Director: Sidney Lumet
Production: Orion-Nova (Fonda-Rose); black and white; running time: 96 minutes; length: 8,648 feet. Released February 1957.
Producers: Henry Fonda, Reginald Rose; associate producer: George Justin; screenplay: Reginald Rose; photography: Boris Kaufman; editor: Carl Lerner; sound: James A. Gleason; art director: Robert Markell; music: Kenyon Hopkins.
Cast: Henry Fonda ( Juror no. 8 ); Lee J. Cobb ( Juror no. 3 ); Ed Begley ( Juror no. 10 ); E. G. Marshall ( Juror no. 4 ); Jack Warden ( Juror no. 7 ); Martin Balsam ( Juror no. 1 ); John Fielder ( Juror no. 2 ); Jack Klugman ( Juror no. 5 ); Rudy Bond ( Judge ); James A. Kelly ( Guard ); Bill Nelson ( Court Clerk ); John Savoca ( Defendant ).
Rose, Reginald, Twelve Angry Men , in Film Scripts 2 , edited by George P. Garrett and others, New York, 1971.
Perkins, W. H., Learning the Liveliest Art , Hobart, 1968.
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Kerbel, Michael, Henry Fonda , New York, 1975.
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Fonda, Henry, and Howard Teichmann, Fonda: My Life , New York, 1981.
Goldstein, Norm, Henry Fonda: His Life and Work , London, 1982.
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Cunningham, Frank R., Sidney Lumet: Film and Literary Vision, Lexington, 1991.
Sweeney, Kevin, Henry Fonda: A Bio-Bibliography , New York, 1992.
Boyer, Jan, Sidney Lumet , Old Tappan, 1993.
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* * *
Bought and produced by Henry Fonda as a vehicle for himself (from an earlier TV study of a jury by Reginald Rose), Twelve Angry Men can be characterized as a classic liberal response to the McCarthyist assault on American pluralism and tolerance which had scarred the country in the previous decade. In taking up issues of the defence of individual rights and ideals of justice, Twelve Angry Men shares common ground with other films of the period, such as Sturges' Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) and Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954). Though all studies of the roots and effects of victimization in American society, their expositions differ in their perspective. Spencer Tracy's Macreedy in Black Rock arrives as a lone avenger after the event, intent on laying bare and punishing, while Brando's Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront marks the victim himself fighting back. Fonda's juror 8 in Twelve Angry Men is neither. Where Macreedy is akin to a surgeon resorting to the knife in cutting out a cancerous tumour and Brando is a struggling fighter battering a way forward, Fonda is almost passive. He is a healer undermining the cancer before it can take effect. Where Brando and Tracy take centre stage in action, Fonda assumes the role of catalyst, persuading others into action in an almost "de-starred" role, effectively unnoticed by the camera until the moment he raises his hand as the sole "Not Guilty" voter.
Yet Twelve Angry Men is not so much a film about individual character—it is rather a probing of ideals in a country built upon the idea of active citizenship. The jurors function precisely as representatives of the American people in the pursuit of Justice (here added to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness), a multi-bodied American Everyman: the sports-fanatic, the former slum-kid, the Swiss-German immigrant, the educated doctor, the advertising man, the self-made businessmen, the bigot. As symbolic representatives, even names are unnecessary.
The film's subject is made explicit in the opening pan up the pillars of the courts to show the proclamation engraved above the entrance: the subject is the practice of Justice as a foundation of America-as-concept. Yet these ideals are offered precisely as they are not abstract concepts. Fonda's function in the film is almost Socratic, testing his fellow citizens in their practice of the duties which uphold democracy. The trial of an accused is simply a broader trial of the functioning of America as democracy.
The film peels the jury apart in search of a common bedrock, and the revelation of threats to true democracy. From an over-concern with leisure (the sports fan's tickets for the game), empty images (the advertising man with no point of view), to outright bigotry (juror 10's McCarthyist "these people are dangerous" outburst near the end functioning as a revelation of naked prejudice that is pointedly ignored by a jury finally refinding its democratic soul), the threats are revealed and overcome. And it is important that is it those arguably closest to the spirit of the American ideal—the "poor, tired and homeless"—who first take juror 8's cue to defend it. In particular, it is the immigrant juror 11 who makes the link between the jury and democracy, the practice and the ideal, reminding America of its promise.
A beautifully precise construction in narrative terms, Twelve Angry Men handles a potentially clichéd situation with superb assurance. From a full set of excellent performances, Fonda as the quiet architect achieves a humbling serenity, while Lee J. Cobb's acid juror 3 echoes his role in On the Waterfront . The film also blends both a formal visual control—as in the framing of groups to emphasize sways of power within the jury process with a certain cinematic "looseness" that moves towards Naturalism, with actors wandering in and out of frame, speech from off-camera and overlapping dialogue.
Yet, arguably, it is a film of ideas and emotions more than style, an idealist film in a cynical world. It reaches toward a less tainted humanity, either on the grand scale of a Nation (to which the jurors go out at the end, recharged) or the smaller—but not lesser—scale of juror 3's rediscovery of the quality of mercy which culminates the jury's reaching a verdict.
Kazan's opening to On the Waterfront appeals to "right-thinking people in a vital democracy." Twelve Angry Men echoes this appeal as a foundation of the vision of America.