When I was younger I thought 12 Angry Men was a near perfect ensemble film with a great group of male players. At that time in those sexist fifties women had an automatic out from jury duty. It was not unusual to have all male juries as we have here.Then I served on a few juries and my concepts changed. One of the key scenes of the film is when Henry Fonda produces a switchblade knife exactly like the weapon the young perpetrator allegedly used in the stabbing death of his father. The second that Fonda produced that knife, someone should have yelled for a mistrial.
In all 50 states of the United States of America, a standard jury instruction is that the jury is to decide the guilt or innocence of a defendent on the evidence presented at trial. Jurors are free to come and go until they are sequestered for the verdict. But they are instructed not to go near the crime scene or gather ANY independent evidence.
I remember being on jury duty and assigned on a case where the crime took place in an apartment that was one block away from one of two routes to a BMT subway stop that took me to work. And those same subways also took me to downtown Brooklyn and the court house. I made it a point to take the IRT to court for the next two weeks while the trial went on to avoid the temptation of going over to the crime scene.
The juries I was on did debate and in some cases quibble over all the points of the trial. They were a good cross section of the breed Brooklynus Americanus just as in 12 Angry Men. If you watch Law and Order you know how hard the prosecutors job is to get 12 people to convict.
Still it's a wonderful group of players that participated here. Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb are the biggest names in the cast. But others like Robert Webber, John Fiedler, Martin Balsam, and Jack Klugman got their first real notice in this film.
Jack Klugman's portrayal was a particular favorite of mine among the group. He's from the same slum background as the defendent and some of the knowledge he has from that environment makes for the most compelling argument for the defendent's innocence.
We should be thankful that Sidney Lumet assembled and directed the find cast he did...