12 Angry Men: Choosing Life or Death

LIFE IS IN THEIR HANDS – DEATH IS ON THEIR MINDS!

12angrymenThe most famous episode of the CBS anthology series Studio One (1947-1958) is from 1954 and features a teleplay by Reginald Rose. Depicting a process where one juror convinces eleven other men to change their guilty verdict, the episode was a hit and a decision was made to turn it into a feature film. Part of the success with 12 Angry Men (1957) is likely due to two men – Henry Fonda, as the producer and star of the film, and Sidney Lumet, one of Studio One’s helmers, who made his feature directing debut and would go on to have a long career in Hollywood as a superb manufacturer of thrills.

After a trial where an 18-year-old Hispanic boy stands accused of having murdered his father with a knife, the twelve men of the jury retire to a private room. It’s a hot, muggy day in New York and many of them are hoping for a speedy decision. After all, what is there to talk about? It is clear to most jurors that the kid stabbed his dad and that’s the end of it. A first vote is held… and everybody says he’s guilty except juror #8 (Henry Fonda). As he’s asked to explain himself, the man in a white suit says that the kid may very well be guilty, but he believes that if they’re all going to send an 18-year-old to death row they should at least spend a little time debating the case.

As he elaborates on some of the doubts that he has, #8 finds that some of the others have peculiar reasons to see a swift guilty verdict.

Making a room feel crowded
Lumet not only had a past in television but also as a theater director. In other words, he was used to a tight budget and a very sparse setting. This story plays out more or less in real time and is set entirely in one room, save for a few courthouse scenes and bathroom breaks. Right from the start Lumet seems to have realized the true potential of his medium. In collaboration with cinematographer Boris Kaufman and editor Carl Lerner, he creates immense tension. In the beginning, everything is a bit casual and lackadaisical, but as the discussions turn more heated Lumet makes sure that the room feels crowded and everybody’s tensions are on edge.

Bit by bit, the case is picked apart, first only by #8 but later also by the jurors he sways. It would have been a mistake by Rose to make the murder case too blatantly obvious; after all, that would assume that everybody in the courtroom except #8 is a complete idiot. The twists and turns are well plotted for the story. Rose wrote the script after serving on a jury and he realized that one of the things about the situation that intrigued him the most was how the deliberations might reveal the true nature of some of the jurors. In the script, the character of the men become obvious after a while; some of them are easily convinced because they seem too weak or indifferent to really have an opinion, while others remain stubborn because of prejudice and racism, traits that are not easily abandoned.

One of the film’s most fascinating aspects is how it lays bare the democratic process between citizens trying to reach a way forward in a particular situation, discussing the moral and practical issues that are at hand and eventually reaching consensus.

The cast rehearsed intensely before the shoot and they all deliver great performances; many of them would later turn into beloved character actors. The standouts are Lee J. Cobb as one of #8’s fiercest opponents, and Fonda himself. He allegedly gambled on this film and never received a salary for it, but would go on to say that it was one of his favorites. No wonder. After this movie, everybody complains about jury duty… except those who hope they might be one of “12 angry men”.

12 Angry Men 1957-U.S. 95 min. B/W. Produced by Reginald Rose, Henry Fonda. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Screenplay: Reginald Rose. Cinematography: Boris Kaufman. Editing: Carl Lerner. Cast: Henry Fonda (Juror #8), Lee J. Cobb (Juror #3), Ed Begley (Juror #10), E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden… Martin Balsam.

Trivia: Later turned into a stage play and remade for TV in several countries, including the U.S. in the form of 12 Angry Men (1997), as well as the Russian feature film 12 (2007).

BAFTA: Best Foreign Actor (Fonda). Berlin: Golden Bear.

Last word: “Technically it’s an enormously complicated movie. You’d think that shooting in a tight space would be the easiest thing in the world, when in fact the easiest thing to shoot is a cattle round-up! Just put six cameras on it and all the footage will be so marvelous you won’t know what to choose because the action is so terrific. Here, through the slow intensification of performance, and then also through a very subtle use of the camera: use of lenses, use of lighting… not trying to avoid the claustrophobia, but trying to take advantage of it. Make it more claustrophobic. Make the ceiling feel lower, make it seem as if the walls are closing in on them. We weren’t kidding anybody. We were going to be in one room. Let’s use it dramatically!” (Lumet, The Hollywood Interview)

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