Adapted from Reginald Rose’s 1954 teleplay, broadcast on CBS’ Studio One (1948-58) and directed by Franklin J Schaffner, 12 Angry Men has transcended its origins to become a cornerstone. Produced by renowned actor Henry Fonda for $350,000 through the independent Orion-Nova and distributed through United Artists, 12 Angry Men was emblematic of an emerging wave of low-budget independent film, as cinema reconfigured its relationship with television. Nominated for an Academy Award, 12 Angry Men barely had a chance to find an audience, with its New York premiere at Loew’s Flagship only having the first few rows filled, running only a week.
Courtroom dramas extend deeply, across cinema, television, documentary, tabloids and fiction. But 12 Angry Men is unique for its use of the confined space of the jury room, without interruption, an outgrowth of the live television limitations of the teleplay, requiring a balance of staging, blocking and performance. One of Sidney Lumet’s early teleplays (alongside Rose), Tragedy in a Temporary Town (1956), produced for the strand The Alcoa Hour (1955-57) makes this confinement clear, reducing an entire community to the artifice of a set. Neither was 12 Angry Men the first film to utilise limitations of space, from the one-frame narratives of early silent cinema, Hitchcock’s pioneering in Rope (1948) and Rear Window (1954), the confined houses of Saw (2004) and Carnage (2011), and the military-under-fire of Buried (2010). Whereas TV’s confinement is inherent, broadcast to a box in a living room, cinema offers expansion. But as Thane Rosenbaum notes, audiences expected “gunfights in the mountainous Wild West or leading men and women falling in love in exotic places”.
12 Angry Men is intensely visual: small details of law and action are not just narrated, but acted out; characters move around the room, examining details of the knife within evidence, diagrams and staging the movements of a witness across the room. With only a window to the outside world, the pounding summer storm heightens the intensity of the room, reflecting the room’s internal strife. But 12 Angry Men’s space isn’t just the courtroom, but setting: New York City. As Stephen E. Bowles writes in Sidney Lumet: A Guide to References and Resources, Lumet had been “a product of New York’s east side” (1979:4); through his filmmaking, he “helped establish New York City as a major production center long before it became fashionable” (1979:3). Just as the television industry behind CBS had been driven by New York, as Rosenbaum notes, the film was shot in New York, with most of its actors, largely from stage and television, emerging from the New York School of filmmaking that drew attention to “social consciousness” and “realism”.
Rose’s teleplay had been drawn from his own experience from a manslaughter case. Over the summer, I sat on a jury for a couple of weeks. 12 Angry Men quickly became a talking point, some recalling watching it in law class and the concept of “beyond a reasonable doubt”. The social space of the court returns each day with the regularity as school or work. An entire world exists within artificial barriers, concrete and wooden panels remnants of the 70s; the courtroom an odd hybrid of technology, testimony relayed through DVD-Rs and Skype. Phones turned off or left behind in the jury room, every fag break offering interlude. My confinement had been exacerbated through social anxiety: waiting to be assigned for a case whilst reading in excess, unable to bond with an assembly of strangers and a jigsaw puzzle. The outside world offers strange release: a return to nature, a bus back home, a connection to the social internet. The jury is built through the repetition of routine, with its set of customs and expectations, costumes and wigs. I sat, as my thoughts wandered.
12 Angry Men’s main protagonists initially refuse to engage with process, formulating an immediate conclusion, desiring a return to normality as quickly as possible, passing time with charades or tic-tac-toe. 12 Angry Men allows us to doubt certainty, questioning the fallibility of memory and testimony: the question of the last film you watched at what time; the woman across the street, who probably couldn’t see without glasses; the narrative constructed within the case. The suspect, an 18-year-old kid from the slums threatened with death, allows a degree of social consciousness, exploring not only justice but class and ghettoisation. In Tragedy in a Temporary Town, Lumet engaged with similar issues, exploring mob justice among the underprivileged, the rape of a teenage girl and a Puerto-Rican suspect. As Rosenbaum writes, both Lumet and Rose were “children of the Great Depression” who understood the feeling of “the other” whilst believing in the American Dream.
Perhaps the most ludicrous aspect of 12 Angry Men is its length. Lumet relays the film’s narrative in real time throughout the 90-minute narrative. But deliberation was never brief, nor were we seeking to get out of quickly, stretching on days. Each day might pass quickly, living by moving hands of the clock upon the wall, lunch breaks, teas and coffees and mid-afternoon’s close, but time freezes in the deliberation room, words spoken and repeated until the mouth can barely say another word. By day’s end, I sit back on the sofa, drained, unable to do much else, scenes and testimony playing through my mind at night. I still get flashbacks.
The centre of 12 Angry Men is a commitment to truth. The oath, even among non-believers, carries power: truth not only to man’s world and society, family and the law, but the spiritual world. But absolute truth is difficult, if impossible, to formulate: jotting down notes, recording key quotes and details, highlighting written evidence. Weighing evidence is hard: what justifications we conjecture, what should be emphasised, what should be thrown out, what doesn’t make sense? The verdict was some of the deepest tension I’ve ever experienced: anxiety in my stomach rising, sipping water in dread, looking down at my feet. I played a small role in altering the path of a life separate from my own. It’s an uneasy burden to hold.
The opening pan in the courtroom establishes the film’s jurors in equal standing, each with their own part; the suspect sits, unspeaking. But each man has distinguishing characteristics beyond names: hats and ties, the scrawl of their handwriting on each ballots. Each character has individual goals, like a baseball game in the evening, and occupations: a football coach, stockbroker, architect, labourers and advertising executives, from the youth of the dissenting juror 8 (Henry Fonda) to the age of juror 9 (Joseph Sweeney), reprising his role from the television production. Within the jury room, they establish freeform democracy, electing foreman and process. Ballots and hands offer anonymity, beyond the openness as each character mentions private lives. Through the film’s 2 weeks of rehearsals and 19-day shoot, Lumet allows performances to carry through the film’s moral questions, both in interactions and monologues. We root for characters from personalities: bluntness, charisma, ideas. As Drew Casper notes in his audio commentary, the lack of make-up allows realism to carry through. Both cinematographer Boris Kaufman, having refined his style in the avant-garde expressions of Jean Vigo and the documentary observations of John Grierson, and editor Carl Lerner allow rhythm in composition and pace, drawing attention to each character.
The jury is arbitrary: assembled through electoral register, defined by their decision to determine the future of the country as a cross-section of the populous. I expected to be alone amid a sea of adults, but the modern jury is representative beyond the largely white men of 12 Angry Men: young adults, the middle-aged, the retired, each bringing their own experiences from their work, their lives, values and beliefs, women refracting their own perspectives. I barely remember anyone’s names. The anonymity of Lumet’s jury rings true, each juror reduced to nameless archetype defined by face, voice and look. From the courtroom, I construct a film within my mind. The television becomes a frame-within-a-frame. My eye line darts, moving between judge, defence, prosecution and witness. As I leave the room, I keep my head down, still offering a brief look at the face of the accused as I pass. An entire life becomes perception and construct, grounded within what can be revealed over a few days.