Study Guide

12 Angry Men Analysis

  • Knife

    One of the most important pieces of evidence in the murder trial in 12 Angry Men is the murder weapon. It was a knife, of course, but in the words of Juror #4, "This wasn't an ordinary knife. It had a very unusual carved handle and blade. The storekeeper said it was the only one of its kind he had ever had in stock."

    In other words, it seems like a moot point that the murder weapon was the same knife that the defendant bought from a shop earlier on the night of the murder. This piece of evidence alone is pretty much enough to bring down a Guilty verdict, as Juror #4 adds, "They identified the death weapon in court as that very same knife."

    But hold on just a second, because we're about to see one of the most exciting moments in the whole movie.

    Just when it looks as though the knife in question will get the defendant convicted, Juror #8 pulls the exact same type of knife out of his pocket and jams it into the table in the middle of the room. And just so there's no confusion about where he got it, he adds, "I bought that at a pawn shop two blocks from the boy's house. It cost six dollars." So with this little flourish, he has proven that the knife isn't unique enough to bring a conviction on its own.

    You might be thinking (along with the other jurors) that proving the knife isn't unique doesn't mean the kid is innocent. In fact, it proves very little. But Juror #8 also gets the help of Juror #5 to say that if the defendant was as skilled with knives as the prosecution says he is, he never would have stabbed downward into his father's chest. In the words of Juror #5, "Here's how. Underhand. Anyone who's ever used one wouldn't handle it any other way." Again, this testimony isn't enough to sway people. But it continues to put doubt into pieces of evidence that used to be seen as sure things.

    The mysteriousness of the knife shows that what seem to be the most self-evident truths may not actually be true. It all depends on how you look at things, and which questions you decide to ask.

  • Glasses

    Alongside the fancy knife that was apparently used as the murder weapon, the eyewitness testimony of a neighbor is the most damning piece of evidence against the defendant in 12 Angry Men. After all, she claims that she actually saw the defendant kill his father.

    But this lady's testimony comes into question when one of the jurors remembers that she had marks on her nose from wearing glasses but didn't wear her glasses to court. He explains this by saying that the woman probably wanted to look younger, adding, "No glasses. Well, women do that. See if you can get a mental picture of her."

    So now we know that the woman didn't wear her eyeglasses to court. It's safe to assume that she also doesn't wear eyeglasses while sleeping, as one juror says, "No one wears eyeglasses to bed." But according to the woman's story, she sat up out of bed and immediately looked out the window to see the boy killing his father from across the street—and through the windows of a passing train, no less.

    Even the cold and rational Juror #4 is swayed by this new evidence, saying, "Strange, but I didn't think about it before." So in this case, the glasses represent just one more way that the court has bent the truth in order to get the Guilty verdict it wants.

  • Baseball Tickets

    To put it simply, baseball tickets in this movie symbolize selfishness and a total lack of respect for the lives of others.

    So, yeah, you're probably wondering how we got to this conclusion. But don't worry; we're not telling you you're a terrible person if you recently went to a ball game. Allow us to explain.

    When Juror #7 enters the jury room, one of the first things he says is, "Okay, men. Let's take our seats, huh? We can all get out of here pretty quick. I have tickets to that ball game tonight. Yanks and Cleveland. We've got this kid Modjelewski in there." So at this point, we're already thinking: Yeah, this guy is more interested in a ball game than in reaching a fair verdict. Even when he agrees to take more time to deliberate, the dude says, "Supposin' we take five minutes? So what? Let's take an hour. The ball game doesn't start till eight o'clock."

    Well, maybe that's not so terrible—but what this guy reveals later sure is. Toward the end of the movie, we find out that this dude has been voting for whichever verdict he thinks will get him out of the jury room sooner. He doesn't even care about the outcome. At this point, Juror #11 rightfully jumps up to say, "What kind of a man are you? You have sat here and voted guilty with everyone else because there are some baseball tickets burning a hole in your pocket."

    So there you have it: baseball tickets in this case represent the fact that this guy cares more about getting to a ballgame than he does about the life and death of the kid who's been put on trial. It'd be nice to think that no one could ever be this selfish in real life, but who knows? Chances are you'll find someone like this somewhere.

  • Hero's Journey

    Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.

    About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)

    Ordinary World

    Well, here we go. Our hero (Juror #8) begins this movie by staring out a window in a jury room. He doesn't even hear the foreman the first time he's asked to take a seat, which tells us that his mind is definitely occupied. When he finally sits down, we realize that this case is probably going to be an open-and-shut deal with a verdict of Guilty. But if that's the case, there won't be much of a movie. So we get the sense that our quiet Juror #8 has something up his sleeve.

    Call To Adventure

    Yup, we were right. Juror #8 does have something up his sleeve—a big fat vote for Not Guilty. And since a jury's verdict has to be unanimous, it looks like everyone is going to have to sit around until Juror #8 changes his mind. In his words, he can't bear to send an 18 year-old kid off to the electric chair without discussing things first. Some of the others think this is an okay idea, so they sit around and chat for a while.

    Refusal Of The Call

    Things go pretty smoothly at first, but some of the jurors get pretty mad when they realize that Juror #8 is actually trying to overturn the Guilty verdict they've all agreed on. They notice that he's trying to poke holes in certain key parts of the trial evidence, and they throw up brick walls to deny him. Eventually, Juror #8 realizes that there's no way he'll make any progress unless he puts some faith in his fellow jurors. So he agrees to take himself out of the next vote, and if all eleven of the other jurors vote Guilty again, he'll go along with them and send the defendant to his death.

    Meeting The Mentor

    Amazingly enough, a second vote shows that one of the other jurors has decided to support a Not Guilty verdict. After some bickering among the jurors, the elderly Juror #9 speaks up and says that he was the one who changed his vote. He agrees with Juror #8 and thinks that the group should give more consideration to some of the holes in the prosecution's case. The others are now mad at him, too, but he's willing to stand by our hero and give him the benefit of his elderly wisdom.

    Crossing The Threshold

    The longer Juror #8 keeps the others talking about the evidence in the case, the more support he gets for a Not Guilty verdict. It takes some time, but he eventually gets Juror #5 to change his vote to Not Guilty. Now #8 has some momentum on his side and we can see the beginning of the tide starting to turn in the jury room. The biggest thing Juror #8 does in this part of his journey is convince the other jurors that the defendant's lawyer did a really bad job of defending the kid.

    Tests, Allies, Enemies

    As the movie unfolds, Juror #8 collects a few more allies for his cause, including #2, #6, and #11. But he also makes some clear enemies in Jurors #3 and #10, who establish themselves as the two nastiest jerks in the room. Juror #10 is just a full-blown racist who wants to convict the defendant because he's not white, while Juror #3 has a major hang-up about his own son that makes him hate the defendant for not obeying his father more. The real test for Juror #8 at this point is to sway some of the remaining people who still think the kid is guilty but who could be convinced otherwise.

    Approach To The Inmost Cave

    Tensions rise as the jury swings from a majority voting Guilty to a majority voting Not Guilty. At this point, some of the angriest jurors fly off the handle. This is especially the case for Juror #10, who goes on such a long racist tirade that none of the jurors will ever listen to him again—including the ones who are still voting with him. At this point, we see the true difference between the type of man Juror #10 is in his heart and the type of man Juror #8 is.

    Ordeal

    The biggest challenge Juror #8 faces in this movie is to convince Juror #3 and Juror #4 to agree to a Not Guilty verdict. For starters, he has to convince these guys on completely different terms. While Juror #3 is a borderline sadist who personally doesn't like the defendant, Juror #4 is like a robot who will only hear purely rational arguments based on evidence. But even Juror #4 sees his conviction wavering when he realizes that the main witness to the murder was a woman who wasn't wearing her glasses at the time she allegedly identified the defendant as the murderer.

    Reward (Seizing The Sword)

    Eventually, Juror #4 buckles under the weight of new evidence that Juror #8 has brought into the jury room. Juror #3 still holds out in sheer spite. He still feels like he can get his way if he holds out and forces the case into a mistrial, because he knows that any new jury will convict the defendant and send him to the electric chair. But in the end, even he caves, and the jury decides on a verdict of Not Guilty.

    The Road Back

    Once the jury members have decided on their Not Guilty verdict, they call in the courthouse bailiff and say they're ready to head back into the courtroom. After they've all left, Juror #8 goes over to Juror #3 and hands him his coat to show there are no hard feelings between them.

    Resurrection

    Outside the courthouse, Juror #8 runs into #9 and they introduce themselves to one another by their actual names. #8 says that his name is Davis, and #9 says his name is McCardle. And that's pretty much that. They don't say a thing to each other except for their names.

    Return With The Elixir

    We get one last shot of Juror #8 smiling to himself as he walks down the steps of the courthouse. He's obviously pretty happy with himself for saving the life of an innocent young man. But he's probably also filled with optimism for the America he's walking back into, because he has a newfound faith in democracy and justice… Then again, we're just spitballing here. He might also be thinking about a guy nearby who sells really good hot dogs.

  • Setting

    A Jury Room (And That's It)

    Ever since people started making movies, it's like some of them try to show off how great they are by taking an incredibly limited setting and showing what they can do inside that setting. And that's definitely the case for 12 Angry Men, which on the scale of cramped settings falls somewhere between Snakes on a Plane and Phone Booth.

    One of the great things about this small setting is the way it directly contributes to the characters' sense of isolation and claustrophobia—which just makes it all that much easier for them to get frustrated and with each other. Put it all together, and you've got yourself a setting for some great drama. Kudos to director Sidney Lumet for doing such an awesome job with the small space.

  • Point of View

    Third-Person (Limited)

    So why are we saying that the narration is "limited" in a movie where we can see everything that's going on with all the jurors? Well, we might have access to the different juror's opinions, but these jurors also talk about tons of stuff that we know nothing about.

    Usually, narration is limited to a character's mind. But in this case, it's limited to a spatial location. We hear all kinds of stuff about witnesses and testimony that's happened before this movie begins, but all we really know about it is what we hear secondhand from the jurors. In this sense, the movie offers us limited info and then gives it to us like breadcrumbs to a bird.

  • Genre

    Drama

    As far as drama goes, this movie is as dramatic as you're going to get. And as with most dramas, most of the action in this movie takes place through dialogue. The closest to action we ever really get is when Juror #8 starts shuffling around the jury room pretending to be an old man and trying to undermine some key testimony. Oh yeah, and there's that time when Juror #3 tries to attack Juror #8. But none of this ever goes anywhere, since the whole point of this movie is to remind us that in a civilized democracy, fists don't make decisions—words do.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The number twelve is significant, of course, in that it's the number of people who serve on a jury. So we know from the get-go that this is probably going to be some kind of courtroom drama.

    To be fair, not all twelve men in this movie are angry—at least not all at the same time. But the title screams "Conflict!" and tells the audience that there are at least twelve personalities who could affect the outcome of the plot. Chances are that screenplay writer Reginald Rose chose the title because it suggests action and suspense. At least that's how this old movie poster tries to spin it.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    After convincing the jury to give a Not Guilty verdict, Juror #8 walks over to #3, his nemesis, and puts his coat on for him. The gesture shows us that despite the extent to which they've argued in the jury room, there will be no hard feelings once they head back into the world.

    Juror #8 then runs into #9 outside the courthouse, and they tell one another their names, which totally reminds us that we haven't heard a single person's name in the whole movie—and that counts for all twelve jurors, the "kid" on trial, "the old man" witness and the "woman" witness. This lack of names helps us realize that democracy isn't about the individual; it's about the group and its ability to make good decisions.

    It's a little more complicated than that, of course, because it is one individual who saves the day and directs the group of jurors to justice. But he's the one who best understands his duty as a jury member, which is the make sure the group actually serves justice.

    In the final shot of the movie, we see Juror #8 walking away from the courthouse with a big smile on his face. The shot reminds us that even though things looked bleak for a long time, the system can work if people take it seriously and put their prejudices and self-interests aside.

  • Shock Rating

    PG

    No sex, no violence, no cursing—there's not much to see here, folks, and you can thank the 1950s movie industry for that. Back in those days, people thought that saying something "Darn!" would have counted as swearing. Feel free to let a kid watch this movie, but be warned: they'll probably be bored out of their minds.