By TOM DUPREE
12 Angry Men (1957)
Directed by Sidney Lumet
If you’re chafing at having to work from home, just consider yourself lucky that you are not essential to the functioning of daily life. One, you still have a job, and it’s soft enough that you can do it at a social distance. Two, that job doesn’t require you to be out in harm’s way, like people in healthcare or law enforcement or municipal services or the armed forces or food distribution. And three, so far you’ve managed to avoid contracting a debilitating, ravenous virus.
Still, cabin fever comes with a dull psychological ache that may give way to gloom. I propose fighting it by spending time with some people who have it even worse off than you do. For instance, a contentious sequestered jury in a murder trial, crammed into a claustrophobic little room on the hottest day of the year. This might be a good time to count your blessings and watch Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men.
This searing drama is one of the towering works of the Golden Age of television, securing for Reginald Rose his deserved place alongside pioneers of original teleplays like Stirling Silliphant, Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling. I’ve seen the original 1954 performance on CBS's Studio One, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. (It's on YouTube, as well as on the superb 2011 Criterion DVD.) I was there for the Roundabout’s 2004 Broadway staging. I saw the 1997 tv adaptation directed by William Friedkin, updated to include black jurors and to delete smoking. These talented artists were all working with the same crackling dialogue from Rose. But none of them have come close to matching the power and touch of Lumet’s film in the 63 years since it was released.
12 Angry Men was a sensation when it was performed live on Studio One on September 20, 1954. It was ideal for the fledgling medium: the confines of the cathode ray tube helped instill a feeling of uncomfortable closeness (on today's widescreen monitors, black vertical bars preserve the original clinging aspect ratio). The action is portrayed in real dramatic time: after each commercial break, the actors return to their precise marks and continue as if only an instant has passed. There had been legal thrillers before, but this was the first time the courtroom itself was only a bit player; we go instead to a little conference table around which twelve jurors deliberate and we do not leave until they’re done.
In the mid-Fifties, television was a country cousin to the movies, yet a perceived existential threat which the studios contested with the spectacle of wide-screen panoramas. But there was a plausible path to cinema for smaller chamber pieces from tv, paved in 1955 with the film adaptation of Chayefsky’s Marty, which won Oscars for the author, director, star, and picture. Rose and Henry Fonda decided to follow suit as producing partners on a feature version of 12 Angry Men.
Even at its small physical scale, 12 Angry Men could not have become a movie without the two producers deferring their salaries. Fonda was the film’s only bankable star. The rest of the jury were played by up-and-coming New York-based actors known, if at all, for their work on stage and tv, not motion pictures. Several went on to fine careers and are familiar faces to us today, but in 1957 they were unknown to the national audience. However, one of those angry men was certainly known at our clubhouse. I’ll tell you which actor qualifies this film for Players On Screen in a moment.
To direct, Fonda and Rose chose Sidney Lumet, an experienced veteran of the live television scene. Though this would be Lumet's first feature, the project was right in his wheelhouse; he specialized in the small, gritty “kitchen-sink dramas” that Golden Age live tv was making so popular. Here, of course, he’d be able to shoot out of sequence for efficiency and broaden the story (Rose’s screenplay is nearly twice as long as his 1954 teleplay, but somehow it still seems to move faster). The combination of incendiary acting, surefooted direction, rich black-and-white cinematography by Boris Kaufman, and above all that sizzling real-time script, is breathtaking.
The first time through 12 Angry Men, one’s attention is riveted on the plot, which demonstrates the inexactitude of our justice system. Try as we might, sometimes it’s impossible to be certain -- that’s where the notion of “reasonable doubt” comes in. And sometimes it’s impossible to be dispassionate: prejudices and fears can enter a jury room too. Anyone who’s ever served on a jury will recognize another aspect that the film gets right: this dozen forms a hive mind. Some people remember snippets of information that others don’t. A jury’s honest decision is a group effort.
You may want to watch the film a second time to observe the technical mastery that achieves its almost unbearably intense emotional effects; it’s just as compelling when re-screened. The table-bound setting is no match for Lumet’s inventiveness: the actors are constantly in motion, fussing with windows or a wall fan, prowling for emphasis, sweating through both heat and effort and pacing for any possible relief from the oppressive atmosphere. In Lumet’s wonderful book Making Movies, he describes settling on a “lens plot” to make the room seem smaller and smaller as the story proceeds, gradually using longer and longer lenses to reduce the apparent space between the subjects. In addition, Lumet and Kaufman shot the first third of the movie above eye level, the middle third at eye level, and the final third from below eye level so that the set’s ceiling began to appear. “Not only were the walls closing in,” Lumet writes, “the ceiling was as well.” Watching 12 Angry Men with this in mind shows us how cinema can affect our mood without even announcing itself.
12 Angry Men marked the beginning of Sidney Lumet’s legendary movie career, and was a breakout showcase for Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, E. G. Marshall (who would later go back into the courtroom as the star of Rose’s highly respected tv series The Defenders), Jack Warden, John Fiedler, Robert Webber, Jack Klugman, Martin Balsam and Edward Binns. But just one of the jurors was a member of our club at the time of shooting: George Voskovec (Juror 11, the naturalized European watchmaker) joined The Players in 1955. He and Joseph Sweeney (Juror 9, the oldest man) were the only two cast members to reprise their roles from the 1954 live broadcast.
96 minutes. Available for rental from Amazon or streaming with Amazon Prime.
Tom Dupree has been a professional newsman, adman, critic and editor, and an actor and director at the college and community level. His personal blog is at tomdup.wordpress.com. He's such an Angry Men fan that he's even seen the Russian version, 12.