September 1, 2010
Twelve Angry Men
"In 12 Angry Men (1957) [Henry Fonda] was the only voice of reason when an innocent boy is being railroaded on a murder case."
--Robert Fulford, Aug 31, 2010, National Post
It's pleasant to see how somethings don't change; Bob Fulford, for example, after all these years still rigorously eschewing nuance and subtlety in his analysis of film. About the only way he could improve on this travesty of a capsule review would be by remembering Henry Fonda pulling a Perry Mason with a last minute reveal of the guilty criminal.
I don't know how you'd find any evidence of railroading on the part of the prosecution; what they do is put together a neat tidy case based partly on circumstantial evidence, partly on an eyewitness identification nobody seems to know is suspect. (If the prosecution is aware the eyewitness is nearsighted and wasn't wearing her glasses when she made the ID, they can be accused of railroading even if they believe the circumstantial evidence and think the witness ties it up with a ribbon, but isn't crucial in itself. But I don't recall there being any suggestion of that. Surely the possibility of an apparently unbeatable case being made, in good faith, out of a succession of such imperfectly linked pieces of evidence is unsettling enough without any assumption of police or prosecutorial malice.)
If it's the jury who are railroading the accused, they don't do much of a job of it, slidng over one by one to a not guilty verdict over a single afternoon of deliberations--and if Fonda's character is the sole voice of reason how does that happen? Not only are they won over by his arguments, they are won over by their own--Fonda's character only starts the ball rolling. If he were the unique voice of reason the most he could have achieved would be a hung jury, eleven for conviction v. one for acquittal.
As for 'an innocent boy'--that's the plot pivot for a much more straightforward melodrama than Twelve Angry Men. When Fonda's character says "We may never know what happened that night," he means precisely that; they don't vote acquittal because they're certain he's innocent but because what looked like a rock solid case against him has revealed cracks and fissures which crumble it to bits. On the presumption of innocence he's innocent, and the odds are that he actually is--but high odds are not a certainty, and what's most interesting about Reginald Rose's play in all its incarnations--on television, film and the legitimate stage--is its creative integration of uncertainty, normally an element vigorously excised from courtroom/trial drama.