Behind Closed Doors: 12 Angry Men (1957)

12 ANGRY MEN (1957)

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Reginald Rose wrote for television, film and the theater, coming into his own in 1954 with a work that would be his masterpiece, 12 Angry Men. On television, it starred Franchot Tone as the angry and bitter juror #3 and Robert Cummings as the thoughtful, patient and argumentative juror #8, two men battling each other for the life of a young man standing trial for murder. If that duo doesn’t set you on fire, it may have more to do with who followed them than the actors themselves. Tone and Cummings were terrific, of course, but once you see the 1957 Sidney Lumet directed film adaptation, you’ll never think of anyone else but Lee J. Cobb and Henry Fonda in those roles again.  And I say that having seen the 1997 television remake with the formidable George C. Scott and Jack Lemmon taking on the roles. They were great, too, but Cobb and Fonda take the prize, as does the film itself.

Most of us know the story by now. A young man stands trial for the stabbing death of his father. As the evidence seemed stacked against him, the jurors believe they will be home before dinner. Unfortunately for them, one juror, #8, dissents. That gets the ball rolling towards its inevitable but unlikely destination, acquittal. And no, there’s probably not a viewer dead or alive who ever watched the film and wondered what the verdict would be (so no spoiler alert necessary). That’s because the verdict isn’t the point so much as the journey that gets us there.

12 ANGRY MEN (1957)

It’s been argued before that the final acquittal is probably wrong. After all, every bit of reasoning the jurors use is purely circumstantial. Yes, the knife is common but the defendant did own one. He screamed loud enough for the neighbors to hear that he was going to kill his father and the woman across the street saw him. They decide to throw her sworn testimony out because they could tell from the indentations on the ridge of her nose that she wore glasses. That’s right, testimony entered into the record, dismissed because, hey, come on, she wears glasses! The overwhelming odds against someone using the same knife to kill a man whose son just screamed he was going to kill that very man before going to the movies are too high to calculate. Nonetheless, I think deconstructing the movie this way misses the point.

Like I said, everyone walking into the movie knows they will eventually get to an acquittal but it’s not about shocking us with a twist ending, it’s about the thought process itself, and the power of persuasion. Surely we can all think of a few infamous jury decisions that we will never understand because we weren’t in that deliberating room. And just as surely, the people watching the trial in the fictitious universe of 12 Angry Men must have thought them crazy after the foreman read the verdict aloud. So when we watch the movie and criticize it for the ridiculous arguments going on in the jury room, we’re focusing on the wrong thing.

Reginald Rose was inspired to write the play after serving on a jury in which, as he said, they argued like crazy for eight straight hours. He never said he was inspired to write it because he felt a welling of emotion when he freed an innocent man. No, he was impressed by the fighting and wanted that to be the movie. That it became known as an advertisement for the greatness of the jury system, and the concept of innocent until proven guilty, was thrust upon it by outside observers. It’s quite possible to take the movie as an intentional portrayal of a hopelessly incompetent jury decision after one man, juror #8, quietly but steadily bullies everyone into stretching their imaginations as far as they possibly can to squeeze reasonable doubt out of the evidence. And in that light, it becomes a better tool for understanding just how important it is for both sides to present their evidence and testimony as clearly and unambiguously as possible, because once that jury room door closes, who in the hell knows what might happen.

12 Angry Men is one of those plays that gets performed enough that the title itself becomes a problem. The 1957 film version has 12 white men. No women, no persons of color whatsoever. As a result, it’s often called 12 Angry Jurors when performed today. And it’s had some great adaptations with varied casts but the 1957 film version still reigns supreme over all of them for two reasons: Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb. But mainly, Lee J. Cobb. Even George C. Scott didn’t have the same furious energy, the same snide condescension that this kid’s life should be given a second look, that Cobb had. Cobb, who never won an Oscar, nonetheless gave multiple Oscar worthy performances. This was one of them.

12 ANGRY MEN (1957)

Sidney Lumet, also coming out of television, got his first big movie break with this one and would go on to a career that contains some of the best loved movies of all time, or at least the 1970s. But 12 Angry Men doesn’t get mentioned a lot for Lumet because it’s a writer’s play and an actor’s play. It’s about the dialogue, the emotion and the fights. It’s not about who’s right or wrong, it’s about who does a better job of persuading everyone else. In other words, it showcases both the strengths and weaknesses of the jury system, and possibly, the dangers. When those 12 men walk away at the end, they feel good about themselves but was justice served? Who knows? All we know is, we just watched a battle, and juror #8 was the victor.

12 Angry Men is running for a limited time on the Criterion Channel of FilmStruck. It will be available through July 31, 2017.

Greg Ferrara

19 Responses Behind Closed Doors: 12 Angry Men (1957)
Posted By Charles Berger : June 16, 2017 12:16 am

Greg, you’re so right about Cobb. I remember him as “the old one,”
in the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse where that same intense anger comes through as he blasts Hitler and the Nazis. Still, in another forgotten 1943 movie western with Richard Dix and Jane Wyatt, he has that same mean anger. He, as you said, gave a number of Oscar worthy performances. Enjoyed your review.

Posted By Christine Hoard-Barre : June 16, 2017 2:32 am

Terrific performances by everybody. One of my favorite movies. As for the verdict, the jurors came to the conclusion of reasonable doubt, as presented by #8, hence the verdict. Because there was reasonable doubt, it was not guilty.

Posted By Emgee : June 16, 2017 2:34 am

Of course the cards are rigged from the start: who are you going to believe, Fonda or Cobb? The loudmouth or the voice of reason? Hmmmmm……

Posted By Arthur : June 16, 2017 2:49 am

Lumet, Lumiere, Luminescent, light, the essence of film. . .

Greg, you have an interesting take on this film. You thought the verdict outlandish and assumed that most people think likewise. I don’t know about everyone, but I thought the verdict reasonable. As did Christine.

One thing perhaps all can agree on is that Cobb was using the defendant as a stand-in for his own son.

Was the boy supposed to be Puerto Rican? It would seem so, but perhaps he was not. It was never made explicit and at least two jurors came from rough neighborhoods and what precisely was their ethnicity?

Posted By mdr : June 16, 2017 7:57 am

Fabulous movie, excellent cast and drama. While I love it and consider it an essential, I also wonder whether justice was served.

But as you put it so succinctly “It’s not about who’s right or wrong, it’s about who does a better job of persuading everyone else.”

This is unfortunately the case in too many aspects of today’s society. Instead of seeking the truth, most only want to confirm their own biases.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 16, 2017 11:04 am

Charles, is it possible that Cobb was only nominated twice in his entire career, once for On the Waterfront and once for The Brothers Karamazov?! Twice. And though I never got a chance to see him do it live, I did see Cobb as Willy Loman in the CBS adaptation on tape a few years back. Great performance.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 16, 2017 11:09 am

Christine and Arthur, you’re both right, of course, that reasonable doubt is the bar to pass in a jury room and indeed they did. I don’t dispute that. And when I say that many people talk about the suspect being guilty, I’m probably taking my experience with other critics and extrapolating it outwards too broadly. Basically, my beef with them is that by deconstructing the verdict you miss out on how a jury does get to reasonable doubt, which is the strength of the play. I find the verdict to be a bit stretched based on the evidence but if Rose had written a play where the evidence was extremely flimsy, then there would have been no point to showing the journey through argumentation. So I believe Rose purposely wrote it so the defendant would look as guilty as possible but still be able to show you how 12 people can reach the opposite conclusion.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 16, 2017 11:14 am

Of course the cards are rigged from the start: who are you going to believe, Fonda or Cobb? The loudmouth or the voice of reason? Hmmmmm……

I’m having trouble understanding what you’re saying. Sad!

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 16, 2017 11:15 am

MDR, most of us probably couldn’t get through a day without a healthy dose of confirmation bias. Except me, of course. I’m perfectly open and objective on every level, and I won’t listen to anyone who says otherwise!

Posted By kingrat : June 16, 2017 2:37 pm

I thought I was the only person who sees the film as Fonda skillfully manipulating the other jurors to get the result he wants. I don’t believe that’s how Reginald Rose or Sidney Lumet intended it, but that’s what it looks like to me. Notice which jurors Fonda works on first to build some momentum, and how he cleverly tailors his arguments to each particular juror. The way he brings about Cobb’s capitulation (humiliation, really) is chilling. Juror #8 would be one of the all-time best players on SURVIVOR.

I’d also like to praise Lumet’s direction. On a second or third viewing you begin to notice which group of jurors is included in each shot. This isn’t flashy direction, but it is careful and subtle, intelligent, well thought out and well executed. Lumet is one of the most uneven directors. In

Posted By kingrat : June 16, 2017 2:40 pm

Sorry for the unintended interruption. Films like 12 ANGRY MEN, THE HILL, and DOG DAY AFTERNOON he’s absolutely first-rate, but there are scenes in other films that almost look incompetent. 12 ANGRY MEN is terrific, however.

Posted By Emgee : June 16, 2017 2:59 pm

“I’m having trouble understanding what you’re saying. Sad!”

Ok, just call me stupid and be done with it.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 16, 2017 3:44 pm

Juror #8 would be one of the all-time best players on SURVIVOR.

We’ll have to come up with a 12 Angry Men expanded universe series in which Juror #8 encounters ever tougher challenges where he must combine his wits and cunning against larger and more treacherous groups. And each time it becomes less clear that he is in the right but you want him to succeed anyway because it’s so fun to watch.

Posted By Doug : June 16, 2017 6:51 pm

Last few days I’ve been reading a few “Nero Wolfe” mysteries-as in “12 Angry Men” the characters and the drama grab you even though you know the outcome.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 17, 2017 9:08 am

I love Nero Wolfe, books and the show with Maury Chaykin. Great casting.

Posted By Doug : June 17, 2017 9:57 am

Greg, I have all of the Wolfe stories on one shelf in order of publication, so I’m reading through chronologically-as I finish a book I turn it upside down to keep track of where I am.
Almost halfway through now-”The Black Mountain”. The Chaykin show was great though I never warmed up to Tim Hutton’s portrayal of Archie.

Posted By Arthur : June 17, 2017 10:44 am

Proof that this film is a classic is the spirited discussion it still generates some 60 years later. It speaks to something rooted in not just the human, but the American psyche and American history.

At the age of 12 in Omaha, Nebraska Fonda’s father took him to witness a mob break into a jail and lynch a Black prisoner.

Years later he produces and acts in the OX-BOW INCIDENT and 12 ANGRY MEN.

In the former, one of the three victims is a Mexican who stoically meets his fate, in the later a youth who looks to be Puerto Rican is acquitted.

Posted By Doug : June 17, 2017 1:43 pm

In my high school we were shown “The Ox-Bow Incident” in a social studies class. A potent story.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : June 18, 2017 7:27 am

I first saw this movie when I was about 14. I was extremely impressed with it then, and 35-plus years and multiple viewings have not changed that.

Three or four years ago I had jury duty. The other five jurors all voted guilty, I voted not-guilty. It was a ridiculous case, involving a loose dog. But it wasn’t the accused woman’s dog, it was her boyfriend’s dog. It wasn’t her house it got loose from, it was her sister’s house. And she wasn’t even there when it happened, her kids let it out. I wondered if any of the other jurors had even been paying attention. It took me about half an hour to change all of their minds, but I felt like Henry Fonda.

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