This is one of the highest rated movies I'd never seen until now. Number six of all time on IMDb. 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Two thumbs up from everyone. It does have a great cast under the direction of the great Sidney Lumet, but the movie itself is the worst kind of cheap shot: smug, contrived and pandering.
As a jury of 12 men sits down on the hottest day of the summer to deliberate over their verdict in a murder trial, 11 of them feel the result is a forgone conclusion: one eyewitness, one earwitness, compelling motive and circumstantial evidence with a dubious alibi: guilty. But one juror (Henry Fonda) dissents, sparking a merry-go-round of finger-pointing until everyone neatly agrees with him.
There's no suspense in 12 Angry Men. the outcome is as obvious as Fonda is sanctimonious. the only tension is which rhetorical devices Fonda will use to expose his fellow jurors' prejudices, carelessness, inner-demons, and selfish disregard for their fellow man before they too easily concede his point. of course, most of the arguments Fonda makes violate the jury's mandate and make a mockery of the justice system. If any real jury behaved like this — introducing their own evidence and acting as expert witnesses — it would be a travesty.
This kind of heavy-handed social commentary was very popular in the 1950s, as Hollywood was coming off the blacklist and approaching the dawn of the Civil Rights era. 12 Angry Men is a handsomely produced example of this kind of bare-knuckled, morally bullying polemic. With a dynamite cast (Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, etc.) and tight directing as cover, writer Reginald Rose comes off as an insufferable scold who artfully plays the trick of making the audience feel so morally superior by the end of the movie they might break their arms patting themselves on the back.
It had a different effect on me: 12 Angry Men is so cynically rigged to pull the rug out from under the 11 original guilty votes, I began to feel sorry for them. If this were a Twilight Zone episode, it could only end with the repugnantly smirking Fonda being revealed as the Devil himself, manipulating the jurors to acquit one of his loyal charges.