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”

    • Glad you agree Andy. There are times when it obviously has a stageplay quality to it, but its so strong that I never felt that that was a shortcoming at all. Whereas in other adaptations from the stage sometimes seem… lesser to me… when it seems as if I’m just watching a filmed play. You know?

      Never here though, thats for sure. The camera work is a big factor in it I think.

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