged son onto the defendant. Sending the boy to the electric chair is equivalent, in Cobb’s mind, to punishing his son for having displeased him so often: seeing, to his embarrassment, his son run away from a fight, getting hit by his son in a fight of their own, and being estranged from his son ever since.

There is a mother’s containment of her child’s agitations, then there’s Cobb’s failure, as a father, to contain his son’s agitations. His son’s running away from a fight is embarrassing to Cobb’s sense of manhood, so he’s tried to toughen his son up. He’s succeeded, but at the cost of estranging his son from him. Cobb has subjected his son to what Bion considered negative containment: instead of soothing his son, Cobb has aggravated his son’s agitations.

The mechanism of containment and growing in K is projective identification, which as I said above is what Bion considered a preverbal form of communication, achieved through exchanging energy–through projection and introjection. When done well, this swapping of projections is soothing and conducive to intellectual and emotional growth; when done poorly, we see, for example, the mutual alienation caused by Cobb and his son.

Fonda, on the other hand, is trying to effect change in the jurors by achieving a more soothing, mutually beneficial exchange of energy among the twelve men. He’d replace contempt for the defendant with compassion. He tries to be as polite and reasonable as he can…though with this bunch, it can be very difficult to be nice.

The resistance of the other eleven to Fonda’s questioning of the facts of the case against the defendant can be described in terms of what Bion called attacks on linking, or the refusal/inability of the subject to link with the object (e.g., the self with other people–that is, the other jurors’ initial refusal to sympathize with Fonda), or to make links in knowledge between things. The result is, instead of a growth in K, the stubborn, adamant refusal to grow in knowledge…-K.

A few of the men, however, are open to Fonda’s wish to discuss the case further. The first of these is Sweeney, who admires Fonda’s courage in standing alone and risking the ridicule of the others. Elderly Sweeney is a wise, thoughtful, and observant gentleman. He has all the virtues one obtains from the ability to self-soothe and grow in knowledge through an exchange of energy with other people.

The opposite of such thinking can be seen in another old man, the bitter, bigoted character Begley plays. It’s not really clear if he is prejudiced against an ethnic group (Is the defendant of Italian background? Is he a Jew?) or against the working-class poor; as a garage owner, Begley is a petite bourgeois who therefore would regard himself as ‘superior’ to the working class. One therefore shouldn’t be surprised that he would have attitudes ultimately linked with fascism.

Begley’s generalizations about the defendant (“He’s a common, ignorant slob. He don’t [sic] even speak good English.”) are obvious projections of his own ungrammatical ignorance. His bigotry is a classic case of trying to project all that is wrong with himself onto the defendant.

Now, as wrongheaded and cruel as Cobb’s and Begley’s reasons are for insisting on a verdict of guilty, at least they have conviction, a firm position on the case, and they believe in consistency with that position. It can be argued, therefore, that Warner’s character is the most despicable of the bunch, for his whole motive in voting guilty or not guilty is in getting out of the jury room as quickly as possible…so he can arrive in time at a baseball diamond and watch the game.

A young man’s life is at stake, and all that Warner cares about is getting to the baseball game in time, so his tickets, which are “burning a hole in [his] pocket,” aren’t a waste of money. His impatience is a perfect example of the inability to soothe and detoxify external agitations, an impatience coupled with an unwillingness to grow in knowledge.

And in all irony, he changes his vote from guilty to not guilty…not because he’s had a real change of heart about the defendant (though, of course, he pretends that he’s had such a change). He simply realizes that the tide is turning in favour of acquittal, and his vote-changing, he imagines, will accelerate the end of deliberations so he can get to that baseball game sooner.

As for Begley and Cobb, their switches of a vote from guilty to not guilty come from a crushing humbling: it’s finally brought home to them that neither bigotry nor vindictiveness is an acceptable reason to send a boy to the electric chair. Warden, on the other hand, just wants to get to his precious baseball game as fast as he can. Begley and Cobb are forced to confront what’s despicable in them; Warden won’t face up to and admit his own contemptibility.

Further irony is in how what has really unfolded is not a growth in knowledge per se, but a realization of how little the men know of what really happened on the night of the murder. They haven’t established the boy’s innocence by any means; for all they know, he may really have stabbed his father. They instead have established a reasonable doubt, and that’s all that’s needed to secure an acquittal.

In Act V, scene 1 of As You Like It, Touchstone says, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” Cobb and Begley have learned this truth the hard way, while Fonda has understood it from the beginning. The truth is a fluid, ever-changing thing, so the acquiring of knowledge of the truth is, accordingly, going to be elusive.

With that elusiveness also comes the pain and annoyance of having to rethink one’s position; hence, Bion’s coupling of growth in K with the soothing of external agitations, of converting beta elements into alpha elements.

All twelve men have to go through this irritation: even the best-adjusted men–Fonda, Sweeney, Fiedler, Voskovec, Klugman, Binns, and Balsam–have their angry moments, hence the film’s title. Fonda loses his patience with Cobb, calling him “public avenger,” and “a sadist” for so vehemently wanting to execute the boy. Sweeney gets mad at Warner for tossing a scrunched-up ball of paper, bouncing it off the now-working fan, and accidentally hitting Sweeney in the head with it. Mild-mannered Fiedler calls Begley a “loudmouth” for being surly with him. Voskovec is the leader of those mad at Warner for changing his vote out of mere impatience. Klugman is offended by Begley’s anti-slum bigotry. Binns threatens to hit Cobb for speaking disrespectfully to elderly Sweeney. And Balsam petulantly offers to have Begley take over as foreman, since apparently he isn’t doing a good enough job at it.

Little by little, the ‘unshakeable’ evidence is re-examined and tossed aside as inadequate, much to the frustration of those insisting on conviction. The “unusual” switchblade knife used to stab the boy’s father to death, has at least one double, for Fonda’s found one in a shop in the boy’s neighbourhood.

Furthermore, the noise of a train passing by the scene of the crime would have made inaudible the yelled threat of “I’m going to kill you!” made by the boy to his father. Had the boy killed his father, he’d also have been most unlikely to have returned to the scene of the crime, as Voskovec notes, to retrieve the knife, the fingerprints already wiped off. Finally, people often say, “I’m going to kill you!” without literally meaning it, as Fonda baits Cobb into demonstrating.

Doubts are raised about the reliability of the second witness, who, due to his being slowed down by a leg he has to drag after a stroke, wouldn’t have been able to reach and open the door to his apartment–fifteen seconds after hearing the father’s body hit the floor–in time to see the boy running down the stairs, guiltily fleeing the scene of the crime, as the man testified.

As the deliberating carries on, and more and more jurors switch their votes from guilty to not guilty, not only does the fan start working (to Warner’s pleasant surprise), but it also rains briefly, thus cooling off the heat of the day. This shift from hot to cool, from dry to wet, symbolizes the shift of thinking among the jurors, from the heat of hate, vindictiveness, and bigotry, to the cool-headedness of reason, open-mindedness, and compassion.

In psychoanalytic terms, this shift can also be seen as one from what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position (which Bion abbreviated to PS) to the depressive position (D). PS is characterized by splitting away from oneself what one finds hateful and intolerable (the ‘schizoid’ aspect), and then fearing persecutory attacks from what has been split off (the ‘paranoid’ aspect). In railing away against the boy, Begley and Cobb are trying to split off what they unconsciously hate about themselves and project it onto the defendant; they also fear, in paranoid fashion, the boy’s acquittal, with the implication that he’ll be free to kill again.

D, however, is characterized by a fear of losing what is good in someone, along with the split-off, projected bad parts (‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’). In confronting the false premises behind Begley’s bigotry against slum kids and Cobb’s transferred hostility to his son, these two grumpy men have to acknowledge at least the possibility of innocence, of good, in the young defendant. This causes depressive anxiety in them, turning the self-righteous anger of Begley’s rant against slum kids into shameful sadness, and turning Cobb’s fury into tears…tears symbolized by the rain.

Marshall, as one of the last men to change his vote, is largely calm, rational, and free of personal bias against the boy. (He never even sweats…apparently.) He simply isn’t yet convinced that there’s a reasonable doubt of the boy’s guilt. Marshall, for example, doesn’t buy the boy’s alibi about being at the movies, yet forgetting the names of the films he saw, or the actors in them. Fonda tests Marshall’s memory of movies he’s recently seen, and Marshall shows less difficulty remembering them, but a difficulty sufficiently similar to that of the boy…and Marshall is under far less emotional stress than the boy was at the time. He uses a handkerchief to wipe some sweat off his brow.

Further doubt is established in how it’s unlikely that the boy, far shorter than his father, would have stabbed down (as the stabbing had actually been), rather than up, with the switchblade. Klugman, having been raised in a slum and regrettably more than acquainted with switchblades, insists that the boy would have stabbed upwards.

Finally, Marshall maintains that the testimony of the first witness, a woman who had a clear view of the boy stabbing his father, is incontrovertible evidence. Cobb goes so far as to say all the other evidence can be tossed aside: the woman’s testimony alone proves the boy’s guilt.

Once again, though, a coupling of physical discomfort with a reexamination of the facts leads to a growth in knowledge. Sweeney sees Marshall rubbing his nose because impressions put there by his eyeglasses irritate him. Though Sweeney sympathizes with Marshall’s discomfort–that is, he attempts to contain it, in Bion’s sense–Marshall, further irritated by Sweeney’s probing, fails to see the significance of rubbing where the dents from his eyeglasses are.

That woman rubbed her eyes often while on the stand. She was never seen in glasses in court, but she acted unmistakably like a wearer of them. The men assume she must have wanted to look younger and more attractive on the stand without her glasses; after all, she had those same indentations on her nose, so her rubbing of her nose is linked to her wearing of glasses. She’d been in bed when the murder occurred, and she wouldn’t have had the time to reach for her glasses and put them on to see the stabbing at a far-off distance, with a train racing by in between her home and where the murder happened.

She couldn’t have seen more than a blur.

Marshall now has a reasonable doubt. He switches his vote to not guilty.

Cobb now is all alone.

With his failure to convince any of the others that the boy is guilty, Cobb can only show more of his usual rage; but none of the other eleven, just looking at him calmly, will contain (in Bion’s sense) his rage. All he can do is revert to his hostility to his son, which, recall, he’s transferred onto the young defendant.

He’s had a photo in his wallet of himself and his son smiling, with their arms around each other. Cobb looks down at it before tearing it up (and tearing up and crying): the photo is a metaphorical mirror, in the Lacanian sense; he sees in it the ideal father/son relationship, one of love, and one he knows he can’t live up to, or at least hasn’t so far succeeded in living up to. His tearing it up, and his tears of shame, reveal the true, transferred source of his hostility. Now, he can only vote not guilty.

His weeping is like that of a baby whose agitations are never satisfied–not because a bad mother (or bad father) never soothed or detoxified them (that is, contained them), but because he now is consciously aware that he is the bad father. Fonda, however, helps restore some dignity in Cobb by getting his suit jacket for him and helping him put it on. Fonda, in this way, is playing the role of good parent, being in a state of, if you will, paternal reverie (in Bion’s sense), containing Cobb’s agitations and helping him to calm down.

Everyone leaves the courthouse. It’s wet outside, but the rain has stopped. Fonda (“Davis”) and Sweeney (“McCardle”) tell each other their names and say goodbye. The film ends with Cobb, far off in the background, walking down the steps in a sulk. With the end of the rain is the end of his passage through the depressive position. Who knows? Maybe he’ll call his son up and apologize for having been a bad father.

Then, we might have two happy men.

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