12 Angry Men
12 Angry Men is a classic film and it has always appeared on best of list as one of the greatest films ever made. It is a great compelling story and a very simple film with one setting with twelve characters that proves you do not need much to make an excellent film. 12 Angry Men proves that after fifty years the film is still fresh and enjoyable to watch. Every generation should experience this film.
I first saw 12 Angry Men in the 80’s either in junior high or high school in an English class. At the time my choice of films fell in the horror, sci-fi, action-adventure, or comedy category. Dramas were not my thing at the time and any film that school would show you cannot be good. Boy was I wrong. Since I first watched the film in a classroom it became a favorite of mine. I witnessed a well-crafted film with very strong characters. Although the genres I mentioned above, especially horror are still favorites that I watch, but when I first watched 12 Angry Men, it was the first drama that I got into and started watching other classic and current dramas. Over the years I would catch the film on TV and even watched it a few other times in school, this time in a college film class. I think I even wrote a paper on the film.
The motion picture came out in 1957, but this was not the first presentation of it. The film was adapted from a teleplay written by Reginald Rose that aired on television in 1954. Sidney Lumet, who went on to direct some classic films like, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network, made his feature film directorial debut with 12 Angry Men. Lumet executed a spectacular film with a fine cast that included Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Jack Klugman, John Fiedler, Edward Binns, Joseph Sweeney, George Voskovec, Robert Webber, and Ed Begley.
The story is about twelve jurors on a murder trial of a teenage boy who is accused of murdering his father. The twelve jurors go to deliberate and all of them believe that the boy is guilty, expect for one. Juror #8 played by Fonda is the only one that thinks the boy could be innocent. Since the rest of the jurors were quick into sending this kid to the chair just because they want to get out of there, Fonda wants to spend some time going over the facts to prove if he is innocent or guilty.
Throughout the film the twelve go back and forth and argue not only about if the boy is guilty or not guilty, but with each other on their personal beliefs and their way of life. We witness their prejudices, stubbornness, and ignorance from some and strength and determination from others. The only thing the men have in common with each other is that they are white and they are men. All of them are different in age, have different backgrounds, and all of them have a different point of view. There are huge egos in the jury room and many of those egos get crushed through the course of the story.
There are many moments of this film that stand out and are very emotional. Here are a few I would like to point out. During the opening when the jurors are about to leave the courtroom to go and deliberate, they cut to the boy on trial who looks very young and terrified. You can see the fear and the sadness all in his eyes. It is a great shot of him where he does not say a word, but his eyes tell the story. You also feel sorry for him and wonder what the outcome will be.
Another is when Ed Begley’s character is yelling to the other jurors, after most of them changed their vote to not guilty and Begley rants and raves to them and ask why they changed their decision on a boy who comes from the slums. His prejudices start to show as he starts to put down the kid for living in the slums. Then he puts down anyone who lives in the slums and says that they are no good. One by one the jurors get up from their chairs, walk away, and turn their backs on him. The shot gets wider as Begley continues to rant and the others turn away. The only one that does not get up is E.G. Marshall’s character, but Marshall does not agree with Begley. The scene ends with Marshall telling Begley to sit down and keep his mouth shut the rest of the time that they are in there.
One other scene that is a stand out is at the end when there is only one man who is voting guilty and that is Lee J. Cobb’s character. Like Begley, he has a moment where he starts yelling at everyone else and tries to convince them that the boy is guilty, but his prejudices are not because he lives in a slum, but because Cobb has a bad relationship with his own son that he touches on through the course of the film. As he is yelling he goes through his wallet to find notes he had written, but gets frustrated and throws it down on the table where we see a picture of him and his son also in the wallet. As he looks down on it he goes into a rant about his kid and how he gave him everything and he turned his back on him. He ends up tearing up the photo and starts to weep. As he cries he speaks the words “Not guilty”. It is a very emotional scene that gives me chills just thinking about it.
The film is great to watch and I recommend it to anyone, but I especially recommend it to inspiring filmmakers. The film is strongly character driven and they are developed very well in a one setting story. Even though there are so many characters, each of the twelve is showcased well and they are not cheated. The story may seem simple, but it has great depth to it. There are actually many layers in the story that revolve around the characters. The characters are very important to the story and the actors who play them are as well. If the wrong actor is placed in there to play any of the jurors the film is not the same.
The whole cast of twelve all stand out, but here are a few that I wish to mention that stand out for me. Fonda and Cobb play the strongest characters in the film and they both play them very well and play off of each other great. It is one of the most prefect protagonists and antagonists going at each other in a film. Others in the film are Begley, of course, who plays a nasty old man who hates everyone. Martin Balsam, who is best known for A Thousand Clowns and Psycho, plays the foreman who is trying to keep everyone under control. Jack Klugman from TV’s The Odd Couple and Quincy, M.E. plays a juror who grew up from the same slummy streets as the boy on trial and takes offence to the remarks from some the jurors about where the kid is from. Then there is film and television actor Jack Warden who is kind of the class clown of the bunch and just wants to get out of there because he has tickets to a Yankees game that night. Also, a few years after the film, Balsam, Klugman, and Warden were featured in a few Twilight Zone episodes throughout the series run.
There are many cinematic parts of the film that stand out and help tell the story. It is challenging to try and create great shots in one room. The filmmakers do an excellent job of creating interesting shots that have meaning, like the camera placement. During the start of the film the camera is above eye level on all the shots. Then as the film moves on the camera is at eye level and then at the ending it is below eye level. Also the camera lens in the beginning is at a wide, but towards the end there are more tight shots. All this creates a feeling of isolation and since they are just in one small room as the camera goes in tighter it feels even smaller. Also with the camera going from above eye to eye level then below eye level it gives the impression that we are sinking or getting smaller. This could be interpreted as the jurors who are voting guilty are getting smaller and smaller as the movie progresses.
When the film opened in April 1957 it was a critical hit, but not a commercial one. Even though it was up for an Oscar for best picture, the film did not do well at the box office. It was not until years later when the film became a favorite among moviegoers and then it eventually became a motion picture classic. The film was adapted into a play in 1964. Reginald Rose had written several stage adaptations to the story. The movie is very fitting for a stage play due to the fact it takes place in one room and it is character driven. Other stage adaptations were made to include women in the play and it was renamed to many different titles such as, 12 Angry Jurors, 12 Angry Men and Women, or 12 Angry Women.
The film was remade in 1997, forty years after the original film was released. The movie was made for television and aired on Showtime. The film was directed William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) and starred a number of actors from film and television including Jack Lemmon as Fonda’s character and George C. Scott as Cobb’s. The remake was not bad and it was interesting seeing different actors play the characters in modern times. I did enjoy the remake, but I have to say the original is the best. One interesting note I want to point out in the remake that this is the second time that George C. Scott has played a character that was previously portrayed by Lee J. Cobb. Back in 1990, Scott portrayed a detective, William F. Kinderman, in the Exorcist III, a role originally played by Cobb in the first Exorcist.
12 Angry Men is a classic motion picture and has many great factors with developing a good story, creating excellent characters, and executing camera shots and editing that tells the story well. I was very happy I got to see this film in school many years ago. It has had a great impact on me on the way I view films and the way I make them. If you have not seen this classic film from the 1950’s, go out now and watch it. It is a film that you must see and you will be pleased that you did.