The Heat is On … 12 Angry Men (1957) … literally!
I couldn’t believe it but symbolism can predict when one of the jurors in 12 Angry Men (1957) changes their vote! Yes, it’s true. My friend told me that the “heat” in the room symbolizes the pressure on the jurors and guides their votes. I didn’t remember myself, so I had to rewatch this Henry Fonda classic to see if a symbol like the heat could be an influence on the action. I was surprised at what I discovered.
This is the jury movie every other court drama tries to live up to. It’s not a court procedural and it’s not investigative like Law & Order. The majority of the story takes place in a cramped jury room, where a group of men have to decide the fate of a young man, who is on trial for murder. The heat gets to them. The heat is baring down on them quite literally, driving them to make a decision. They are hot. They don’t want to be there and many of them act out.
The heat is represented in different ways throughout the movie. You can see a lot of people sweating in this movie and it is interesting how often the heat represents fatigue, or influences it. Even at the beginning, you can see the judge laboring, emphasizing the long period he’s been there, trying this case. A man dabs his forehead with a handkerchief. The judge takes a drink of water. In other words, this has been a long one folks.
After the jury retires to the jury room, the heat is the first subject amongst the men. The fan doesn’t work, so they open the windows, and one man explains that the news said today is the hottest day of the year. The hottest. He doesn’t say it will be hot. It says it is the hottest. He doesn’t say the temperature. This is significant, as the movie represents pressure as heat. We can therefore see that this day will have the most pressure on the jury too, out of all the days taken up by the trial.
Men keep patting their heads, which may be a reminder that it is their brain that is the chief guide for them in the jury room. It has all the facts, but many of them skip using their brains, wanting to get out from the heat in the room, get their deliberation over with because they are impatient. The most patient man looks the most cool because he’s not driven by impatience. The juror played by EG Marshall is the most logical of the characters. He is a stock-broker. He listens to facts and to reason. The heat seems to have no effect on him. In this way, heat influences logic or represents illogical thinking, however you want to look at it.
Henry Fonda keeps his suit on too and also remains logical throughout the preceding, becoming the only hope the boy has left to get a fair shake from this jury. The juror played by Ed Begley can’t believe Fonda would think the kid on trial is innocent. Doing so, he goes for his handkerchief. He wipes his head. He feels the pressure. He doesn’t want to think about the case. Another man doodles on paper, seemingly not thinking clearly either.
Heat seems to have a direct effect on the facts in the case too. Even as the discussion of the events in case gets going, Lee Cobb explains that one woman actually saw the kid do it. She couldn’t sleep because of the heat and looked through her window to see the kid stab his father. They later prove that this is impossible. Ed Begley paces around is in bad condition, coughing, wheezing, sweating, and wiping his nose. This condition represents his illogical and racist nature.
Whenever Lee Cobb or one of the other men take a swipe at the kid with a racial comment or a lie, they wipe their hands or their forehead. None of these comments are logical or make much sense. The heat can clue you in each time. Many of the most racist and illogical men pace around, as if anxious about their own thinking. Only after talking it over do many of the men change their initial votes and succumb to the pressure, represented by Henry Fonda’s way of thinking.
Close-ups are also an important predictor of the truth. When the camera closes in on EG Marshall, we can see his face filled with doubt, as he finally listens to another argument. He sweats for the first time ever during the movie, exactly at the moment when he changes his vote and decides to side with Henry Fonda. He is convinced by the arguments and succumbs to the pressure. This is the most obvious example of the heat predicting a vote ever.
The illogical, raving men aren’t so easy to convince, but are sweating now. Many of the men, including the holdouts, visibly sweat through their shirts. The pressure only relents when the fan starts working again. It isn’t just a coincidence that the broken fan starts miraculously working just when the pressure is coming off, when the jury is beginning to become fair and logical. It is funny how most of their arguments are suppositions and assumptions about what occurred, but I think the message of trying to be fair by looking at facts or looking at all sides still remains a good one. No judge would tell the jury to act like the one in the movie though, but they might advise people not to make snap judgments like the juror played by Lee Cobb.
All in all, this is a great movie. It’s becoming a little dated, but I’ve never seen any “jury” movie be successful like this one. It’s a character movie and every single one of the actors has to be spot on with their delivery, or it just doesn’t work. And they are. The symbolism is just a bonus and something great I noticed. The heat is used as a device, to keep people busy wiping their hands or opening windows, instead of just having the actors sit there blankly staring at each other. It represents the pressure put on each of the men. This movie has been shown in colleges and schools for its message and I wouldn’t have a problem if this continued.