Movies That Everyone Should See: “12 Angry Men”

Juror #8: I just want to talk.

Juror #7: Well, what’s there to talk about? Eleven men in here think he’s guilty. No one had to think about it twice except you.

Juror #10: I want to ask you something: do you believe his story?

Juror #8: I don’t know whether I believe it or not – maybe I don’t.

Juror #7: So how come you vote not guilty?

Juror #8: Well, there were eleven votes for guilty. It’s not easy to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first.

“12 Angry Men” was originally a televised play.

It aired on CBS as an episode of their “Studio One” series. “Studio One” was an anthology series that featured live dramas each week, each a stand alone story. “12 Angry Men” was performed and broadcast for a live national audience on September 20, 1954.

Television scribe Reginald Rose was inspired to write the story by his own experience as a juror. Not that the story is based on a trial that he was on, it simply had occurred to him that in spite of the proliferation of legal drama in tv and film, the stories always cut away when the jury left to deliberate. After serving on a jury himself, he realized that there was opportunity for dramatic storytelling within the jury room as well as the courtroom.

After the success of “Marty” (1955), which had initially been a NBC televised play for “The Goodyear Television Playhouse” (“Marty” went on to win four Academy Awards and was a box office success), Hollywood turned its eyes to network teleplays as a potential source of material.

United Artists eyed “12 Angry Men” (which had moved to stage productions after its televised origins) and asked Henry Fonda not only to take on the lead role, but to help move the project to the big screen.

Fonda was an enormous star by the time of “12 Angry Men”, having been on the silver screen for over twenty years. He had been nominated once for an Academy Award, and had won a Tony Award for his work on stage. He also brought with him a well established onscreen persona. Upright. Moral. Strong. Compassionate. With roles in such movies as “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Young Mr. Lincoln” and “Mister Roberts”, Fonda had an image as a man of conscience and will. His role as Juror #8 would solidify that.

In order to keep costs manageable, Fonda agreed to produce the film, along with original screenwriter Reginald Rose. They would need an affordable director as well, however.

They wound up with Sydney Lumet, a director who would eventually earn an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

“12 Angry Men” was Lumet’s big screen directorial debut. He had substantial work directing plays and in television however, which lent itself well to the nature of the film. Lumet put the actors through rigorous rehearsals. In fact, almost as much time was spent in rehearsals (two weeks) as was in filming (17 days). He also spent a great deal of time working on staging – blocking and camera position. The result was a more efficient production, a necessity if he was to bring the film in on time and under budget (he did).

He brought in a well-known cinematographer, Boris Kaufman (“On the Waterfront”). Together they worked to support the drama and tension with the style of the film. They intentionally played with spatial distancing via the camerawork over the course of the movie in order to heighten the growing tensions in the jury room. At the outset, the cameras shoot downward on the jurors, and wide-angle lenses visually create a greater sense of distance between them. As deliberations continue, the perspective drops to eye level, and actors are shot in clusters, closer together. As the movie approaches its climax, Lumet shoots from low angles, in close-up, using telephoto lenses. The result is a mounting, claustrophobic effect. Lumet also increased the frequency of edits – cuts – towards the end of the movie. The increased tempo, coupled with the prevalence of close-ups towards the finale ratchets up the pressure, reflecting the boiling tension in the room.

Although he was a rookie, Lumet did a brilliant job of supporting the story with technique.

With the exception of Fonda and Lee J. Cobb, none of the actors were household names. Those who would continue on to prominent careers such as E. G. Marshall and Jack Klugman were just starting out at the time. Many of the others were more well-known for their work on stage. George Voskovec and Joseph Sweeney were actually brought in to reprise their role from the television production. Every actor involved turns in remarkable performance, though. It’s a brilliant ensemble.

The story itself is simple, but powerful.

A jury adjourns to the jury room to deliberate at the conclusion of a murder trial. At the outset, eleven of the twelve jurors are convinced of the accused’s guilt. The lone hold out (Fonda) isn’t even convinced of the defendant’s innocence, he just wants to avoid a rush to judgement. The boy’s life is in the balance, a guilty verdict carries the death penalty. If he sides with the others immediately, the boy would be sentenced to the chair without so much as even a discussion.

His dissension triggers a discussion. It begins a genuine deliberation process. The jurors, irritated with having to debate what at first seems like an open and shut case, treat him with scorn and anger. Undeterred, the lone holdout persists on discussing the facts, in spite of what appears to be overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It turns out that he had found a switch blade knife identical to the murder weapon for sale in a pawn shop. The prosecution had argued the knife used in the crime was unique… the fact that it wasn’t was enough to put the seed of doubt in the juror’s mind, and cause him to question whether or not the boy was adequately represented by his counsel.

Faced with unanimous opposition, however, he offers to relent – as long as everyone is still in agreement. He calls for a vote by ballot. If no one agrees with him, he won’t continue his objection.

He receives a single vote in his favor, but it’s enough. The turning of the tide has begun.

The lone juror begins to go over the facts of the case, one at a time. Exposing flaws in reasoning, pointing out inconsistencies, exposing weaknesses in the facts presented at trial. He offers a better defense of the accused than the defense attorney did. As the facts begin to weaken, jurors begin to join him in his opinion that the boy is not guilty, one at a time. One by one. With each successive vote, more jurors vote not guilty.

He exposes more than holes in the case, however.

As the deliberations proceed, juror’s own prejudices and motivations begin to surface. Some have plans and wish to leave, others are outright bigoted, one vocal advocate for guilt’s reasoning is affected by the emotional weight of his sour relationship with his son. Logic, reason and compassion begin to win out – at the same time that prejudice, anger and personal bias are exposed.

The jury is eventually swayed, due to the fact that one man refused to take the quick and easy path. His ideals of justice ensure a thorough discourse, which eventually results in the acquittal of an innocent man. He saves a life. Fonda imbues the part with determination and dignity, a quiet righteousness. He perseveres in the face of tremendous pressure… at time, outright ridicule or scorn. By refusing to acquiesce to the pressure of the majority, in spite of his own persecution, he brings the truth to light.

In the end, he has the class to assist his chief opponent on with his coat.

“12 Angry Men” is an incredible film. It takes a basic premise and crafts a story that speaks to society beyond the narrow confines of the setting. It holds one of the greatest performances in the storied career of the legendary Henry Fonda, and is stylistically directed by Sydney Lumet… the first offering in his incredible career.

It was nominated for three Oscars (Best Director, Best Picture and Best Screenplay), but came home empty handed. It would continue to grow in stature over time, however. It appears on AFI’s 100 as #87 on the tenth anniversary edition . It was named to both their 100 Thrills (#88) and 100 Cheers (#42) lists and they’ve also named it the #2 courtroom drama of all time. Henry Fonda’s Juror #8 was selected to their list of 100 Heroes and Villains at #28. The film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2007.

It’s a story about courage, conviction and compassion. It’s a story about justice and the ideals of justice. It’s a magnificent movie that remains as gripping today as it was in 1957.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See“.

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52 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “12 Angry Men”

    • Nice! Thank’s Brad, good to know you support this call.

      Kind of a mortal lock, choosing this one. Undeniable classic. Fonda is the noble hero, Lee J Cobb thundering at him… just a great great flick. :)

    • 100% true. Its got great acting, great directing, and its a great script. Thats a recipe for endurance :D

      I think it helps too that the jury experience is around to stay, and that people are always going to have to stand up against prejudices and rushing to judgement.

      But absolutely. Timeless.

  1. I think I watched this when I was growing up. Saturday or Sunday morning when they would show older films. I don’t really recall much of it. But I think I may have read a version of it as well. Or something very much like it.

    • Well, my recommendation is for a revisit, then! You wont be disappointed, this is a really really great flick. A total classic. Definitely worth a refresher course. Shouldnt be too hard to stumble across, its one of those classics that gets played pretty frequently…

  2. A great classic for sure but one that makes me very “angry”. 12 reasoned,intelligent, morally upright citizens from the “greatest generation” are never jurors today. All the “jury” movies since have been about corrupted, intimidated, influenced panelists. OJ Simpson, Casey Anthony these are the juried trials of today. You scratch your head and wonder “huh”? Would like to see a serious remake for today’s world that could shake people’s sense of justice!

    • Well, just to mention it, there actually was a pretty decent remake of this movie a while back. William Friedkin directed it. It had a great cast – Edward James Olmos, George C Scott, James Gandolfini, Jack Lemmon… it was solid. Wheteher or not it shook anyone’s sense of justice, I doubt it.

      As to all jury movies being about tampering, I have to say you’re right, unfortunately. Perhaps because this one did the Jury room situation so well that any straight up jury room movie would be too derivitave? I dont know. It is too bad though, thats a ripe setting for drama. Dont know if youve ever served on a jury or not, but that is a heigthened, tense situation. There could be endless stories told there.

      • Never heard of the remake. Last jury show I saw was a BBc miniseries. Of course they were corrupted too. I was surprised to learn there is no “voia dire” there. Jurors are chosen by lot. Imagine how that would work here!

      • Minus medical excuse, military duty etc. your number gets tossed in the hat(so to speak). Like the ancient Greeks who thought every citizen was a jurist!

  3. Hi, fogs and company:

    Excellent choice and dissertation!

    One of the great ensemble films of the 20th century! A very good, tense story in the hands of a more than competent cast. Who are each given ample opportunities to shine in a film made for character actors. This is the film that put Jack Klugman, Martin Balsam, Jack Warden and Edward Binns on my radar as actors to seek out and watch back when I was a kid.

    • Well thank you Jack, glad you enjoyed it! :D

      Absolutely a great ensemble. Its a great, great, great cast. They all share the screen so easily and blend together so well. Well, LOL, they work together so well to create what seems to be a passionately divided jury room.

      Lumet did a great job ratcheting up the tension. Between the actors and the story, and then the direction… and adding in the storm, that kind of thing. The end result is just this boiling pressure… Great great flick. I really like this one, too.

  4. Another excellent film in my DVD collection. Acting-superb, as well as the directing. One for the few plays that works also as a movie. Great choice and I do recommend everyone see this gem.

    • You can pretty much tell it either was or would make a great play… I was pretty surprised to learn it got its start on TV and not on stage.

      Had to figure you’d apporve of this one, its a solid classic. ;)

  5. Here’s a comment that didn’t really belong in the write up. LOL, but I thought of this yesterday watching…

    Of course, by the end, if I’m on that jury, I’m with #8, not guilty. Definitely, right?

    But can you imagine sitting through that trial, the jury goes away – and youre like the Judge or one of the attorneys or something – and they come back with “Not Guilty” and you weren’t privy to all of those deliberations? LOL You’d think they were on crack!

    I can picture the prosecuting attornies going… “Not… Guilty… WTF??”

  6. Undeniable Classic, right up in my Top 5 !! This movie has a lot of Favorite tags on it, Favorite B&W film, Favorite Debut film for a director. It is also one of the few movies that literally swept me off my feet. Just a great, great movie.

    • :D It literally swept you off of your feet?

      Just busting you. I feel – almost – as strongly. :D

      Interesting… best debut for a director. HMMMMMM. That would be a good question to mull over. Strong candidate, certainly. I wouldnt be afraid to crown it… just havent given it any thought. I must ponder now.

  7. First of, I must have missed something, but why should the notify email box be unchecked. What was changed?

    About this movie, it really is stunning. I saw it on the IMDB top 250 and checked it out. First I was wondering how the hell it would keep my attention, but it’s such a great thing to see, just that one room, great dialogue and the heat which you can almost feel slowly taking over these men.

    • It used to pop us as unchecked when people would leave a comment. The default setting for follow up comments by email – previously – was NO. WordPress changed that recently to yes. When you go to leave a comment, it’s checked automatically, you have manually deselect it now if you DONT want email regarding follow up comments.

      If people want follow up emails, thats fine. But its burning me that people have to remember to uncheck it now. Especially since we foster a lot of comments here… I dont want people to keep getting emails if they didnt mean to. You know?

      Anyways…

      I guess I didnt even know it was on the IMDb top 250… where at? Where… at… HOLY SHIT! #6?! LOL

      Boy, I whiffed by not including that in it’s “Resume” paragraph. :D Thats an impressive achievement!

    • Yeah, I’d have put it ahead of “To Kill a Mockingbird” basically because Mockingbird isnt entirely about the courtroom. It’s kind of a life drama. “12 Angry Men” is straight up court setting.

      Great flick, one way or the other. Total classic!

  8. How much time did you spend researching all of this? I learned SO much about this film reading your post, man. I love 12 Angry Men and remember watching it for the first time in highschool and completely engrossed in how 1 man was able to sway so many.

    Thanks for this post. Runaway Jury kind of touched on some of the same themes and I like it for that reason too. but nothing beats 12 Angry Men for me! And Fonda…the best!

    • I like Runaway Jury too, in fact I just watched it the other day… but LOL, theyre not on the same plane. (Not that youre saying they are, Im sure you know that already)

      You know what’s awesome? I have the Criterion Blu on this one. Made research easy. Culled most of the info from the booklet and the special features and then shore up/confirm a little with Wikipedia and IMDb, and boom!

      I wish I had a Criterion Blu for all of these in this series!

      And you know how it goes, man… the thanks goes to YOU for reading! :D

  9. I don’t think you’ve done a MTESS entry yet that falls under “duh” for me, so this is the first really obvious installment. Yeah, no kidding everyone should see this– it’s 12 Frigging Angry Men. Not a knock on you at all for bringing it up– you’re just being a good film writer after all– but I think this is a very clear “must-see” for serious film fans. If you haven’t seen this, you’re missing a small but vital piece of cinematic education!

    • MTESSing this is a great service and favor of FMR. The younger generation(of which I am not) has little chance of knowing “12 Angry Men” . It’s old, it’s B+W, it’s rarely televised. You know it Andrew because you’re a Cineaste. But what about Urbannight(above comment)she and others don’t know. But they do now!

      • Well, LOL. I wish I had that kind of reach… but I’m happy to do what little I can.

        For the most part the assumption is that most people HAVE seen these, and this is just a look back to revisit, discuss, recall. As opposed to trying to bring them to light for anyone.

        Although you’re right, I do get a lot of “I havent seen this one” along the way(s). I find myself using the phrase “no brainer recommendation” a lot in MTESS replies :D

    • So like, Citizen Kane and To Kill a Mockingbird weren’t “No Brainers”? LOL :D

      I have picked some low hanging fruit at times before this for sure. Not that I havent made some choices that are questionable or borderline or anything above question before – I’ve definitely powered through some favorites and made a couple of shaky picks… but I’ve done a couple that deserve a “Friggin” along the way.

      It’s 2001: A Friggin Space Odyssey! LOL. It’s the Wizard of Friggin Oz!!
      :D

      • Well, that’s why I said “I don’t think”. I don’t remember every single one you’ve done. But yeah, Kane would definitely fall under that category.

        And you should do two MTESS series; one for less obvious picks, and one where you insert “friggin'” into the title and as many sentences as you possibly, comfortably can. That would be amazing.

      • That was legitimately chuckle inducing over here. I appreciated that idea.

        The way I look at it it would be the ones I dont worry about and then the ones I secretly post with my fingers corssed thinking “I hope people dont give me a ton of shit on this one…” LOL

        Although, hey, if Robocop gets by FMR readers with no dispute, anything goes, right? MTESS “Point Break” here I come! :D

      • “Hey! It’s Point Friggin’ Break!” is a great title for an article.

        The thing about “MTESS” is that you get to throw in movies that you think people should see not just because they’re bona fide classics– because people should be seeing those for sure– but also that you think people should see because you just plain love ‘em. That’s why I took you seriously on Robocop. If you’d said something more obviously not serious, like Glitter, yeah, I would have known you were pissing in my pocket, but hey…”MTESS” could mean anything goes!

  10. When I was in high school, I remember a teacher bringing this movie in for a viewing. It was, perhaps a little, but not necessarily related to the class (for which subject I can only speculate). I was in all likelihood about 13 or 14 at the time.

    What I had immediately taken from it at the time was the importance of critical thinking, questioning status quo, to be sure that the choices you make are done for the right reasons, & to allow yourself to be held accountable (and hold others as well) for decisions made. In this way, this movie had a profound effect on my that is still prevalent to this day. Through multiple delivery points, I am an advocate for critical thinking. Not something I generally bring up outside of the podcast I co-host and various blogs I write on the subject, but I had to make a special exception in this case, due to it’s relevancy.

    Thanks Fogs, for a great reminder of a wonderful film.

    • No problem, Dak, I love it… love writing up great movies, you know?

      This movie IS a great excercise in critical thinking isnt it? The way they break down every piece of information and reason it out and hold it up to the light and see if it withstands scrutiny? I love it. One of my favorite jurors is the steely guy with glasses I think he might be number 4. He’s one of the last to crack – not due to prejudice or his own baggage – but just because he cant get over the eye witness testimony until they figure out the woman should have been wearing glasses. He was trying his best to be rational the whole time…

      Its a great flick. Its a good one to show in school. I didnt get shown a lot of movies in High School, one of the few I got was “On the Waterfront”, and that wound up staying with me, too.

      • LOL. Up. Good old Mr Flebotte. That was a fun class. I liked him, too. He was cool.

        I saw Sybil in his class, I dont remember Laura though. I dont think Ive ever seen it actually….

        Maybe you got lucky and got to see one more movie than I did? Although its highly probable that I DID see it, and just… didnt retain the information, if you will.

    • Are you WordPress, too? Go by the forums and bitch about it with me. We need to start a riot so they’ll pay attention and change it back…

      It’s unbelievably stupid.

  11. It shows you certainly took your time researching and preparing this review. It was a very enjoyable read.
    I couldn’t agree more with you when it comes to the importance of this film. It’s a timeless piece of film-making that was superbly shot, wonderfully written and powerfully delivered by a very capable ensemble of actors at the top of their game.
    The film is also important because it introduced us to the fabulous Sidney Lumet who would go on to make a collection of wonderful films for decades to come.
    Above all, I love the simplicity of the story and how humanizing it is. 12 Angry Men is one of those films that can turn you into a better person when you’re done watching it and not many movies can claim that.

    • Thanks TBBI, I appreciate that! Glad you enjoyed it, that’s what its all about. Sharing about great movies!

      I still cant get over the fact it was Lumet’s first movie. I know he had done stage and TV stuff so he wasnt a total rookie, but still… wow he did SUCH a great job. I mean, just incredible.

      The “Turn you into a better person” is a Fonda effect, I think. LOL. He nailed that like few others could… :D

  12. I must have seen this movie a dozen times in my life. When it is on, it stops me in my tracks and I sit and watch to the end. The combination of characters and the process used to break down those prejudices and change their thought process is just genius!

    Fantastic write-up, brought me right back into that scenario.

    • Thanks Ray! :D Nice of you to say.

      I’m with you. This movie has time warping qualities for me. It just stops time whenever its on. I have to check it out and it always seems like it flies by. I’ve seen it a bunch, myself…. definitely definitely high rewatchability factor here.

    • The single setting, and then on top of which, it’s essentially just a discussion. I mean… the stakes, obviously couldnt be higher. But it’s not like they’re having sword fights or anything. One room, one discussion.

      But 12 different personalities. LOL Some really great characters. We get to know a lot about these characters even though we never see them outside of here. We wind up knowing how many kids some have, what baseball teams they like, if theyre prejudiced, what they do for work, etc etc.

      Crazy, no?

  13. Damn right this is a Movie That Everyone Should See. First black & white movie I ever saw, and it made me realize that, hey, movies don’t need to be in color to be good! (I was very young.) But seriously, not enough can be said about this movie and its power to maintain interest despite its limited setting. That’s one hell of a debut for Mr. Lumet.

    • LOL. Can I get carry over points to the next time I need a mulligan then? LOL!! :D

      It is incredible that its a black and white flick set in one room and everyone still loves it, isnt it? I have to say, it’s meeting with more enthusiasm than probably any other older classic I’ve written up yet. People dig this one for sure!

      You’re right though, this should be the poster child for selling classic movies to modern audiences. The constraints of the setting and plot leave very little to be lost in translation between eras.

  14. This is a can’t miss film; as in you can’t miss this if you’re a fan of law, writing, or movies. What a thrilling movie and dialogue; how else can you explain such a riveting movie without action shot in black and white. Henry Fonda & Ed Begley at their best.
    Great ‘friggin’ (nod to Andrew’s comments) pick.

    “It’s always difficult to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth. I don’t really know what the truth is. I don’t suppose anybody will ever really know. Nine of us now seem to feel that the defendant is innocent, but we’re just gambling on probabilities – we may be wrong. We may be trying to let a guilty man go free, I don’t know. Nobody really can. But we have a reasonable doubt, and that’s something that’s very valuable in our system. No jury can declare a man guilty unless it’s SURE. We nine can’t understand how you three are still so sure. Maybe you can tell us. “

    • That is a great quote. A great moment. I love how the jury turns its back on the racist during his diatribe… :D

      Meanwhile, I never fully appreciated the impact of Fonda helping Cobb on with his coat until this viewing. The compassion there is almost incomprehensible. Such a great, great flick. 12 Friggin’ Angry Men. :D

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