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12 Angry Men (1957), the first feature film directed by the legendary Sidney Lumet, is a Hollywood classic that, ironically, helped to define an era of filmmaking grounded in the gritty realism and frenetic energy of urban New York. A simple story of a jury’s deliberations in a murder case, where tensions boil over during a hot summer day in the city, it launched Lumet’s career as a filmmaker with a special gift for capturing ordinary lives tossed into difficult situations of moral choice. 12 Angry Men has become a cultural touchstone, a time capsule of American justice before the civil rights era and the expansion of civil liberties in the 1960s. Its influence has been vast, and it established Lumet’s reputation as an artist at the forefront of social change.
Without anyone’s necessarily realizing it at the time, 12 Angry Men was among the first films to signal a shift away from the influence and sensibility of the Hollywood studio system. The movie was shot in New York and, with the exception of its star, Henry Fonda, was cast with actors, the eleven other jurors—an all-star roster of character actors, including E. G. Marshall, Ed Begley, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman, and Jack Warden—known, if at all, for their New York stage and television work. This was typical of the so-called New York School of filmmaking—with its focus on social issues, urban settings, and moral decay—which came to define an era of social consciousness and realism in cinema, stretching from On the Waterfront (1954) to Midnight Cowboy (1969) and into the 1970s.
The movie also foreshadowed America’s cultural obsession with the law as both moral object lesson and entertainment. If not for the enduring legacy of 12 Angry Men, there may never have been an audience for television’s Law & Order or The Practice, or even the novels of John Grisham and Scott Turow. Interestingly, the small screen’s first iconic lawyer, Perry Mason, began pacing courtrooms and breaking down witnesses in 1957 as well, three years after Twelve Angry Men, the teleplay, made its debut during American television’s golden era.
Lumet, who died in 2011 at the age of eighty-six, would, of course, go on to direct many other classics in a career that spanned six decades, around two hundred teleplays, and more than forty feature films. He was nominated for five Oscars before receiving one for lifetime achievement in 2005. And yet in the minds of many, 12 Angry Men is the film that defined his career, one that so memorably, if not obsessively, focused on social justice and moral inquiry. It is not surprising that Lumet, whose lifetime coincided with so many of the injustices of the twentieth century—from the Holocaust to the Hollywood blacklist—would choose as the subject of his first feature a story painted in the gray brushstrokes of prejudice.
The arc of Lumet’s early career, while colorful, did not initially light up the sky. As a television director for CBS, he worked on such shows as Danger and You Are There, and directed original teleplays for Playhouse 90 and Studio One, on which Twelve Angry Men first aired. His celebrated film career had a long rehearsal on television throughout this period in the 1950s, with many of his signature themes and stylistic effects already on full display. And indeed, in his films, Lumet would often show a preference for the cramped spaces and tight shots of kitchen-sink dramas, as opposed to the larger landscapes cinema makes possible. Nowhere was this claustrophobic point of view put to better use than in 12 Angry Men, where the transition from television screen to the big screen was quite seamless.
The ease of adaptation didn’t spell commercial success, however. 12 Angry Men was no blockbuster, despite the fact that it featured Fonda. The film was made on a very modest budget of about $350,000. Arguably, without Fonda starring and producing, it might never have seen life beyond the small screen. One can only imagine the pitch to a Hollywood executive: “Twelve angry, sweaty, impatient men stand in judgment of a teenage boy accused of killing his father. It’s summer, and the men are holed up in a jury room without even a fan. The entire choreography involves the jurors sitting at, or moving around, a long rectangular table, arguing. No gun goes off, and no one gets killed—the murder has already happened. And the movie is shot completely in black and white.”
Movie audiences in 1957 expected to see gunfights in the mountainous Wild West or leading men and women falling in love in exotic places—widescreen and in Technicolor. What’s cinematic about twelve ordinary men, beleaguered by prejudice and moral conflict, nearly suffocating in a drab jury room for the entire length of a movie?
These 12 Angry Men were in no way The Dirty Dozen.
Though well received critically—with three Academy Award nominations, for best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay, for Reginald Rose, from his own teleplay (The Bridge on the River Kwai won in all three categories)—it took years for 12 Angry Men to find its audience and emerge as a classic, one of the treasured films in Hollywood history. In 2007, the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. In 2010, associate justice of the Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayor, appearing at the Forum on Law, Culture & Society at Fordham Law School, told the audience that 12 Angry Men, which she first saw in college, influenced her decision to pursue a career in law.
All the impassioned turmoil in the film somehow gave it a long life. While the jury’s anger dissipates, the deep emotion kept on humming. A day’s worth of deliberations is illuminated by a pacing that is deceptively quick and, improbably, completely riveting. Nothing much seems to be happening—more sweat dripping, more heads swelling with doubt—and yet everything is happening. The tone of the deliberations changes, the group dynamics realign as the men ready themselves for yet another round of thwarted consensus building.
Initially, Fonda’s juror 8 is the lone holdout against a reflexive vote for guilt. He marshals the facts in support of reasonable doubt, pushing back against the fury of the mob. A mild-mannered architect, he proves himself to be a better lawyer than the court-appointed defense counsel. He recognizes the moral duty to deliberate, and slowly shatters the credibility of the prosecution’s witnesses, one by one. The jury is transformed as opinions shift, factions emerge, and prejudices are revealed.
Meanwhile, the weather outside changes: the sky darkens, and a thunderous summer shower cools off the city, along with some of the hotheads on the jury. Despite the cagelike confinement, the movements of these middle-aged men are oddly balletic as they reenact events surrounding the crime, break off into private conversations, retire to the restroom, drink from the watercooler, stand on a chair to fix the fan, make paper airplanes, and even play tic-tac-toe. All the while, they are in one another’s faces, as if haplessly trying to get to know one another. They are strangers, after all; even their names are withheld. Once the verdict is delivered, they are unlikely to see one another again.
Equally nameless, and far more distant, is the teenager with his appointment with the electric chair. Does he realize that his life is in the hands of a jury composed of men so easily given to prejudgment? Forget reasonable doubt—they won’t even give him the benefit of the doubt. Without fancy stagecraft, 12 Angry Men portrays the American jury system as tragic opera.
The film captured the American legal system in a way that had never been done before. There are no preening, cagey lawyers or craggy, wise judges. The jury is where justice resides—with common men who apply common sense and ultimately do what’s right, in spite of extreme prejudice. The hero, juror 8, doesn’t know if the teenager is innocent or guilty; he simply wants to believe that the system is capable of delivering justice, and he doesn’t want to be complicit in compounding an injustice. The jury becomes the repository of America’s faith that the law can get it right. But, at the same time, the film provides a civics lesson on the frightening implications of the legal system’s getting it all wrong.
Is it possible to watch 12 Angry Men and not wonder whether the blindfold on Lady Justice is on securely enough? The presumption that jurors are impartial is dashed within the first ten minutes of the film. Citizens arrive for jury duty not as blank slates but as a bundle of preconceived notions and preformed opinions.
There is no true jury of one’s peers.
Despite its Hollywood happy ending, 12 Angry Men is thus an ambivalent feel-good movie. The virtues of the legal system are presented through the prism of its dark side. A jury is empowered to remedy the mistakes made by the defense (a laughable notion in practice), but will the jurors be able to overcome the imperfections of their own humanity—which is itself, paradoxically, on trial in the jury room? As a tutorial on human nature, 12 Angry Men sends a warning to be careful in courtrooms. The custodians of the system make mistakes, and the corrective possibilities may be no better than a crapshoot.
As filmmakers for screen and television, Lumet and Rose never lost interest in the legal system as a setting for big ideas and high drama. In 1955, they collaborated on Crime in the Streets, a teleplay for The Elgin Hour that dealt with juvenile delinquency and starred John Cassavetes, and in 1956, their Tragedy in a Temporary Town, yet another story of mob-inflamed prejudice and injustice (with Jack Warden), aired on NBC’s The Alcoa Hour. Rose, in fact, was inspired to write 12 Angry Men by his own experience as a juror in a criminal case. And in 1961, he created one of television’s most original and culturally relevant legal dramas, The Defenders, which, coincidentally, starred 12 Angry Men’s juror 4, E. G. Marshall.
Lumet went on to direct several other films about the legal system, including The Verdict (1982), Daniel (1983), Night Falls on Manhattan (1996), and Find Me Guilty (2006). He also created the TV drama 100 Centre Street (2001–02). And his early television work included directing an episode of You Are There involving the Salem witch trials, which aired the same week that Edward R. Murrow exposed Senator Joseph McCarthy as a hatemongering red-baiter.
Why this creative obsession with the law?
Courtrooms are places of human conflict where disputes are settled without resorting to shootouts or vendettas. And with any luck, the law’s resolution provides a moral lesson. This natural source of dramatic tension played to the backgrounds of Lumet and Rose quite well. They were children of the Great Depression. As Jews from the city slums, they were also not unfamiliar with prejudice, needing no reminder that “the other”—the outsider—is always viewed as strange and presumptively guilty. At the same time, they believed in America and knew that the rule of law provided not only sanctuary but also a chance at a level playing field.
Lumet was especially keen on fairness, which derived in part, he said, from his experiences watching cops patrol the Lower East Side of his youth, chasing away kids who were pitching pennies and then picking them up for themselves—crime control converted into a pack of cigarettes. He was also sensitive about the moral conflict between loyalty and doing what’s right; tough neighborhoods demand strict loyalties. His films dealing with police corruption, such as Serpico (1973), Prince of the City (1981), and Q&A (1990), address many of these themes. He himself had been mistakenly named during the 1950s blacklist, which banished some of the leading talents in New York’s nascent television industry, and after his name was cleared, for reasons of both loyalty and craft, he worked clandestinely with some of the banned writers.
For Lumet, the common man is all too easily crushed—made to disappear without anyone’s taking notice. The individual is left with few choices, overwhelmed and outmatched by the powerful few, who know no limits and show no mercy. Lumet always did his best work when his film was focused on a human face. In fact, he made a point of casting actors whose faces reflected a wide range of emotions. Not all of them were pretty to look at, but they were all recognizably human and real. The face best captured in a Sidney Lumet film is anguished, defeated, and fragile—a starkly rendered still life of human vulnerability. Just think of the pained expressions of Howard Beale in Network (1976) and Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and the silent scream of Sol Nazerman in The Pawnbroker (1964).
Lumet was unfairly criticized for not being visual enough, for preferring the grimy streets of New York to virtually any other location. But he didn’t need a cinematic background—all Lumet needed was a downcast face, and he knew exactly how to film it. It is no accident that Boris Kaufman, an Oscar-winning cinematographer who shared an aesthetic sensibility with Lumet, was the director of photography on seven Lumet movies, including 12 Angry Men and The Pawnbroker.
12 Angry Men, in particular, illuminates the richness of what can happen when the interior lives of human beings are projected onto a screen. Shooting in black and white, in a tiny room overrun with emotional complexity, Lumet worked movie magic simply by changing the focal length of his lenses, from wide-angle to telephoto, manipulating the depth of the frame and, in so doing, providing the viewer with a greater depth of feeling as the camera zooms in on the faces of these twelve once angry, but finally subdued, and forever immortalized, men.
Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, and law professor. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and the Huffington Post, among other publications. He is also the director of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society at Fordham Law School.