Movies That Kick My Ass No. 18: 12 Angry Men (1957)
During the summer before my last year of high school I became a devoted viewer of AMC. The channel still aired movies back then (yes, children). Weekday mornings it showed silent films, which, come the start of the school year, I taped and watched when I got home. This is how I discovered Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. The first Keaton film I ever saw was Go West, which happened to be playing as I flipped through the channels one morning. The first copy I ever owned of Sherlock Jr., my favorite film, was one I recorded from an AMC showing.
Those few months were very important, I realize as I look back on them. My interest in film didn’t originate during my AMC period, but it deepened and expanded. I soon widened my viewing habits to also include Turner Classic Movies. I was introduced to films and artists that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life, and I was reminded why it was I loved the movies in the first place. I wrote my first screenplay that year, and would write nothing else for several years after. I saw The Hustler and Dog Day Afternoon and Seven Samurai for the first time, and watched Superman II straight through from start to finish for the first time in years.
My AMC phase didn’t last much more than a year or so. Once my love for the movies had been stoked high enough, I started seeking them out on my own, and gradually the hand-labeled VHS tapes on my shelf were replaced by better looking (and legal) commercial copies, and eventually by DVDs. Still, I can’t help but feel a bit sad seeing what AMC has become. The channel is enjoying a renaissance as the home of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, arguably the two most critically acclaimed series on television, with Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead hotly anticipated for this fall. The executives can’t be complaining. But as good as those shows may be (I shamefacedly confess I have never seen Mad Men or Breaking Bad), will people still be watching them in one hundred years? Maybe they will. TV is no longer the ephemeral medium it once was. Regardless, I’m glad AMC didn’t change its format before I could discover Keaton and Chaplin and Kurosawa. I hope in the future there will always be ways for people to find these great movies without attending a film school. There’s still TCM for now . . .
Television played a vital role in the creation of one of my happiest discoveries during that year of AMC/TCM watching: the subtle and brilliant film, 12 Angry Men.
Before it was a movie, 12 Angry Men was one of the most celebrated productions of what is rightly called the Golden Age of Television. Networks staged live dramas back then on shows like Playhouse 90 and Studio One, shows that launched countless careers. Robert Redford, Grace Kelly, Charlton Heston, Steve McQueen, Natalie Wood, and James Dean, among many others, all got their start on live televised drama, as did directors John Frankenheimer, George Roy Hill, Franklin Schaffner, and Sydney Lumet.
Even with such a staggering array of talent in front of and behind the cameras, it was first and foremost a writers’ age. Rod Serling won three of his eventual six Emmy Awards writing for Kraft Television Theatre and Playhouse 90. Paddy Chayefsky, who would become the only writer ever to win three solo Best Screenplay Oscars, wrote many of the most celebrated episodes of The Philco Television Playhouse. Gore Vidal, Horton Foote, and Ira Levin all wrote for the live anthologies, too, and many others — Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neil, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Anton Chekhov, William Shakespeare, to name a few — had some of their greatest works adapted.
Standing right alongside those legends was Reginald Rose. Though he sold scripts to many of the live anthologies, he did most of his work during the Golden Age for Studio One. Rose wrote 17 episodes of Studio One altogether, including “Dino,” “The Remarkable Incident at Carson’s Corners,” “The Defender,” and “An Almanac of Liberty,” a stirring and sentimental valentine to the Bill of Rights.
Rose’s best remembered work is “Twelve Angry Men,” which was produced for Studio One on September 20, 1954. That original 60-minute version stars Robert Cummings (who would win an Emmy for his performance as Juror #8), Franchot Tone (a veteran film actor who would go on to star in “The Silence,” one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes), Norman Fell (someday to be Mr. Roper on Three’s Company), and Joseph Sweeney and George Voskovec, who would repeat their roles in the film version. The production won three Emmys — Best Actor for Cummings, Best Director for Franklin Schaffner, and Best Written Dramatic Material for Rose — and was well received by critics and the audience.
Among that audience was Henry Fonda, who thought it would make a great movie. Studios didn’t agree, arguing that moviegoers would be reluctant to buy a ticket to see something they had already watched on TV for free. But Fonda, perhaps reasoning that his film, not the kinescoped television broadcast, would be the version to endure, kept at it. United Artists eventually agreed to distribute the film, with Fonda and Rose serving as producers, and Fonda putting up some of the $350,000 budget himself. Sydney Lumet, already a veteran of the live dramas, who had never made a film before, was hired to direct.
As impressive as the original TV cast was, the cast of the film surpasses it. Lumet’s 12 Angry Men features one of the most phenomenal collections of actors ever brought together on film. Joining Henry Fonda and the returning Sweeney and Voskovec are Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, Robert Webber, and, giving one of my favorite performances, Lee J. Cobb. Scratch half those names off the list and you still have an embarrassment of riches. I’m hard-pressed to think of a film with a more outstanding ensemble.
The screenplay is expanded from Rose’s original teleplay by about thirty minutes. There’s a lot of new material, but some of the longer running time is due to the more relaxed, confident pace Lumet is allowed to set. For as great as it is, the Studio One production often feels a little rushed. With so much material to get through in one hour that’s understandable and forgivable, but the film definitely benefits from being able to take its time. Arguments between characters can arise and play out more naturally. Characters have time to think. There is more time (not a lot, but more than was allowed in the television production) to get to know these twelve men. We don’t learn much more about most of them than their lines of work and a few biographical details, but we get enough that by the end of the film they are individuals rather than types.
These twelve men don’t know each other, seem to have very little in common, and are together for one purpose: to decide the guilt or innocence of an 18 year-old young man who is accused of murdering his own father, stabbing him in the chest with a switchblade. The trial is over — it isn’t the film’s concern. Nor, for that matter, is the actual guilt or innocence of the defendant. One of Rose’s masterstrokes is not to argue in favor of the accused. Superficially, that seems to be what he is doing. Henry Fonda, taking over the lead role of Juror #8 from Robert Cummings, begins as the lone not-guilty vote and spends most of the film persuading the other eleven men to rethink their decisions to vote guilty. It would have been easy to write from the assumption that Juror #8 is right, and the other jurors are wrong, with the life of an innocent man hanging in the balance. But that isn’t what Rose does. In 12 Angry Men he doesn’t shake his fist at the injustice of the legal system (it is just as much a celebration of the Sixth Amendment as “An Almanac of Liberty” is of the Bill of Rights in general). He doesn’t advocate for the wrongly accused; he attacks certainty.
Characters repeatedly pronounce their conviction that the defendant is guilty, only to be persuaded otherwise. This doesn’t make them weak. To the contrary — when someone is convinced by evidence and argument to change his stubbornly made-up mind, it is treated as a moment of growth and revelation, a display of strength. The conflict isn’t guilty vs. not guilty; it’s inflexibility vs. open-mindedness. Even the hero isn’t certain. He initially explains his not-guilty vote by saying he just wants to talk for a while before sending someone off to die in the electric chair. He throws doubts on evidence and witness testimony rather than argue positively for the innocence of the defendant. A few times he seems to doubt his own cause. There’s a wonderful moment between he and another juror, alone in the bathroom during a break. “Supposing you talk us all out of this, and the kid really did knife his father?” the other juror asks him. Lumet lingers on Fonda just long enough for us to see that the same thought has already crossed his mind.
The villains of the piece (to the extent that it has them) aren’t the men who resist voting not-guilty, but those who refuse to be moved by reason. The only character left unredeemed at the end is Juror #10 (Ed Begley), who is ostracized from the group after a racist tirade, and meekly changes his vote soon afterward. Before that there is another, quieter scene between Juror #7 (Jack Warden), who is anxious to end deliberations so he can go to a Yankees game, and Juror #11 (Voskovec), where #11 attacks #7 for changing his vote from guilty to not-guilty, seemingly for no reason other than to end the deadlock.
“What kind of man are you?” asks #11, an immigrant who professes great admiration for the American justice system. “You sit there and vote guilty with everyone else, and now you change your mind because you have some baseball tickets burning a hole in your pocket?” Even after pressing for an explanation, the best he gets from #7 is a stammered, half-hearted “I don’t think he’s guilty.” #11 shakes his head and leaves it at that. Nearly as contemptible as bigotry, for Rose, is apathy.
(This story, with a few further revisions from Rose, was produced again as a film for Showtime in 1997. Tony Danza takes over the role of Juror #7 and, in contrast to Jack Warden, plays this moment with #11 (Edward James Olmos in for George Voskovec) much more earnestly, with #7 admitting that he honestly believes the defendant is not guilty. It doesn’t work nearly as well.)
This review won’t be complete until I’ve said a few words about Lee J. Cobb. An intense, ferocious actor, Cobb came to 12 Angry Men having been nominated for an Oscar for his role in On the Waterfront, and recently co-starred with Gregory Peck (and his fellow juror Joseph Sweeney) in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. He had also originated the iconic role of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. As Juror #3 he is loud, confident, bombastic, short-tempered — yes, angry. It’s a big, bold, explosive performance — but, like the film that contains it, there is great subtlety concealed beneath the surface.
Juror #3 is the last to vote not-guilty, and thus is directly opposed to #8. The two men are like opposite ends of a magnet — #3 brash and intimidating, #8 calm and soft-spoken. While #8 begins his dissent from the group by identifying with the accused, #3 maintains his guilty vote to the bitter end by relating to the victim in a very personal way. He reveals that he is estranged from his own son. “Kids,” he says, showing Juror #8 his son’s picture during one of their early, more amiable exchanges. “You work your heart out . . .”
The son comes into play once more at the end, when even the cool, unflappable Juror #4 (E.G. Marshall) has been persuaded to vote not-guilty, and #3 finds himself the lone holdout. Standing away from the table, back toward the wall like a cornered animal, #3 vainly reviews the evidence for the guilt of the accused, then glares across the table and growls, “You lousy bunch of bleedin’ hearts . . . You’re not gonna intimidate me — I’m entitled to my opinion.”
The written word can’t do justice to Cobb’s performance here. Pulling out his wallet to find his notes, he glances at the photograph of his son and throws it down in disgust. “Rotten kids, you work your life out!” he shouts, seizing the picture and tearing it to pieces before collapsing into his chair and tearfully whispering, “No. Not guilty. Not guilty.” Unlike Juror #10, the humbled but unrepentant bigot, #3 finds redemption. Ultimately, he is a good enough man to see the wrongness of what he is doing, and change.
Melodramatic? Sure. And perhaps this sort of emotional display from a fellow as tough and guarded as Juror #3 does challenge one’s willing suspension of disbelief. But Cobb plays it so well that I’m only too happy to forgive the scene its excesses. Watching it again recently, I was surprised by how moving I found it. Maybe I’m getting maudlin as my youth starts to wane.
As mentioned in the parenthetical above, there is yet another version of this story, produced in 1997 for Showtime and featuring a more ethnically diverse — and much older — ensemble, led by Jack Lemmon as Juror #8, and George C. Scott as Juror #3. That was actually the first version I ever saw. I watched the Studio One episode for the first time only this week, meaning I’ve taken 12 Angry Men in reverse order. Having seen all three productions, I can now make two declarations with confidence:
First, the 1957 film version, directed by Sydney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, and the rest of that amazing ensemble, is top of the class, and one of the greatest of all films.
Second, the true star of all three productions is Reginald Rose. You could criticize him for being sentimental, but I don’t hold that against him. Democracy, justice, reason, finding the strength to admit when we’re wrong — aren’t those things worth getting sentimental about, just a little? For everything else it is — crackling, conflicted drama; an actor’s showpiece — 12 Angry Men is a celebration of those essential values. Perhaps that’s one reason why it’s a story that has lasted the last fifty-six years, and, thanks to the film, will last as long as there are people who love and care about the movies.