- Director: Sidney Lumet
- Writer: Reginald Rose, based on his teleplay
- Starring: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Ed Begley, Sr., John Fiedler, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Joseph Sweeney, George Voskovec, and Robert Webber
- Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 list (#87), 3 Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Sidney Lumet, Best Adapted Screenplay)
- Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Tubi, Free streaming (with cable subscription) on TCM App, buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV
12 Angry Men is a movie that takes place almost entirely in one room, based on a live TV play, which made basically no money on its initial release. Yet honestly if I could pick one classic movie that everybody had to watch, the same way every American teenager has to read To Kill a Mockingbird in school, it might be this one. I personally did have to watch the movie, in law school. I’m told they sometimes show it business schools, to teach methods of persuasion, and in ESL classes, where the students talk about the personality traits of the various characters. The fact that it features 12 white guys shouting at each other in a room might make it seem dated today, but not only does the original still feel relevant, it has been updated over the years through a long series of remakes and reimaginings. William Friedkin directed a 1997 star-studded remake, and as a play it has been remade in most countries and languages around the world, even in many countries where there is not actually a jury system. In the Japanese version, one juror has to convince the rest of the jury that the defendant is guilty, instead of the other way around. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has stated that the movie is the reason she became a lawyer, while at the same time noting that the various jurors do things here that are very much not allowed.
So what is the source of this tremendous influence and staying power? It’s not just that we’re super-into courtroom dramas. The conflicts between the various jurors, the ways they represent different members of society and personality types, the ways in which those personality types interact, remain relevant today. It also has a way of discussing social issues that feels non-specific but somehow still applicable to many eras and situations. It talks about racism without getting bogged down in the specifics of which races it’s actually talking about. And everyone can imagine themselves as Henry Fonda, the lone hero standing up for what’s right against everyone else’s opinion and eventually convincing everyone that they’re right. He’s like your average Twitter-user’s fantasy.
The intro to the Turner Classic Movies version I watched has the host calling the movie “the ultimate talky drama,” and I suppose that’s true. It really does take place almost entirely in one room. I saw at least two people the same week I watched it commenting that they now felt uncomfortable watching them all together in this small space, especially when the one guy has a cold. I did not have this problem, so I guess I’m maybe in a better space mentally than I thought I was? However, that small scale doesn’t prevent director Sidney Lumet from bringing things to this movie that you just couldn’t do on stage. He starts out with primarily wider shots of the room, gradually pushing his camera closer to the faces of the actors as things get more intense and claustrophobic. And his close-up of Henry Fonda’s feet as he imitates the walk of the old man witness hurrying to the door is one of the more memorable bits of the film.
Fonda plays “Juror #8” (none of the characters are given names until a brief coda at the end), who convinces the rest of the jurors over the course of the movie that there is, in fact, a “reasonable doubt” that the boy on trial (John Savoca, seen only in one scene at the beginning) did not stab his own father. Every member of the jury is given a different personality and agenda. The showiest other parts are for Lee J. Cobb, who blusters loudly about his certitude of the Defendant’s guilt, Jack Warden, a wisecracking salesman who just wants to get out of there in time to get the baseball game he has tickets for, and Ed Begley, Sr., whose racist views (expressed in a final memorable rant about “those people”) bias him against the defendant. The movie takes place in what feels like real time, as Fonda gradually convinces the rest of the members, originally so sure, that they should acquit the defendant.
The characters are so well-drawn that it is likely that everyone will find something different in them. On this viewing, I found myself particularly interested in “Juror #4” (E.G. Marshall). He uses this facade of being cold and logical, acting like he’s impatient with the obvious fact that everyone else is dumber than him, but underneath he’s just as emotional and biased as everyone else, and not as smart as he thinks he is. If the internet has taught us anything it might be that there are more Juror #4s in the world than we originally suspected.
After watching the original live television play (this was much more a thing in the 1950s as compared to today), Fonda produced the movie version, which ended up as the only producing credit of his career. The directing assignment eventually went to Lumet, who up until that point had only worked on TV and had a reputation for shooting projects quickly and efficiently. This was his big break, and he went on to a long career. In a four year stretch of the 1970s alone his work included Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Wiz. Though the movie took a while to initially find its audience, everyone who saw it liked it. It was a major awards contender that year but was plowed aside by The Bridge on the River Kwai. However, it likely has had a far greater influence over the years than that movie.
As I’ve mentioned before, I am a lawyer for my day job. 12 Angry Men is both fascinating from a jury trial perspective and, for lawyers, a cautionary tale. Of course, jurors in real life are not allowed to bring in any outside evidence or conduct their own outside investigations. The knife, identical to the murder weapon, that Fonda’s character produces would have been enough to scuttle the whole process in a real-life jury room. Today’s jurors aren’t even allowed to keep their phones, much less read the newspaper during deliberation breaks like E.G. Marshall’s character. While, as a society, we could probably use more Juror #8s, from a lawyer’s perspective he’s kind of a nightmare. No matter how good of a case you make, no matter how right you actually may be, you never know when you’re going to run into that one guy or girl who can torpedo the whole thing.