Most courtroom dramas take place — as you would expect from the name — in a courtroom and play out as a duel between the attorneys for the opposing sides. One of the masterpieces of the genre, however, shuns the actual courtroom for all but three minutes and shows no lawyers — Sidney Lumet’s 1957 debut feature film “12 Angry Men,” starring Henry Fonda and a stellar supporting cast. The Oscar-nominated dramatic classic screens in The News-Gazette Film Series at the Virginia Theatre at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Jan. 11.
In a cramped, over-heated jury room, the 12 title characters, identified only by their juror numbers, debate the guilt of a young man (of an unspecified minority group) accused of stabbing his father to death. A guilty verdict carries a mandatory death penalty, so their decision literally means life or death for the defendant. When the foreman first polls the jury, only one man votes “Not Guilty.” That juror (Henry Fonda) doesn’t claim to believe the defendant is innocent; he simply thinks that there is a reasonable doubt of his guilt.
In the course of the film, which plays out in something close to real time, Juror #8 (Fonda) presents his views and doubts not so much to persuade the others to vote his way but rather to explore the possibilities for interpreting the facts of the case as presented in the court. His position is fortified by Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney), an older man who assesses the validity of the prosecution’s witnesses’ testimony based on his sharp-eyed observations. Other jurors reveal that their votes derive from such questionable motives as bigotry (Ed Begley), estrangement from his own son (Lee J. Cobb), and a desire to get to an evening baseball game (Jack Warden).
In the 1950s, the Hollywood studios, worried that television would keep people home, came up with all sorts of technical advances that TV could not offer — most notably 3-D and wide-screen images — as well as more adult themes. But they also saw that re-making well-regarded television plays (originally televised live) for the big screen would be relatively cheap and might draw viewers who either missed that single TV showing or else appreciated it enough to want to see it (or rather a more polished version of it) again. And if the adaptation lost money at the box office, that could be written off against profits from their big-budget releases.
Reginald Rose’s teleplay “Twelve Angry Men” had been dramatized on CBS TV’s “Studio One,” one of the most prestigious dramatic series in those early days of television, and had won three Emmy Awards (for his script, Franklin Shaffner’s direction, and Robert Cummings’ performance as Juror #8). Fonda admired the play but could not interest any studios in it. So he formed his own company with Rose to produce it — Orion-Nova Productions. They chose Sidney Lumet to direct, based on his reputation for working smoothly with actors and finishing projects quickly. Lumet made his film debut here in the midst of a well-established career directing television dramas, including Studio One programs.
Except for a few minutes at the beginning and the end and a brief episode in a restroom, the film is confined to the relatively small jury room with the men crowded tightly around a long table. And none of the jurors is referred to by name, except at the very end when two exchange names and shake hands outside the courthouse after the trial.
Fonda turns in a hallmark performance (one of his three favorite) as the juror with doubts and the conscience to act on them, but this is really an ensemble film loaded with familiar faces who became major TV actors or regular supporting film actors if they weren’t already at the time. George Voskovec and Joseph Sweeney were the only performers to reprise their roles from the TV version — the immigrant juror and the older juror with 20-20 vision, respectively.
Director Sidney Lumet and cinematographer Boris Kaufman keep things claustrophobic while maintaining a realistic look. Close-ups here are a bit tighter than usual, further heightening the claustrophobic and confrontational aspects — a style of filmmaking that probably owes something to the script’s and Lumet’s TV roots.
Kaufman specialized in realistic, socially minded films and had won an Oscar for his camerawork on the 1954 “On the Waterfront.” That was ideal for working with Lumet, and the two subsequently collaborated on six more feature films, most notably 1964’s “The Pawnbroker.”
Lumet became one of Hollywood’s most respected and serious directors. He received Oscar nominations for directing this debut feature, “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network,” and “The Verdict” and for co-writing “Prince of the City,” which he also directed. In 2005, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored him with an Academy Award for lifetime achievement for his “brilliant services to screenwriters, performers, and the art of the motion picture.”
“12 Angry Men” earned Oscar nominations for director, picture and screenplay based on material from another medium. Unfortunately for Lumet & Co., “The Bridge on the River Kwai” won all those awards and four others that year. The combination of superb acting, directing, writing and camerawork, along with the insights it provides into the American judicial system did, however, win awards as best American film or best foreign language film from festivals and critics’ groups in Japan, Denmark, Italy and Germany.
The idea of a single hold-out juror convincing the others of the innocence of the accused or at least of sufficient reasonable doubt to acquit also made “12 Angry Men” a touchstone for small-group interaction courses, and the film has inspired students to take up careers in law, including Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor.
Subsequent stage versions have expanded the ethnic groups and genders represented on the jury and consequently have appeared with variant titles such as “Twelve Angry Jurors,” “Twelve Angry Men and Women,” and “Twelve Angry Women.”