Why I No Longer Like 12 Angry Men (1957)

Why I No Longer Like 12 Angry Men (1957)

Like everyone else, growing up I had it beaten into my head that certain movies were the cream of the crop of cinema and above criticism. One of those films is Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957). The movie has such a reputation as an undisputed masterpiece that it has one of the highest ratings at the IMDB.

I would’ve loved this movie forever had something not happened. I got called for jury duty not once, but three times. Although I never got to serve on an actual trial, all three times I and other potential jurors were extensively briefed on the finer points of deliberation. What we were taught couldn’t have been far more removed than what was shown in 12 Angry Men. In fact, as it turned out, the hero of the movie (Juror 8) had done the very things you weren’t supposed to do as a juror.

Initially, I forgave 12 Angry Men’s transgressions as just artistic license. I figured that since screenwriter Reginald Rose wasn’t a lawyer or someone well-versed in law, there were bound to be a few errors here and there. And besides, in a drama, you sometimes have to fudge things a little bit to hold the audience’s interest.

However, the third time I was called to jury duty and was briefed yet again, I began to realize the uncomfortable truth–that the flaws in 12 Angry Men weren’t really innocent transgressions; they were very purposeful and cynical by someone who had not only served on a trial but had figured out how to subvert the deliberation process.

How? True to the spirit of this blog, I’m going to deconstruct the movie piece by piece to show why, although 12 Angry Men is superbly acted, the writing itself is a very cynical and manipulative work that ironically does the opposite of what it’s pretending to do.

Reginald Rose’s Cynical Enterprise

As the famous saying goes,  looks can be deceiving. Nowhere is that truer than with 12 Angry Men. The premise of the film is that a young disadvantaged teen is being tried for murder, at a time when the only penalty was the electric chair. When the trial closes, 11 jurors immediately render a verdict of “guilty.” One of them, Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) is shocked and horrified that his fellow jurors are rendering a verdict almost immediately, as if they’re not conscience of the fact that they’re basically sending someone to death. And, as someone who’s conscientious, he’s not comfortable with the idea of rendering a verdict so quickly. He wants everyone to really talk everything out so that they’re really sure they’ve made the right decision.

Initially, when you watch 12 Angry Men, you come away feeling that it’s a very noble, well meaning film that’s all about the importance of taking jury duty seriously and understanding the stakes in a murder trial in which a guilty verdict can end a person’s life. However, when you take a more critical look at the movie, you will realize that there’s something far more sinister going on beneath the surface. What you realize is that Reginald Rose is using a real life murder case to play out a smug intellectual exercise, with Juror 8 as his alter ego. The exercise is this:

You’re serving on a murder trial in which the only punishment is the electric chair. The defendant is undeniably, absolutely guilty without exception. As a juror, you have the responsibility to convict him. The problem is that you’re anti-death penalty, so handing in a guilty verdict would be going against your principles. To make matters worse, it’s an open and shut case, so chances are that the verdict will be unanimous. What can you do to save this defendant from the electric chair?

In a situation like this, there would be nothing you could do to “save the defendant.” The reason why is that as a juror, you have a sworn duty to find a defendant guilty or innocent based on whatever arguments and evidence were presented during the trial itself. In other words, you can’t feel in your heart that the defendant was undeniably guilty but then decide to vote not guilty because it would be against your principles to vote otherwise. If the defendant is clearly guilty, then you vote guilty. If he’s clearly innocent, you vote innocent.

But what if you simply couldn’t vote guilty no matter what, because you were anti-death penalty? What do you do then? Especially in an open and shut case in which all the other jurors all agree that the defendant is guilty?

Using Juror 8 as his alter ego, Reginald Rose imagined how he would deal with this conundrum. His solution wasn’t to simply do what he was sworn to as a juror and vote guilty in spite of his misgivings about the death penalty. It was to come up with all sorts of strategies to emotionally and mentally manipulate the other jurors into changing their votes into a unanimous “not guilty” vote.

The first thing Juror 8 does is point out how quickly the other jurors cast their preliminary vote. The point is to imply that just because they quickly voted, this means that they must not have really carefully considered what was said during the trial itself and were taking the defendant’s life lightly. So he immediately positions himself as someone who’s more conscientious than the other jurors. Also, he couches his objections under a veneer of nobility and innocence, so no one catches on that he has an agenda. According to him, all he wants to do is “just talk it out.”

The second thing Juror #8 does is resort to emotional pandering. Rather than stick to the facts of the case, he insists on pleading on the defendant’s troubled history, based on the environment he came from. As one of the other jurors correctly pointed out, this is not pertinent to the deliberation process. Nevertheless, Juror 8 insists on making a plea based on emotionalism.

The third thing Juror 8 does is make a series of arguments that seem to be about exploring “reasonable doubt”, when what he’s really doing is turning the concept on its head to confuse and manipulate the other jurors. According to him, reasonable doubt doesn’t mean that the trial proceedings might have left enough room for doubt as to whether the defendant was guilty. It means that the two attorneys, the witnesses and the actual expert witnesses who worked on the case should all be second guessed. Why? Because there’s always the possibility that they were stupid, not thorough in their investigations and were mistaken about what they saw and heard.

Naturally, this type of argument is one that can be easily rejected. The reason why is that unless you’re a police officer, detective, lawyer, witness or someone who had insider information about the case, you cannot presume to know better than any of these people what they saw, heard, investigated or examined. The most you can do is take what they said at face value and use that to gauge whether what they said is trustworthy or not.

The other jurors in 12 Angry Men start to defiantly argue with Juror 8 on this basis, particularly The Bigot (Juror 10, played by Ed Begley), The Sports Fanatic (Juror 7, played by Jack Warden) and The Bully (Juror 3, played by Lee J. Cobb). But not to worry, folks! Juror 8 has another trick up his sleeve. Clearly anticipating that the other jurors would denounce him for this very reason, he goes shopping for a switchblade during the course of the trial, then dramatically brandishes it the exact moment everyone calls him out on his arrogance.

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The switchblade is a master stroke of manipulation. By presenting it as a smoking gun, he undermines the criminal investigators and the prosecution by implying that they didn’t do a thorough enough job of finding out whether the switchblade used in the crime was as rare as it was claimed. This manipulates the other jurors into believing that he has some kind of superior insight that enables him to second guess what everyone said at the trial, whether we’re talking about the detectives who investigated the murder, the witnesses who saw and heard the murder, and even the two attorneys that tried the case.

Once Juror 8 pulls this stunt, he successfully takes over the deliberation process (even though he’s not the foreman), so that the jurors can argue the case based on what he says and thinks, not based on what was actually said or presented in the trial. In short, what Juror 8 does is redo the entire trial from scratch. However, instead of using actual testimony, evidence and arguments made by everyone in the trial, he makes up scenarios that were never brought up, talks about the “possibilities” of what might have happened, ascribes motives to the two attorneys and second guesses what the witnesses may have seen and heard. He brings in his own “evidence” (the switchblade). Juror 8 even goes so far as to reenact a scene that a witness experienced–even role playing him with a limp–to make the point that he couldn’t have made it to the end of a hallway in time to see the defendant run out of the building.

Juror 8 does all of this with such flair that he coaches the dumber and more impressionable jurors to follow his lead. After awhile, they, too, learn to reject the facts by conjuring up scenarios and picking the brains of the witnesses, defendants and attorneys. The Old Man (Juror 9, played by Joseph Sweeney) decides that the witness who heard the defendant scream, “I’m going to kill you” made up the whole story for attention, based on how the witness was dressed. Other jurors decide that the woman who saw the murder happen through the windows of an elevated train couldn’t have seen it because she wears glasses. And how do they know she wore glasses? Because she looked like a middle aged woman desperately trying to look ten years younger. (Never mind that if she did wear glasses regularly, there was no way of knowing whether they were sunglasses or that she was farsighted.)

One of the most shocking and stomach-churning moments of Juror 8’s handiwork is when The Milquetoast (Juror 2, played by John Fiedler) argues that the marks on the woman’s nose is “evidence” and that they can’t send someone to the chair based on this kind of “evidence.” The reason why The Milquetoast makes such a ridiculous statement is that Juror 8 has successfully blurred in the minds of the other jurors the line between actual evidence that was presented during the trial and pure conjecture.

The next trick up Juror 8’s sleeve is to cherry pick parts of everyone’s justification for voting against the defendant, to the point of stripping out the larger context in which those justifications were made. For example, Juror 8 seems to hit a “slam dunk” when he makes The Stockbroker (Juror 4, played by E.G. Marshall) realize that he doesn’t remember what movies he saw several days before. Although it seems as if The Stockbroker has blown his own argument that the defendant was guilty because he couldn’t remember what movie he’d seen the night of the murder, it really doesn’t. The reason why is that the argument was made taking into consideration all the other things that implicate the victim and the context in which the alibi was made. To put it another way, if The Stockbroker had based his entire argument for the defendant’s guilt solely on not remembering what was seen that night, Juror 8 would be right. But The Stockbroker was so adamant on this point because no one else could vouch for the defendant being at the movies; and besides, the alibi contradicted everything else the defendant said happened that night.

Another skeevy trick Juror 8 does is throw the spotlight on other jurors when confronted with cold, hard evidence and facts that can’t be disputed. For example, there’s a moment when The Bully (Cobb) demands to know what Juror 8 thinks about a certain indisputable fact that a female witness saw the murder happen through the windows of a passing El. Instead of answering The Bully directly, Juror 8 immediately turns to The Ad Executive (Juror 12, played by Robert Webber) to ask him, “What do you think?” So, in that case, when he was confronted with a question he couldn’t answer, he passed the buck to someone else.

Speaking of throwing the spotlight on jurors, a sixth tactic that Juror 8 uses is to put jurors he disagrees with on trial. For example, to undermine The Stockbroker’s very logical assertions about the defendant’s guilt, Juror 8 suddenly “grills” him as if he were under cross examination. He asks The Stockbroker to remember what he did every night for the past several days and then demands to have him recall exactly what movie he saw and who starred in it. This is done to undermine his credibility, even though he did, in fact, remember what he saw several days before but merely had gotten the details wrong.

One last tactic that Juror 8 does is play coy whenever his adversaries, The Four Holdouts (The Sports Fanatic, Bigot, Stockbroker and Bully) call him out on the fact that he’s not sticking to the facts of the case. Whenever the heat’s on, he always says in so many words that this is all just some kind of exercise to prove a point and that it doesn’t really care one way or the other what verdict is rendered; what matters is that everyone takes their time and be thoughtful before rendering a verdict. Juror 8 also frequently acts as if he has no idea whether or not the defendant is guilty, like he is still confused about the matter and trying to sort things out in his mind by discussing the case.

However, curiously, when the other holdouts make very valid arguments for why they feel the defendant is guilty, he goes right back to arguing to death about why they’re completely wrong. When Juror 8 is cornered, he even resorts to personal attacks. In the case of The Bully, he calls him a personal avenger and sadist. (So much for just wanting to “talk things out!”)

Reginald Rose’s Machiavellian Manipulations

I’m sure that right now, many readers are shocked and appalled by what I’m saying. Like, how dare I cast any aspersions on what is supposed to be a noble, well meaning film. I must be the worst kind of cynical asshole!

I know. But my feelings about the film don’t stem from cynicism at all. It’s the fact that Rose used so many underhanded tactics in his script to manipulate the audience. To put it another way, if the worst Rose had ever done was have Juror 8 do and say manipulative things, I would’ve given him the benefit of the doubt. I would’ve just thought, “Artistic license for the sake of drama.” But he didn’t just have Juror 8 do and say manipulative things. He also implemented a lot of cheats in his screenplay designed to manipulate the audience to keep from realizing how deceptive Juror 8 was being.

It’s this aspect of the movie that made me recognize that Rose hadn’t just stretched the truth for the sake of artistic license or made mistakes about legal concepts as a layman; he was aware enough of how manipulative his script was to where he used further manipulative tactics to cover his tracks.

Tactic One: Misdirection

Misdirection is sort of like the writer’s version of the magician’s “sleight of hand,” in which you present a clear case of one thing happening, but then distract the audience’s attention to focus on something else. Misdirection in the hands of a writer can be both a tool of good or a tool of deviousness. In the case of 12 Angry Men, Rose used this tactic in a deliberate attempt to mask Juror 8’s manipulative tactics from the audience.

One of the clearest examples of misdirection happens in a confrontation between The Old Man (Sweeney) and The Bully (Cobb). It happens when The Old Man decides that the elderly witness with the limp most likely made up what he heard out of attention. After The Bully reacts belligerently, one of the other jurors, Juror 6 (Edward Binns) threatens to hit him if he does it again.

This is a case of misdirection, in that Rose deliberately had The Bully act in an aggressive way so you would focus more on his disrespectful behavior than on the validity of what he was saying. In other words, rather than be given the chance to listen to what he said and agree with him (as in, “He’s right; it’s ridiculous to claim that a witness made it up for the attention.”), you were less concerned about what he said than you were in how he said it.

The misdirection worked as an emotionally manipulative ploy as well. Because The Bully ridiculed The Old Man’s assertions as foolish, you were more inclined to hear The Old Man out and accept what he said, out of sympathy towards him and out of  spite against The Bully.

Tactic Two: Illusion of Authority

Speaking of that confrontation between The Old Man and The Bully, there is another very clever maneuver Rose pulled in this scene to manipulate the audience. To bolster the idea that the elderly witness who heard the murder from below the defendant’s apartment made his story up, he had The Old Man go into a soliloquy about how the witness, based on his shabby attire, looked like no one paid attention to him and was lonely. The reason why Rose had The Old Man say this was to create the illusion of authority. In other words, since The Old Man was the same age as the witness, you were supposed to believe that his observations were valid. After all, who would know better what an old man might be feeling and thinking than another old man? And who are we–who aren’t old–to contradict him?

Rose used this tactic many times throughout 12 Angry Men. In the argument about whether a female witness had worn glasses to bed on the night of the murder, he has The Stockbroker–who also wears glasses–concede that she must not have been wearing glasses in bed. Like in the previous scene with The Old Man, the point of this tactic was to lend credence to the idea that the witness probably didn’t wear to glasses to bed, because The Stockbroker also didn’t wear his to bed.

A third time Rose used this tactic was when the jurors argued about whether the switchblade had been used by the defendant. To settle the argument, Juror 5 (Jack Klugman) is asked to demonstrate how he would’ve used a switchblade in an attack. This was to convince the audience that Juror 8 must have been right in arguing that the defendant couldn’t have stabbed his father (based on the stab wounds), because Juror 5 was also a juvenile delinquent from a similar demographic.

Tactic Three: Pre-Emptive Striking

Throughout 12 Angry Men, there’s an interesting tactic that Rose uses almost as soon as the movie starts. In the opening scene when the jurors cast their preliminary vote, The Sports Fanatic calls Juror 8 out for the ridiculous conclusion that just because he had voted quickly, it meant that he must not have paid careful attention during the trial. The Sports Fanatic (Juror 7), in other words, says exactly what anyone watching this scene might’ve been thinking (that it doesn’t make sense to argue that the jurors were being “brash” in what was a preliminary vote, based on how quickly they voted.)

This type of thing happens frequently throughout the movie. Every single time Juror 8 makes a major leap in logic, is out of line or does something against protocol that any sane member of the audience would object to, Rose has a juror say exactly what those members might be thinking at that moment.

For example, when Juror 8 brandished the switchblade, Rose made sure to have one of the men point out that purchasing a switch blade was illegal. When Juror 8 deliberately baited The Bully by calling him a sadist and public avenger, he had The Bully complain that he was being baited. When Juror 8 started playing amateur detective, he had The Sports Fanatic call him out for having read too many detective novels. When it made sense to declare a hung jury, he had The Bully declare a hung jury. When Juror 8 started haranguing The Stockbroker into remembering what he did over the past few days, Rose had The Sports Fanatic made a crack suggesting that next, he’d be asking The Stockbroker what he did several years before.

Why did Rose do this time and time and time again?

This is, once again, the result of careful strategy on the part of Rose to cover his tracks. He knew very well that Juror 8 was violating protocols, manipulating the other jurors and making completely irrational arguments. But he was also very well aware that there were intelligent members of the audience who were going to be smart enough to see through Juror 8’s act.

So, he cynically had his characters say exactly what he knew those audience members would be thinking, in a preemptive strike against their complaints. The idea was to reassure skeptical audience members that the issues they were noticing were purposefully written and would somehow be addressed. Also, it was to suggest to audience members that there was nothing suspicious about these issues, since he took the trouble to point them out himself. The logic behind this tactic is no different than that of the cheating spouse who sees that his wife has noticed lipstick on his collar and before she has a chance to complain, immediately says, “Oh, by the way, could you do something about this lipstick? This crazy woman at work tried to attack me.” Because the spouse immediately called attention to the lipstick himself, the wife thinks that there’s no reason to be suspicious, since if her husband was guilty of any impropriety he wouldn’t have dared even mention it.

Another reason why Rose used this tactic was to pander to the skeptics in the audience. Even though he was clearly on Juror 8’s side, he also made the members of the audience who were on the side of The Four Holdouts (Sports Fanatic, Bully, Stockbroker and Bigot) think that the movie was also on their side, by echoing their objections. As a result of this, audience members whose views aligned with the Four Holdouts were constantly strung along as they watched the movie, thinking the entire time. “Okay, sooner or later, Juror 8 will get his,” or, “Sooner or later, the movie is going to come around to our side.” But of course, this never happened. What wound up happening is that most of the skeptics eventually became manipulated in some way or the other by the end of the movie and walked out none the wiser.

Tactic Four: Character Swapping

Another clever tactic that Rose used throughout 12 Angry Men “character swapping.” This is the tactic of either swapping characteristics between characters, or having characters stand in for each other.

The very first incidence of character swapping happens when The Foreman (played by Martin Balsam) suddenly gets angry and gives up control of deliberation. If you know anything about the deliberation process, the foreman is the juror who is not only representative of the jury but is the one supposed to be more or less presiding over the jurors. Rose conveniently has him quit in disgust so that Juror 8 can step in and act as foreman. Once he becomes unofficial foreman, he has free reign to not only distort legal concepts to confuse the other jurors, but flout protocol unopposed (such as bring in the switchblade) and even launch into condescending lectures about the importance of deliberating properly.

A second incident of character swapping happens in the confrontation between The Watchmaker and The Sports Fanatic when the latter switches his vote. But which character does Rose swap for who during this scene–and why?

Rose had to be mindful of was audience members catching on to Juror 8’s tactic of playing coy. Remember, earlier I said that 8 frequently would pretend that he was doing everything to make some kind of point on “principle” without really caring about how everyone voted, but then would aggressively harangue a juror into changing his vote to not guilty.

The problem with being coy is that because you are insincere, sooner or later you’re going to start contradicting yourself. This, in turn, winds up exposing you and your agenda. In the case of Juror 8, that moment happens when The Sports Fanatic decides to simply change his vote to not guilty, even though it was obvious that he felt that the defendant was guilty.

Rose realized that certain audience members would’ve wanted to see Juror 8 immediately call out The Sports Fanatic out on principle. After all, this is the guy who spent so much of his time insisting that all he cared about was people being conscientious when rendering a verdict. He above everyone else would’ve objected to this switch. But of course, Rose couldn’t have Juror 8 do that, since the whole point of 8’s mission was to change everyone’s verdict to not guilty regardless of how they had arrived at that vote. And besides, this would’ve put Juror 8 in the absurd position of arguing that The Sports Fanatic needed to stick to his guilty vote on principle, not just switch his vote out of convenience.

So what did Rose do? He had The Watchmaker, butt in and raise the objections that Juror 8 should have. In other words, he had The Watchmaker stand in for Juror 8, then conveniently fail to make The Sports Fanatic change his mind so that there would be nothing left for Juror 8 to argue once The Watchmaker had failed to get to him.

The movie itself then dropped the issue as well and moves on to the next , as if Juror 8 was off the hook. But he never was off the hook; the film confused audiences into thinking, “Well, The Watchmaker addressed it and screwed up and there’s not much that Juror 8 can do to argue the point.”

Tactic Five: Mischaracterization

Mischaracterization is the act of showing something as happening in one specific way but putting a spin on it that makes it seem as if it was something else. A classic example of mischaracterization happens in Gone with the Wind (1939). In the infamous grand staircase scene, the movie explicitly shows that a belligerent Rhett Butler decides to terrorize and later rape Scarlett O’Hara in a drunken, jealous rage. But then in the next scene, the movie implies that he had really made love to her in a fit of passion.

Rose also employed this tactic. The very first case of mischaracterization happens in the opening scene of the movie. In this scene, The Foreman (Juror 1, played by Martin Balsam) calls for a preliminary vote. When it comes out 11-1, immediately Juror 8 makes a big stink about it, acting as if the jurors had rendered their verdict right then and there, and in a matter of seconds. However, that’s clearly what they weren’t doing. They were just trying to get a sense of where everyone stood before they could discuss the trial in more detail.

What is going on here? Well, right off the bat, there was a problem with 12 Angry Men’s premise. For the audience to believe in Juror 8’s crusade, it had to also accept that all 11 holdouts of the jury got the verdict wrong versus one man. Not only is this implausible, it becomes even more so when we later learn more about the other holdouts and how they came to their decision in the first place. What we learn is that all 11 men arrived at their guilty verdict for a number of different reasons based purely on the facts of the case as presented during the trial. These facts, once you put them together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, made an even stronger case for the defendant’s guilt and left no room for doubt.

To be fair, it’s a possibility that 11 different people with 7-8 different personalities coming from 6-7 different backgrounds could’ve collectively come up with the wrong verdict for 5 completely different wrong reasons. But that’s not what happened here. We had 11 different men–each from a vastly different background–who were all in agreement about the same set of facts. One of them even came from the same background as the defendant. What were the odds that they were completely wrong?

Rose was aware that audience members would wonder about this, too, about how Juror 8 could be oh, so right versus the other 11 men who had all come up with their verdict based on the facts. So, via mischaracterization, he had Juror 8 make such a big stink about the preliminary vote that the impression was left in the mind’s audience that it was not only the final verdict, but that the jurors hadn’t taken the time to arrive at it without really thinking about it. This mischaracterization then cast anything that the jurors argued after this scene in doubt, so that when it eventually came to light that they had listened to the facts of the trial carefully, their arguments could be dismissed as hasty and careless.

Rose used this tactic mischaracterization over and over again in 12 Angry Men, in which he emphatically showed X happening, but mischaracterized it as Y. Let us take, for example, The Sports Fanatic and this issue of the baseball game he keeps obsessing over.

The Sports Fanatic is one of the four holdouts in 12 Angry Men. He doesn’t believe one word of what Juror 8 is saying and is not going to change his mind no matter what. He stated as much right from the beginning and even said multiple times that no matter how long Juror 8 talked and talked he wasn’t going to budge. The reason why is that he believed, based on the facts presented in the case, that the defendant was 100% guilty. The facts were: 1) There was a motive. 2) A woman saw the murder through the windows of an elevated train. 3) A witness heard the defendant yell, “I’m going to kill you,” then something hit the floor. 4) A witness saw the defendant running out of the building around the time of the murder. 5) A rare switchblade that the defendant owned was used in the murder. 6) The defendant couldn’t recall what movie he saw the night of the murder, but used the movies as his alibi.

When the deliberation dragged on and on, he realized that either the other holdouts like himself would refuse to change their vote (resulting in a hung jury) or that he would wind up being the one holdout needing to convince everyone else that the defendant was guilty. This is why he changed his vote to “not guilty.” Of course, Rose didn’t want you to realize this, so he mischaracterized The Sports Fanatic’s frustration by having The Watchmaker sanctimoniously dress him down for switching a vote to see a baseball game. It’s mischaracterization because though The Sports Fanatic may have tactlessly whined about the ball game, he only did that when everyone took minor breaks during deliberation. He never did it during the course of arguing the case itself. If you listen to the dialogue (and take notes), you’ll see for yourself that he only ever mentioned the ball game in idle chitchat with the other jurors during downtime, never during deliberation.

The same thing happens with the scene in which The Bigot starts spouting off at the mouth about how “dangerous” people like the defendants are, and how they can’t be trusted. What The Bigot said was terrible, but the reason why he goes on a rant is Rose, once again, resorting to mischaracterization.

Again, if you pay attention to The Bigot’s reasoning for voting guilty, you will find that like The Sports Fanatic, Bully and Stockbroker, he was the most adamant about sticking to the facts of the case.  He was also one of the jurors who said that he would never change his mind no matter how much Juror 8 talked because the witnesses and testimony (the switchblade, defendant’s motives, weak alibi, criminal history, etc.) pointed to the defendant’s guilt. (Again, I invite you to take notes while watching the film).

The reason why The Bigot starts going on a rant about “them” and “they” is the reason why The Sports Fanatic switched his vote. He became so angry and frustrated by how illogical the jurors were being that he basically thought, “Screw this. The facts are as plain as the nose on their faces but they want to ignore them. If I can’t appeal to their reason, I’ll appeal to their bigotry instead.” This is no different from when people start becoming more and more insulting as they get angry in trying to persuade someone to their point of view about someone. For example, someone who’s been wrongly ticketed for speeding might at first complain about how unfair the ticket is, then wind up ranting about how “stupid” all police officers are or how this is all the result of crooked “Democrats” or “Republicans” in office.

By the way, let’s talk about The Bully again, so I can show in no uncertain terms how cynical and manipulative 12 Angry Men is. It is very easy to be seduced into believing that because he had father-son issues, he had voted guilty against the defendant initially out of spite towards his son. In other words, he had let his “personal issues” get in the way of judging the trial accurately and fairly.

But let’s think about this for a second. The man actually cries when he finally confronts the fact that his relationship with his son is irrevocably damaged. This suggests that he was never really filled with bitterness or anger but remorse. Not only that, he feels a tremendous amount of guilt over their broken relationship; as he tells it, his son became a hell raiser because he humiliated him for being a wimp.

Given all this, does it make sense that The Bully initially voted against the defendant to punish his son? Of course it doesn’t. So what on earth is really going on in that pivotal scene when he breaks down, switches his vote to “not guilty” and the picture of his son dramatically falls onto the table?

Well, remember that all throughout the film, The Bully kept attacking Juror 8 as a “bleeding heart.” Bleeding hearts are people who will often try to make a case for offenders by making them out to be victims of society or circumstances, such as, “Have pity on him for killing all those people; he was bullied as a kid,” or, “He’s been out of work for months now; it’s not his fault he robbed that liquor store.”

The reason why The Bully called Juror 8 for being one is that this is exactly what Juror 8 wanted him and the others to do–to not vote on the facts of the case but to consider letting the defendant off the hook because he came from a rough background. The Bully’s refusal to play “bleeding heart” when voting on the defendant’s guilt was the correct one to take. However, Reginald Rose deliberately mischaracterized his stance as one of sadism and cruelty. In other words, it wasn’t that The Bully was doing what he was supposed to do when deliberating (not let sentimentality get in the way of deliberation). It was just that he was a cruel sociopath (or a “sadist”, in the words of Juror 8).

In the pivotal scene when The Bully breaks down, it’s because Juror 8 had successfully needled him about his son to such an extent that he switched his vote out of guilt. He finally goes in so many words,”It’s my fault my kid turned out to be a jerk; the defendant’s father probably treated him like crap, too, so I will let him off the hook.” Yet both Reginald Rose and Sidney Lumet mischaracterized that scene as if the opposite had actually taken place–that The Bully had let his personal feelings about his son influence his “guilty” vote in the beginning and that now that he was letting his feelings go, he was able to finally make the “right” decision with a clear mind.

Tactic Six: Convenient Personality Flaws

If you watch 12 Angry Men, you’ll notice something very strange. Juror 8 is portrayed as the epitome of perfection, practically God-like in terms of his intellect and temperament. He always seems to know what to say at the right time, has an answer for everything and never loses his cool or seems flustered.

The other jurors, however, are all deeply flawed in some way or the other, especially Juror 8’s antagonists (The Sports Fanatic, The Bigot and The Bully). There’s a very important reason why each of these men were given some kind of severe flaw, and no, it wasn’t for the sake of drama or to make a larger point. These flaws were also very deliberate and calculated. But why?

Rose used many tactics throughout the movie to manipulate and confuse the audience members into believing that there was reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt. However, there were limits to the extent to which he could use them. The reason why is that there were no underhanded tactics he could use to undermine the arguments of those audience members whose views aligned with The Sports Fanatic, Bigot and Bully. Those jurors were right. In deliberating on a trial, you’re not supposed to entertain possibilities or imagine “probabilities”. You’re supposed to stick to the facts that were presented during the trial.

With no way to dismiss their arguments through logic, Rose handicapped them with a character defect, physical issue or emotional problem. In the case of The Sports Fanatic, he’s written to be a crass boor who obsesses over baseball games. In the case of the Bigot, he hates slum dwellers and is irritable from a summer cold. In the case of The Bully, he has major father-son issues, is a sadist and hates “bleeding hearts.”

Because 12 Angry Men is so brilliant at manipulation, it’s very easy to be seduced into thinking that because these three holdouts had some reprehensible character flaw, their reasons for voting against the defendant were invalid and only based in hatred, ignorance or stupidity.

But just because someone may be bigoted, irritable or uncouth doesn’t mean that their conclusion about something was based on bigotry or stupidity. For example, a guy could be the biggest misogynist in the world. He could hate women, think they’re evil bitches and gold diggers, the whole nine yards. But if, in the course of the trial, there was indisputable evidence that the defendant drowned her kids, there’s no reason why this juror’s decision should be questioned if he is clearly basing his conclusions on the actual evidence that was presented. The question of bigotry should only come into play if there was no evidence pointing to the defendant’s guilt and he couldn’t give any reasonable explanations for why he thought she was guilty.

Ditto with our three holdouts. The Bigot may have been a scum-sucking bigot. The Sports Fanatic may have been a boor who acted as if a baseball game was more important than deciding someone’s fate. The Bully may have developed a hatred for the defendant because he reminded him of his own son. But when all was said and done, they were basing their verdict on what they heard on the trial, and going exactly according to the guidelines laid down by the judge. Their character flaws were irrelevant and the movie using those flaws to write off their conclusions as invalid is what’s known as poisoning the well, a form of the logical fallacy known as ad hominem.

This ad hominem tactic is probably the most damning evidence against Reginald Rose’s script, and why I have so little respect for 12 Angry Men movie now. Ad hominem is not only a low tactic, it’s a reflection of someone’s self awareness that their position may not necessarily be the correct and most logical one.

Sidney Lumet’s Complicity

Reginald Rose shared most of the blame for the manipulation going on in 12 Angry Men. However, director Sidney Lumet also is complicit. To sell the audience on Juror 8’s arguments, he relied on what I call the Henry Fonda Mystique. Because Fonda’s entire onscreen presence gave off an aura of Christ-like nobility, heroism, patriotism and integrity, very few audience members dared to question the integrity and motivation of the characters he was playing.

Lumet was aware of this hypnotic effect that Fonda had on audiences and relied on it as a crutch, much like he did in his 1964 movie, Fail Safe. You can especially see Lumet playing up Fonda’s mystique in his shots. Fonda is initially shown with a look of wide-eyed innocence and humility. As the movie progresses, he is increasingly cool, calm and collected, with cigarette in hand, almost with an expression that one could interpret as haughty.

 

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In stark contract to Fonda, all the other actors are shot looking as sweaty as possible and in various negative states, such as tiredness, anger, tenseness, nervousness, rage and uncertainty. This further underscores the Fonda Mystique, which in turn telegraphs to the audience why Juror 8 should be trusted implicitly while the other jurors shouldn’t be. He has things under control and therefore comes from a position of rationality, self-discipline and unquestioned wisdom. The other men don’t. They are impulsive, sensitive and too emotional for their own good.

 

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12 Angry Men’s Other Problems–Rank Hypocrisy

Besides being manipulative to hell and back and completely making a mockery of legal concepts and the deliberation process, 12 Angry Men lost my vote for another reason–the movie is rife with rank hypocrisy.

Let’s take one of the movie’s premises, the idea that you shouldn’t allow bigotry to cloud your decision making. The movie even makes it a point of having the jurors turn their backs on The Bigot as he goes on a rant about how dangerous “they” are and how “they’re” all liars.

Fair enough. But notice: every single one of the jurors’ justification for exonerating the defendant was also based on the worst kind of prejudices. The prejudices just didn’t happen to be against the defendant; they were against the witnesses and the attorneys.

For example, because an elderly witness was shabbily dressed, The Old Man decided that he’d spent his entire life never being cared about or listened to, so most likely made the story up about having heard anything on the night of the murder for “the attention.” Ironically, the same jurors use the same argument against a female witness because she was too nicely dressed for a middle aged woman. Because she dyed her hair and didn’t dress her age, that must have meant that she was self-conscious about getting older and therefore was hiding the fact that she wore glasses.

Juror 8 is the biggest hypocrite of them all, justifying his defense of the defendant on the argument that kids from rough neighborhoods have had miserable lives. How is deciding that a defendant should be let off the hook for a murder because kids from rough neighborhoods have tough lives any less prejudiced than arguing that they’re all as good as guilty precisely because they come from rough neighborhoods? It’s not.

The most egregious example of 12 Angry Men’s hypocrisy is its depiction of the lone wolf archetype. In the beginning, when Juror 8 begins to act out, the movie portrays him as the brave non-conformist daring to stand up against the crowd. But lo and behold, when The Bully is the last man standing and keeps sticking to his guns, the movie has Juror 8 tell him in a dramatic fashion, “You’re alone,” to paint him as a pathetic odd man out who might as well give in because he’s outnumbered.

Take What You Can, and Leave the Rest

A lot of people are probably going to be angry with me with my feelings regarding this film. I personally don’t care. The reason why is that whenever a movie tackles a controversial issue, people have the right to debate and even question what it’s saying or doing. It can’t be treated as merely sacrosanct. People for decades have been treating 12 Angry Men as this completely untouchable masterpiece that can’t be debated or questioned, which is completely unacceptable to me. Not only is it ridiculously manipulative, it’s probably one of the most intellectually bankrupt movies of all times.

To make matters worse, 12 Angry Men is extremely socially irresponsible. In spite of its noble intentions of teaching the public to respect the gravity of jury duty, the movie does the opposite. What 12 Angry Men does is teach you that if a trial was conducted fairly but you don’t like the likeliest outcome (a guilty verdict), undermine the deliberation process. Convince your fellow jurors to second guess everything they also saw and heard in the course of the trial, then confuse them about the very legal concepts needed to deliberate accurately so they wind up voting the way you want them to.

12 Angry Men also teaches people how to subvert logic, truth and reason using semantic tricks, illogical fallacies and manipulative tactics like cherry picking and ad hominem. Because of this, in many ways, this movie not only anticipates but may have laid the foundation of today’s post-truth society, in which facts don’t matter so much as how you can cleverly subvert them.

Again, I know this will anger a lot of people, but I calls ’em as I sees ’em. If people want to celebrate the movie as some kind of cinematic benchmark in terms of acting, casting and directing, that’s fine by me. But as a so-called “thought-provoking” film, it is not only an abject failure but one of the most cynical movies of all time.

18 thoughts on “Why I No Longer Like 12 Angry Men (1957)

  1. I think this is a flawed analysis. Henry Fonda was the top billed star. But that doesn’t make him the hero of the story, or even the main prtotagonist. He is actually petty and unprincipled. He seems to have little conviction about the case. He is just willing to waste people’s time, and willing to tamper with evidence. It is a defect of the movie that Fonda allowed his role to shine more than it deserved to.

    The movie doesn’t teach people to subvert logic unless juror #8 is the only one you pay attention to. The logic of the noise and illumination from the el train (which persuaded #5 and #6), and the eye witness’s glasses (which persuaded #4), and the angle of the stab wound, is compelling and reasonable.

    If there’s a hero, it is Jack Klugman’s character — the first to change his mind based on the evidence and not (as with Fonda or Joseph Sweeney) some notion about how much time the decision ought to take. EG Marshall was highly principled and, though he was the next to last to change, he did so based on evidence. He was better than Fonda, who was more concerned with virtue signaling than justice. The message of the movie is that the minds of 12 men, even angry ones, can reach the right verdict DESPITE extremely flawed haters (Lee J Cobb) and lib snowflakes (Fonda).

    Apart from that, you are 100% right about how wrongly the movie depicts jury deliberations.

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  2. Well he doesn’t care what we think, yet he expects us to spend a few minutes reading about what he thinks? To me he’s reading far too much into all this, which is why his theories are so long and convoluted. The peice failed to do what Mr Davis did (convince me and all the others were wrong)! Fonda’s character does a very clever, and to me believeable, job on pointing out oversights during a trial that he sees as being on sided and poorly reaserched. Moverover his character isn’t perfect as he has no answer when the stockbroker say “It may of been two too many, every one has a breaking point “. All this must of been weighing on his mind as the trial went on as this caused him to go out and buy the knife. As for the analysis of the woman and the old man, these went bigoted hypocrisies, they were intelligent observations partly made for personal experiences. I won’t be getting rid of my copy.

    Thanks for reading and stay safe.

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  3. You’re another one in the long list of people who absolutely didn’t get the point the movie was making…

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  4. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and state that I completely agree with your article – this movie is incredibly manipulative and dishonest, especially in the context of jury deliberation. The antics going on in the film would simply not fly – as you said, the purpose of a jury is to determine guilt or innocence based on the evidence presented, period. Had the film been in a different setting, for instance, 12 people at a party discussing a certain case where they knew the facts and debated them (assuming that these 12 disparate people could stand to be in the same room that long if they were there voluntarily), it might have been a thought provoking discussion of guilt and innocence, or whether we can believe what we see and hear. In this case, it’s completely wrong.

    Two things always bugged me about the movie that i don’t believe you brought up (full disclosure, I am NOT an attorney, just someone with a fair amount of common sense):

    1. How in the world did Juror 8 even get on the jury to begin with? One question that attorneys ask during jury selection in a capital murder case where the death penalty is involved is “Would you be able to find a defendant guilty knowing that he would face the death penalty” or words to that effect. It’s a standard question now, and I’m assuming it was back in 1955 as well. If Juror * was honest, he would have let his views be known in the beginning, which is another way the filmmakers cheated. Lawyers are not stupid – anyone with Juror 8’s beliefs on the death penalty would have been dismissed as a potential juror way before the trial begins.

    2. The second that Juror 8 brought in the second knife, that would have been an automatic mistrial if the judge or any of the attorneys found out about it. Jurors are not supposed to bring in their own evidence, they are supposed to work with what they have been given. And for Juror 8 to go around investigating during deliberation is completely wrong (that’s one of the many reasons that juries are sequestered). This sort of thing does leak out, and if anyone learned of Juror 8’s actions in that regard, it would cause a nightmare of epic legal proportions.

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  5. Hi, Scott, thank you for your comments! I always appreciate it when readers actually too the time to read what I’ve written and actually add something fruitful to the discussion rather than just leave “drive by comments” where it’s obvious they never read past the headline or even the first paragraph.

    On point #1, you are a 1000% correct. Yes, potential jurors are briefed with very selective questions in order to screen out people like Juror #8 all the time. And you’re right that lawyers are extremely smart when they go about it. Just from a quick glance or maybe a question they ask in pre-screening, they can size you up immediately and know what questions to ask to either nail or recruit you with.

    For example, the first time I was pre-screened for a trial, it was for a tort case. The first thing the lawyer asked me was about the McDonald’s coffee case from the 1980s. I just started laughing hysterically, as in, “OMG! BUSTED. You are soooo good!” Meaning: I knew why I had been asked that. The plaintiff’s lawyer had sized me up, knew I hated tort reform and immediately nailed me right off the bat. This is how pre-screening works and yes, like you said, the lawyers would’ve not only pre-screened Juror 8 with questions about his feelings regarding the death penalty, they would’ve sniffed him out immediately.

    There’s another crucial thing that the movie conveniently leaves out in terms of how trials are conducted in the real world–that all the Woulda Could Shouldas that Juror 8 brought up about the witnesses would’ve been tested during cross-examination or backed up/dismissed by expert witnesses. The way 12 Angry Men plays it, you would think that the Old Man with the Limp or the Middle-Aged Woman with Nose Marks just gave testimony, got off the stand and went their merry way. But that’s not what happens in a trial. Witnesses are then cross-examined to test holes in their testimony. Expert witnesses are also brought in to back (or counter) what witnesses say happened.

    Going back to the movie, you can be sure that the defense attorney would’ve grilled the Old Man to hell and back about his testimony in light of his limp, would’ve grilled Nose Marks Lady to hell and back in terms of how clearly she had seen the murder. You can be sure that an expert witness would’ve been brought in to back up or dismiss anything they said. But Rose has the jurors argue about their credibility using their testimony as a starting point of debate, as if to imply that there had been no cross-examination or expert witness at all.

    All of this lying by omission is yet another reflection of how manipulative 12 Angry Men is. In lying by omission about pre-screening of jurors, expert witnesses and cross examination, Reginald Rose leaves the false impression in the minds of audiences that there isn’t a system of checks and balances in a jury trial that screens out shady jurors, or tests the credibility of witnesses who might be lying or confused.

    Point #2: Yes, the purchased knife is a clear case of misconduct and would’ve resulted in a mistrial. Juror 8 decided to reject the evidence brought forth in the trial itself–as well as the investigation’s conclusion–to create his own investigation and bring in his own evidence. You’re not supposed to do that. Not only does it violate protocols, as one of the jurors pointed out, if you’re just going to reject everything you heard and saw in a trial, why have trials to begin with? In other words, why attorneys, lawyers, witnesses, etc., if in the end you’re going to say, “It’s all crap. I don’t believe any of it”?

    Reginald Rose was keenly aware that this was jury misconduct. It’s why he has the Foreman (played by Martin Balsam) written to be a passive wimp who kind of “gives up” his leadership position because of how hot and frustrated he is, allowing for Juror 8 to act in a foreman-like capacity and not be called out on his behavior. Realistically speaking, the Foreman would never, ever in a million years do what Martin Balsam’s character did. Literally, the Foreman’s job is to call out jurors when they violate protocol and take control if they threaten to. But the audience is manipulated into accepting the passivity of the Foreman “giving up” and letting the other jurors take over, based on this idea of, “Aw, look how hot and frustrating this proceeding is. It’s only natural that the Foreman just kind of throws up his hands and lets Juror 8 and the others get carried away. Cut him some slack.”

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  6. i agree with this article I have told people for years that the movie is about a slick talking manipulative person subverting justice, not guaranteeing it. Relate that to some politicians who know that smooth talk is more important than actual facts to many voters.

    Ironically, I will be playing juror number 3 in a couple of months at a local playhouse. I picked this part because juror number 3 is the man telling the truth no matter how he tells is.

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  7. Juror 8 did surmise that perhaps the defendant had a stupid lawyer.
    Juror 7 – You sound like you know my brother-in-law.

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  8. A very good essay. I also am one who used to LOVE this movie. Arguments (no pun intended) like your’s have helped me see the light. Although I still think this movie has some good points and it’s message isn’t completely bad. My objection to it isn’t as detailed or researched as your’s. I simply see juror #8 as someone who wasn’t merely demanding guilt be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. #8 wanted guilt proven beyond ALL SHADOW OF A DOUBT. And that is NOT the standard our legal system demands.

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  9. I think the reason this movie gets cut so much slack might be because of, believe it or not, To Kill a Mockingbird.

    In that film, there is a blatantly racist judge and jury, who are presented overwhelming evidence *during the trial itself* that the defendant is Not Guilty. The entire point of that film is about the sheer pointless cruelty of bigotry and adherence to the status quo allowing an innocent man to be killed under the guise of law and order. The all-white jury instantly votes him guilty, neglecting all moral duty to logic and honesty, and the audience is rightfully supposed to be aghast at this. The film’s deconstruction of the setting, and the narrator’s innocence lost at witnessing this injustice, is what made it such a powerful lynchpin for public outcry and pressuring the real world for change.

    In contrast, the insidiousness of 12 Angry Men is that it doesn’t show you the trial. You don’t get to see whether or not the court was a noose-happy pack of racists with a hateful foregone conclusion of guilt. It instead just shows you the jury deliberations, and it implants the *assumptions* that all of the Guilty votes were made out of such lack of morals and logic by setting up easy straw men for the author-avatar (Juror 8) to bowl over.

    This is just my own opinion, bordering on hypocritical ad hominem myself, but to me it’s almost as if 12 Angry Men was written directly in response to To Kill A Mockingbird, out of a gnawing moral outrage at the jury’s handling of the trial in *that* story and the author’s growing negative perception of all jurors as being biased, rushed, not caring, essentially all the character flaws he piled into that one room. The story is one of extremes, of exaggerations, of convenient deus ex machina on Juror 8’s behalf (which you pointed out) that saves his butt from any criticism. The premise couldn’t possibly have worked out in any universe in which any of the 11 other jurors were even slightly different. We are inclined to root for Juror 8 against all odds, but the universe is actually on his side.

    All things considered, the movie is still compelling to watch. If you suspend your disbelief and watch it as if you *know* that the defendant is innocent (like in Mockingbird), then it’s a masterpiece and Juror 8 is a genius. But when translated to the real world, it’s terrifying to think that someone could take an open-and-shut murder case and sabotage the jury with a secret second trial-by-strawman in such a way that it overturns a unanimous verdict, letting a murderer go free. It makes me wonder if the movie reached its height of popularity during the OJ Simpson trial…

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    1. Hi, sorry but ever since I first itsaw it as a kid I had the impression that some members of the jury was biased because of underclass the accused came from. Indeed that was clearly stated in the film, other members had their own reasons not to to their job properly. For his he judge just looked disinterested in ‘yet another’ murder trial of this sort and I did note that the young man on trial appeared to be of Italian or Latino descent, but that was all. Regards.

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      1. @Robert V: Hi, and thanks for your comments.

        I addressed this very thing you’re saying later on in the article. If someone is judging something according to the facts–and is using those facts to support why they feel the way they do–it doesn’t make sense to argue that we should reject their argument because they are biased.

        Again, say a woman quite clearly stabbed her children to death, no question–open and shut case. A juror says they think she is guilty because she had a history of abusing her children, told people she wish they had never been born, then went clubbing the night they were killed. It doesn’t make a difference if the juror also says stuff like, “Besides, you know how mentally unstable women are.” The juror still argued the facts of the case to make their point.

        On the other hand, if all the juror could argue that the defendant was wrong because all women are mentally unstable, then it would make sense to reject their argument.

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      2. Ah, then I apologise. I didn’t read it all in detail as it was a little long. However they dismissed the defendant because of who he was, not just of what he did. I still think it’s a brilliant film, well acted and way ahead of its time. Altogether a must for students, be they at school or just movie buffs.

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    2. @Daniel Morris: I would not be surprised if this movie had, in fact, been done as a response to To Kill a Mockingbird. Something that I began noticing about Sidney Lumet movies is that they were either populist or reactionary. They were populist in that they pandered to the lowest common denominator. They were reactionary, in that they reacted to things in over-the-top, extremist ways.

      Case in point: in the 1950s and 1960s, there was–for lack of a better term–Holocaust porn. As you can imagine, Holocaust victims were portrayed as salts of the earth and Nazis as the bad guys. Then along came The Pawn Broker, and audiences were given a Holocaust victim who was portrayed as an unfeeling misanthrope financially exploiting black and latino victims in Harlem while living in a beautiful house out in the suburbs. The movie pretended to be giving a “balanced” view but when you think about it, it peddled the old antisemitic tropes about Jews exploiting minorities.

      There’s a lot of this very subversive reactionary/populist stuff going on in Sidney Lumet movies and 12 Angry Men definitely falls in this vein. Literally, its entire premise is, “The entire system is so corrupt, you should undermine it at any cost, even if it seems to be working the way it should, even if everyone–the lawyers, the criminal investigators, witnesses, and jurors–is reasonably intelligent and conducted the investigation and trial to the letter of the law and according to protocol.” So, again, I wouldn’t be surprised if screenwriter Reginald Rose hadn’t written the play for the reasons you suggested.

      BTW, it’s not ad hominem or hypocritical to question someone’s motives if it’s clear that some kind of bias is playing a part in why they feel the way they do. Reginald Rose’s stance is suspect, because he used so many underhanded screenwriting techniques to confuse or mislead the audience about his characters and the way the US legal system works. That is why it’s fair to start calling his motives into question. If his motives were pure, why rely on so many illogical leaps of logic, subversive writing techniques and bad faith arguments to make his (or Juror 8’s) case?

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