Excitable?! You bet I’m excitable! We’re trying to put a guilty man in the chair where he belongs!
In honor of the late Sidney Lumet, I give you my favorite moment one of his best-known movies, the courtroom drama 12 Angry Men (1957). It arrives early on in the proceedings: arguments have just gotten underway, only two jurors are voting “not guilty,” and so far all twelve men appear pretty civilized and reasonable behind their suit-and-tie façades. But trouble is brewing, and Juror #3—played to perfection by sweaty tough-guy Lee J. Cobb—is revealing his true colors.
He’s been exchanging nasty comments with Juror #5 (Jack Klugman, standing beside him), so the cool-headed, bespectacled Juror #4 (E.G. Marshall) calls out, “He’s very excitable, just sit down!” Cobb quickly turns around as we dolly toward him, and as he becomes the shot’s focal point, he barks out the immortal line quoted above. I love the self-righteous simplicity of that retort, along with the way he takes another juror’s words (even though Juror #4 is his most consistent ally) and violently hurls them across the room.
It’s especially ironic that he’s pontificating like this, since he just compared his nemesis, Juror #8 (Henry Fonda), to a “golden-voiced preacher.” But Fonda just sits there, watching and silently judging him, while he rails on like the world’s most rabid, ferocious demagogue. Cobb’s facial expressions and body language during this scene are crude, threatening, and grotesque, but he’s nonetheless compelling and kinetic. He puts real force into his argument, and you can tell that he, at least, sincerely believes he’s on the right side.
Throughout the film, he blusters and blusters, even when he doesn’t have a logical leg to stand on. He’s not very eloquent, but the weight of his convictions and the energy with which he argues them give the character a built-in element of pathos—so that later, when he breaks down into muffled sobs and agrees to a vote of “not guilty,” you can’t help but feel bad for him. He’s a troubled soul. Fonda is warm, well-argued, intelligent, and invariably in the right. Cobb? Well, he’s excitable.