12 Angry Men

(Sidney Lumet, USA, 1957)


Twelve Mad Men


The property known as 12 Angry Men – which has travelled across media, through decades, and survived many tinkerings and permutations – began in a particular, hothouse intersection of creative forms.


Reginald Rose (1920-2002) conceived it as a television play in 1954, for what is now regarded as the golden era of live broadcast drama. Many of the directors who would go on to remarkable careers in the 1960s and ‘70s – Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967) and John Frankenkenheimer (Seconds, 1966) among them – cut their teeth in the highwire setting of such tele-dramas.


12 Angry Men is a highly theatrical piece, and has subsequently often been adapted for the stage, or for play-readings. But its cramped, confined, claustrophobic location and basic set-up – guys talking to and shouting at each other across a table – is not ideally suited for the particular visibility allowed by a proscenium arch; it is an invention for the televisual age, which allows a new way of getting inside and opening up dramatic interaction.


The plot of 12 Angry Men is simple and classic: what begins as a jury room vote of eleven to one “guilty” score, in the trial of a Latino teenager accused of stabbing and killing his father, is gradually talked around to a unanimous vote of “not guilty”. The righteous hero here – and no Hollywood actor was ever better suited to an understated, gentle but firm mode of heroic action – is played by Henry Fonda (the film’s co-producer with Rose), who is identified as Davis only in the closing coda, outside the courtroom.


Davis’ principal adversary on the jury, played by Lee J. Cobb in a style suggesting barely controlled hysteria, passes through common-garden racial bigotry and impatient, bullying behaviour, to finally reveal a deeper, more personal complex of neuroses and fears.


In between the extreme poles of Fonda and Cobb, the other characters (and the actors who incarnate them) stand for a carefully graded set of social and psychological types: some are passive, easily led; some are indifferent, eager to get home or to a sports game; others are touched, in ways they did not expect, by the plight of the boy whose fate they are deciding, and of the everyday, legal difficulties in discerning and enforcing the truth.


12 Angry Men is a dramatic essay about justice – what it takes to arrive there, how hard that process is, and how easily it can be deranged. This is, at the most elemental level, the secret of its lasting appeal across the world. One or two films about law courts and their knotty procedures may be objectively better – my vote for the very best would go to Otto Preminger’s masterpiece Anatomy of a Murder (1959) – but they tend toward studied ambiguity or cynicism, whereas 12 Angry Men still believes that justice and truth can win the day.


And so 12 Angry Men has had its incidental references (to movies, sports matches or pop fads) periodically updated or adapted to a specific historical time or national place; it is sometimes played with female cast members (something that US society of the time had not quite yet accommodated in its real-life legal system, at least not in all states of the Union) or with black actors (as is the case in William Friedkin’s 1997 version for television). But the script and its word-heavy action remain essentially the same every time. And Rose was a dab hand at crafting such a piece.


Any dramatic (or comedic) situation involving twelve main characters of roughly equal importance poses a special problem to a writer, who must strive to keep the different identities clear and distinct in the spectator’s mind. Rose had several canny cards up his sleeve here: deliberately opting for anonymity – the characters are known, to anyone who stages or acts in this material, as Juror no. 1 through to 12, and they refer to each other only as “that guy” in its innumerable variants, eschewing the need for them to get to know each others’ names – he exploited, instead, a simple but brilliant physical arrangement.


At the beginning of the deliberation, the chairman (Juror no. 1, played by Martin Balsam) suggests that the others sit around the table according to their jury number; this is the spectator’s basic orientation throughout everything that follows. Without it, we could easily be lost in trying to follow all the hectic back-and-forth of opinions and refutations, charges and counter charges. The film even reprises the same one-to-twelve order in the final credits for the actors.


Of course, no one stays seated for very long, or for the entire piece. The essential work of mise en scène is built into the script: the jurors stand up to make a point, they pace around, go look out the window, try to get cool on this hot day in New York; they occasionally go to the toilet, or call in a few evidential exhibits … All this movement is quite naturalistic (however carefully choreographed), but sometimes the effects are subtly telling – as when one juror spontaneously sits, for a moment, in another juror’s temporarily vacated chair. And sometimes a greater drama is made of the space of the confined, claustrophobic set, as when Fonda recreates the ailing walk of an old man, timed in crucial seconds …


Above all, the fixed seating arrangement serves the purpose that every good dramaturg knows well: laying down the axis (or, in this case, multiple axes), the line of sight along which performers can face-off each other and glare, wordlessly or volubly. 12 Angry Men does this particularly well in the central conflict between Fonda and Cobb.


12 Angry Men marks, as I have so far argued, a historic hybrid of theatre and television. But it took the celebrated director Sidney Lumet (1924-2011) – who came to this project with precious experience in both camps – to pull off its final, crossbreeding transformation: into cinema.


In this, his feature film debut, Lumet adds – in small, discreet but powerful doses – a supple, cinematic language to the already crafty mise en scène of Rose’s script. Around its mid-way mark, when developments in the jury room become particularly intense, Lumet deploys a slow crane shot moving into Fonda in close-up: the effect is electrifying, and all the more so because it has been held back until this point.


Likewise, a surprising, frontal shot – elderly Juror no. 9 (Joseph Sweeney) looking straight into the camera, again in close-up, exclaiming his change of opinion – marks a veritable, dramatic turning point in the proceedings. As the situation gets tougher, Lumet goes even tighter, into choker close-ups (a favourite photographic device of his generation of auteurs) that distort and even uglify the faces a little. And – easier to control in film than on stage – he adds the element of a hard, insistent downpour of rain.


If 12 Angry Men has gained an extra retro appeal today, that is largely due to the consolidation of an image of the American 1950s that many of us share through our experience of film, television and fiction. The wildly popular TV series Mad Men (2007-2015), although set in the early to mid 1960s, has been the determining agent in this retro fascination – and there is even a rhyme, in their respective titles, between these groups of guys who are, at all times, either angry or mad.


There is an imaginary, urban America – not entirely divorced from reality – associated with the 1950s, peopled with advertising copywriters, travelling salesmen, architects, teachers, retired professionals, sportsmen, guys in grey flannel suits, and fallen, seething patriarchs. Everywhere in representations of that decade, male privilege and authority is both affirmed – it’s still basically a man’s, man’s world – and brutally brought to heel, surveying its own ruin in a changing milieu. This is precisely the scenario played out, between the lines, by Cobb here.


The other key figure in this social panorama of the 1950s is glimpsed only once in Lumet’s film, but forms the obsessive centre of all conversation: the eighteen-year-old Latino on trial (silently incarnated, in an immortal, lingering close-up, by the uncredited John Savoca). He is another mythological media figure of the era: the juvenile delinquent. His “absent presence” caps a long decade of movies, novels and plays addressing disturbed, violent, yearning youth as a social problem – and trying, sometimes with an overly parental or institutional touch, to sociologically categorise, explain and quarantine this strange, new breed of “alien in our midst”. 12 Angry Men oozes anxious paranoia – as well as genuine concern – about this juvenile delinquent.


But let’s not get too far away from the gritty specifics of the drama fashioned by Rose and Lumet. If jury duty cannot quite count as a universal human experience, it is certainly shared by many citizens within the Western, democratic model of law. I myself have lived through a “twelve angry people” situation (at least it had gender equity!) in a Melbourne jury room when I was in my early 20s – with reality uncannily following some of the lines of Rose’s script.


What can seem like dramatic contrivance on Rose’s part – the gradual talking-around of jurors until they are brought to change their initial opinion on the case – is probably far more common to real-life legal experience than we imagine. I certainly witnessed the very same process in action, with me taking the Henry Fonda role! Also true to the script, alas, is the assumption that jury duty brings out the worst prejudices, irrational obstinacies and, indeed, base idiocies of some individuals.


When I hear Juror no. 11 (George Voskovec) say, with such calm reasonableness, “Maybe you don’t fully understand the term ‘reasonable doubt’?” – only to be shot down with derision – I hear myself, over thirty years ago, trying to convince the one person who would not budge in her conviction that the person (again, a teenage boy) on trial was guilty.


Reasonable doubt never clouded her judgement. “How do you know it?”, I asked. “Because I believe it”, she replied. “And why do you believe it?” “Because I know it.” We maddeningly went around and around that unshakeable kernel of the most profound irrationality until we all had to call it a day – and declare (much to the consternation of the presiding Judge) a hung jury.


Time for a retrial. Or, for another viewing of that particularly bracing, idealistic fantasy of justice known as 12 Angry Men.

MORE Lumet: Close to Eden, Fail-Safe, Guilty as Sin, Night Falls on Manhattan, Power, Prince of the City, The Morning After

© Adrian Martin November 2012

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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