12 Angry Men is an unflinching, close-up study of a jury entrusted with the power over life and death. Twelve men, locked in a room on the hottest day of the year, must decide the fate of a boy charged with knifing his father to death. A verdict of guilty would mean a mandatory death sentence. The decision must be unanimous.
The film explores the process of law in human hands, where prejudice, fear, weakness, and even weather can divert the carriage of justice. In the stifling confines of the jury room, one juror stands alone with a reasonable doubt. An architect, patient and concerned, he feels compelled to explore the foundations of the case. As he calls for exhibits and rehashes the testimony with a gentle persistence, the other jurors--previously confident of the boy’s guilt—begin to sway and consider the impact they may have upon a human life.
The 95-minute running time of the film is also the duration of the jurors’ decision-making. The camera, like the jurors, cannot leave the room until a verdict has been reached. Faithful to Aristotle’s prescription for classical theater, 12 Angry Men observes the unities of time, place, and action, which is rare in a film.
Sidney Lumet, in his debut as a film director, used the techniques of the theater to evoke the claustrophobic tension of the jury room. Before shooting, he rehearsed his cast for two weeks, running through the script like a play. With the aid of On the Waterfront cinematographer Boris Kaufman, Lumet plotted the camera’s movements to highlight what developed during the intensive period of rehearsal.
Lumet’s cast was utterly at ease with his methods; all were experienced theater actors. Generally known as one of the handful of television-trained directors who turned to film in the fifties. Lumet, in fact, has a far longer history with the theater. He made his stage debut in 1928 at the age of four, while his father performed in the Yiddish Theater in New York City. He appeared regularly on Broadway from 1935 until 1948, when he began to direct.
Lumet’s theatrical background may be why Henry Fonda chose him to direct his picture. Fonda often expressed a preference for theater as an actor’s medium. Actors choosing directors is a rare occurrence in Hollywood, but Fonda exercised an unusual control over the making of 12 Angry Men. Not only was he its single box office star, he also co-produced with screenwriter Reginald Rose. Rose’s teleplay of 12 Angry Men had been extremely successful on CBS’s Studio One and United Artists offered the film project to Fonda. According to his autobiography, Fonda: My Life, the woes of production did not agree with him. He felt bogged down in the minor concerns he had been able to ignore as an actor and was particularly frustrated with the city-scene backdrop which hung outside the jury room window. Although Lumet and Kaufman assured him that the scrim would be convincing once properly lit, Fonda complained because it did not seem as life-like as the backdrops Hitchcock used when filming The Wrong Man earlier in the same year. Nonetheless, Fonda’s productorial effort was successful. After only 17 days of shooting, Fonda and Rose finished the film for only $340,000—one thousand dollars under budget.
Reviewers at the film’s opening were virtually unanimous in their praise. Variety cited the “outstanding performances” and “exciting screenplay,” predicting “good, if not socko, returns” at the box office. The more subdued New York Times called it a “taut, absorbing and compelling drama . . . powerful and provocative enough to keep a viewer spellbound.” Even Eleanor Roosevelt applauded: “As a character study, this is a fascinating movie, but more than that, it points up the fact which too many of us have not taken seriously, of what it means to serve on a jury when a man’s life is at stake. In addition, it makes vivid what ‘reasonable doubt’ means when a murder trial jury makes up its mind on circumstantial evidence.”
Despite the critics’ praise, 12 Angry Men was not a financial success. United Artists opened the picture at Loew’s Flagship in New York, a cavernous 4,600 seat theater. The film drew only enough audience to fill the first few rows, and United Artists pulled it after one week. Even with its miniscule budget, 12 Angry Men failed to turn a profit or even pay Fonda his deferred salary.
The film continued to win accolades, however, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, a First Prize at the Berlin Film Festival and other prizes in Scandinavia, Italy, and Japan. Sidney Lumet won an Academy Award nomination for his first directorial effort and launched a prodigious career which has included Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and The Verdict (1982). Reginald Rose received, in addition to his Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay, a Writer’s Guild of America Award, the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and a citation at the Berlin Film Festival.
Although moviegoers in 1957 failed to support it, 12 Angry Men has gradually gained recognition as an American classic. Business and law schools continue to use it as a perfect demonstration of effective persuasion, and as a study of living justice with all its flaws and contingencies it remains unsurpassed. But above all, 12 Angry Men has attained its stature through its quietly compelling exploration of twelve average men cooped up in a hot room with a problem of life and death.