This week for our cultural article we will be examining the classic 1957 courtroom drama, 12 Angry Men.
12 Angry Men is based on a television play inspired by Reginald Rose’s (1920 – 2002) real-life experience as a juror on a manslaughter case in early 1954. It was first aired on CBS’ Studio One in September 1954.
It was inevitable that the television play would result in a film adaptation. With Henry Fonda (1905 – 1982) and Rose acting as producers, and with Sidney Lumet (1924 – 2011) acting as director, the resulting film was filmed in under three weeks and made for a paltry US$340,000 (US$2,961,823.49 in today’s money).
12 Angry Men is a small film in every sense of the word. Twelve jurors are locked in a room on the hottest day of the year to decide the fate of a young man accused of murdering his father. As per the law, the vote must be unanimous. Initially, all but one, Juror Eight (Henry Fonda – the only real star in the movie), vote guilty.
It’s not that Juror Eight thinks the defendant is innocent, but that he isn’t sure. He argues that the boy had an inadequate legal defence and that they, the jury, ought to examine the evidence more closely.
Initially, he has trouble persuading the other jurors to change their vote. But, as they begin to examine the pieces of evidence, more and more of the juror’s find room for reasonable doubt. The film ends with a unanimous ‘not guilty’ verdict.
12 Angry Men stands out in an era of sweeping epics and technicolour. It is a small, minimalist, black and white film shot mostly in real time. The mood is created through the creative use of camera angles, camera lenses, and editing.
At the beginning of the film, there are long, unbroken takes filmed from above with wide angled-lenses which give a sense of distance between the characters. They are dominated by the task ahead of them. As the film progresses, the takes become shorter, the camera moves steadily from above to below the action, and the focal length is decreased. This makes the film feel more claustrophobic. No longer at the jurors dominated by the task ahead of them, they are dominated by the force of each other’s personalities. As Lumet wrote:
“I shot the first third of the movie above eye level, shot the second third at eye level, and the last third from below eye level. In that way, toward the end, the ceiling began to appear. Not only were the walls closing in, the ceiling was as well. The sense of increasing claustrophobia did a lot to raise the tension of the last part of the movie.”
12 Angry Men is primarily driven by its characters. Tension arises from body language, dialogue, and personality clashes. The characters represent an almost perfect cross-section of different personality types and temperaments.
12 Angry Men acts as a crash course on the parts of the US Constitution that guarantee a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. It is never stated whether the Defendant is innocent or not but instead asks us to look beyond our biases and arrogance and examine the evidence closer at hand. 12 Angry Men symbolises how well the American legal system can work when people are prepared to look beyond their personal feelings use their integrity for its benefit.