Twelve Angry Men
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
Twelve Angry Men, by the American playwright Reginald Rose, was originally written for television, and it was broadcast live on CBS's show Studio One in 1954. The fifty-minute television script can be found in Rose's Six Television Plays, published in 1956 (out of print in 2005). Rose expanded the play for the stage, and a new version was published in 1955 (Dramatic Publishing Company; in print). Two years later, in 1957, Rose wrote the screenplay for a film version, which he coproduced with the actor Henry Fonda. The play has subsequently been updated and revived; for example, in a production at the American Airlines Theater in New York City in 2004.
The play was inspired by Rose's own experience of jury duty on a manslaughter case in New York City. At first, he had been reluctant to serve on a jury, but, he wrote, "the moment I walked into the courtroom … and found myself facing a strange man whose fate was suddenly more or less in my hands, my entire attitude changed." Rose was greatly impressed by the gravity of the situation, the somber activity of the court, and the "absolute finality" of the decision that he and his fellow jurors would have to make. He also thought that since no one other than the jurors had any idea of what went on in a jury room, "a play taking place entirely within a jury room might be an exciting and possibly moving experience for an audience" ("Author's Commentary" on Twelve Angry Men in Six Television Plays). The result is a taut, engrossing drama in which eleven jurors believe the Page 289 | Top of Articledefendant in a capital murder trial is guilty, while one juror stands up courageously for what he believes is justice and tries to persuade the others to his way of thinking.
Reginald Rose was born on December 10, 1920, in New York City, the son of William (a lawyer) and Alice (Obendorfer) Rose. Rose attended City College (now of the City University of New York) from 1937 to 1938 but did not graduate. During World War II and shortly after, he served in the U.S. Army, from 1942 to 1946, ending his army career as a first lieutenant. In 1943, Rose married Barbara Langbart, and they had four children.
After the war and continuing into the early 1950s, Rose worked as a clerk, publicity writer for Warner Brothers Pictures, and advertising copywriter. He also wrote short stories and novels, but he never had any luck selling his work until he turned to writing plays for television. CBS bought the first script he wrote, called The Bus to Nowhere, and it aired live in 1951. He then became a regular writer for CBS's Studio One, a weekly show that produced live drama. His plays for Studio One included Dino, The Death and Life of Larry Benson, The Remarkable Incident at Carson Corners, and Thunder on Sycamore Street, all of which aired in 1954. In the same year, Rose wrote Twelve Angry Men, the work for which he is best known. The play, which was inspired by his experience of jury service, was broadcast on September 20, 1954. It won an Emmy Award for best-written drama and a Writer's Guild of America Award. The teleplay was published in Rose's Six Television Plays in 1956.
Twelve Angry Men was published in an expanded form as a stage play in 1955 and made into a successful film in 1957, starring Henry Fonda and coproduced by Fonda and Rose. The film garnered Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, and an Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Motion Picture Screen-play from Mystery Writers of America.
Rose continued to write television scripts during the 1960s and beyond. One of his best-known shows was the series The Defenders (1961–1965), about a father-and-son team of defense lawyers. Other shows included A Quiet Game of Cards (1959), the Studs Lonigan miniseries (1979), Escape
from Sobibor (1987), and made-for-television movies of Twelve Angry Men and The Defenders: Taking the First in the 1990s.
Rose wrote five plays for the stage, including Black Monday in 1962 and This Agony, This Triumph in 1972, as well as several rewrites of Twelve Angry Men (1960, 1964, and 1996). He also wrote eleven screenplays besides Twelve Angry Men, including Somebody Killed Her Husband (1978), The Wild Geese (1978; based on a novel by Daniel Carney), and Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981), starring Richard Dreyfuss.
Rose's first marriage ended in divorce. He married his second wife, Ellen McLaughlin, in 1963; they had two children. He died on April 19, 2002, in Norwalk, Connecticut.
Twelve Angry Men takes place in a jury room in the late afternoon on a hot summer's day in New York City. After the curtain rises, the judge's voice is heard offstage, giving instructions to the jury. He says that the defendant is being tried for first-degree Page 290 | Top of Articlemurder, which carries a mandatory death penalty. The judge adds that if the jury has reasonable doubt about the guilt of the accused, they must acquit him. The verdict must be unanimous.
The jurors, all men, file into the jury room and sit in straight-backed chairs around a long conference table. The weather is hot, and there is no air-conditioning; some of the men are irritable. From the initial chitchat, it is clear that most members of the jury regard the man as guilty. Jurors Seven and Ten ridicule the defendant's story. Apparently, a young man has stabbed his father to death with a knife. He admits that he bought a knife that night but claims that he lost it.
The jury takes a vote. Eleven jurors vote guilty, and one juror, Juror Eight, votes not guilty. Jurors Three, Seven, and Twelve criticize him, but Juror Eight says that he does not know whether the man is guilty or not but that it is not easy for him to send a boy to his death without discussing it first. After some argument, they agree to discuss the facts of the case. Juror Three reviews what they know. An old man who lives underneath the room where the murder took place heard loud noises just after midnight. He heard the son yell at the father that he was going to kill him. Then he heard a body falling and moments later, saw the boy running out of the house. Juror Four says the boy's story is flimsy. He said that he was at the movies at the time of the murder, but no one remembers seeing him there. Also, a woman living opposite looked out of her window and saw the murder through the windows of a passing elevated train. During the trial, it was verified that this was possible. Further facts emerge: the father regularly beat his son, and the son had been arrested for car theft, mugging, and knife fighting. He had been sent to reform school for knifing someone.
Juror Eight insists that, during the trial, too many questions were left unasked. He asks for the murder weapon to be brought in and says that it is possible that someone else stabbed the boy's father with a similar knife. Several jurors insist the knife is a very unusual one, but then Juror Eight produces from his pocket a switchblade that is exactly the same. He says that it is possible the boy is telling the truth. The other jurors scoff at this, but Juror Eight calls for another vote, a secret one this time. He says that he will abstain. When the votes are counted, there are ten guilty votes and one not guilty.
Juror Three is angry with Juror Five because he thinks that Juror Five is the one who changed his vote. It transpires that the not-guilty vote was cast by Juror Nine. This juror says that he wants to hear more discussion of the case, even though there is still a strong feeling among the other jurors that the defendant is guilty. Jurors Three and Twelve start to play a game of tic-tac-toe to pass the time, but Juror Eight angrily snatches the piece of paper away, saying that jury deliberations are not a game. Pressured by Juror Eight, the jury agrees that it would take about ten seconds for the train to pass by the apartment. Juror Eight also establishes that the train is noisy, so the old man could not have heard the boy yell that he was going to kill his father, as the old man testified. Juror Nine suggests that the old man may have convinced himself that he heard the words because he has never had any recognition from anyone and has a strong need for attention. Juror Three responds to this with hostility, but Juror Eight argues additionally that even if the boy had said he was going to kill his father, that does not mean he intended to do so, since people often use that or similar phrases without meaning them. Convinced by these arguments, Juror Five changes his vote to not guilty, making the vote nine to three.
Juror Eight then questions the old man's testimony that he took only fifteen seconds to get downstairs, open the front door, and see the boy fleeing. He says that bearing in mind that the man cannot walk well, it probably took longer. Using a diagram of the apartment, Juror Eight acts out the old man's steps and is timed at thirty-nine seconds. He says that the old man must have heard, rather than seen, someone racing down the stairs and assumed it was the boy. An argument erupts between Jurors Three and Eight, as Juror Three insists the boy is guilty and must be executed. Juror Eight accuses him of being a sadist. Juror Three lunges at him, screaming that he will kill him. Juror Eight replies softly, suggesting that perhaps Juror Three does not really mean what he is saying.
The jurors take another vote, this time an open one, which is evenly split, six to six. Jurors Two, Six, and Eleven have switched their votes, to the annoyance of Jurors Three and Ten. The possibility of being a hung jury is brought up, but Juror Eight refuses to accept the possibility. They take a vote on that, too. Six jurors vote in favor of declaring themselves a hung jury; six vote against. Juror Four changes his vote, so it is seven to five against declaring a hung jury. Juror Four then argues persuasively for a guilty verdict, based on the evidence. He raises the possibility that although the old man may have taken longer to get to the door than he testified, the murderer might also have taken longer to escape. Reenacting the actions of the murderer, the jurors time it at twenty-nine and a half seconds. This suggests that the old man's testimony that he saw the boy fleeing may be correct after all. As a result, three jurors change their votes back, leaving the tally at nine to three in favor of guilt.
Juror Two raises a question about the fact that the fatal wound was caused by a downward thrust of the knife. How could that be, since the son is six inches shorter than his father, which would make such an action very awkward? Juror Three demonstrates on Juror Eight how it could be done, crouching down to approximate the boy's height and then raising the knife and making a downward stabbing motion. But Juror Five, who has witnessed knife fights, says that anyone using a switchblade would use it underhand, stabbing upward, thus making it unlikely that the boy, who was an experienced knife fighter, could have caused the fatal wound. Another vote is taken, and it is nine to three in favor of acquittal. Juror Ten goes off on a prejudiced rant about how all people from the slums are liars and violent and have no respect for human life. Disgusted with his views, most of the other jurors get up and walk to the window, where they turn their backs on Juror Ten.
Juror Four still insists that the boy is guilty. He says the most important testimony is that of the woman who says she saw the murder. She was in bed, unable to sleep, when she looked out the window and saw the boy stab his father. Juror Eight reminds them that the woman wears glasses, but she would not wear them in bed and would not have had time to put them on to see what she claims to have seen. He contends that she could have seen only a blur. At this, Jurors Four and Ten change their votes to not guilty, leaving the tally at eleven to one. Only Juror Three insists on a guilty verdict, but when he sees that he stands alone and cannot change anyone else's opinion, he begrudgingly votes not guilty. The jury has reached a unanimous decision, and the defendant is acquitted.
The foreman is described in the author's notes to the play as "a small, petty man who is impressed with the authority he has." The foreman tries to run the meeting in an orderly fashion, but in the film he is too sensitive and sulks when his attempt to stick to the way they had agreed to proceed is questioned. His contribution to the deliberations comes when they are discussing how long the killer would have taken to get downstairs. The foreman points out that since the killer wiped his fingerprints off the knife, he would also have done so off the doorknob, which would have taken some time. He votes guilty several times, but in act 3 he switches his vote, along with two others, to make the total nine to three for acquittal.
Juror Two is a quiet, meek figure who finds it difficult to maintain an independent opinion. In the 1957 film, he is a bank clerk. Juror Two does, however, make one useful contribution to the jury deliberations. He mentions that it seems awkward that the defendant, who was six inches shorter than his father, would stab him with a downward motion, as the fatal wound indicates. Although this is not a conclusive point, it does jog Juror Five's memory of how a switchblade is used and so helps to induce Page 292 | Top of Articledoubt in the minds of a number of jurors. Juror Two changes his vote to not guilty at the beginning of act 3, along with Jurors Eleven and Six.
Juror Three is a forceful, intolerant man who is also a bully. In the 1957 film, he runs a messenger service called Beck and Call. He believes that there is no point in discussing the case, since the defendant's guilt is plain, and he is quick to insult and browbeat anyone who suggests otherwise. At one point, Juror Three describes how he fell out with his son. He raised his son to be tough, but when the boy was fifteen, he hit his father in the face, and Juror Three has not seen his son for three years. He condemns his son as ungrateful.
As the play develops, it becomes clear that Juror Three is the principal antagonist of Juror Eight. This is brought out visually when Juror Three demonstrates on Juror Eight how he would use a knife to stab a taller man. His animosity to Juror Eight comes out in the aggressive way he makes the demonstration, which shocks some of the jurors. Also, when Juror Eight calls him a sadist, Juror Three is incensed and threatens to kill him.
Juror Three is the last to hold out for a guilty verdict. For a few moments after it becomes apparent that he stands alone, he sticks to his guns, saying there will be a hung jury, but he finally gives in to the pressure and votes not guilty. In the film, he pulls out his wallet to produce some facts of the case—perhaps notes he has made—and a photograph of himself with his son falls out. He stares at it for a few moments and then tears it up and begins to sob. He recognizes that his desire to convict and punish the defendant is bound up with his feelings of anger and betrayal in regard to his own son.
Juror Four is described in the author's notes as seeming to be "a man of wealth and position, and a practiced speaker who presents himself well at all times." In the 1957 film, he is a stockbroker, a well-dressed man in an expensive suit who, unlike the others, does not remove his jacket and shows no signs of distress in the heat. He is an arch rationalist who insists that the jury should avoid emotional arguments in deciding the case. He has a good grasp of the facts and an excellent memory, and he presents the case for guilt as well as it can be done. He is extremely skeptical of the defendant's story that he was at the movies on the night of the murder. However, his pride in his memory is shaken when, under questioning from Juror Eight, he discovers that he cannot accurately recall the title of one of the movies he saw only a few days ago, nor can he remember the names of the actors. (This incident is not in the play, but it appears in the film.) However, he still believes strongly in the defendant's guilt and is the last juror but one to change his vote. This occurs when it is demonstrated that the piece of evidence on which he places greatest value—the woman's eyewitness testimony that she saw the murder take place—is undermined. He then admits that he has a reasonable doubt.
Juror Five is described in the author's notes as "a naive, very frightened young man who takes his obligations in this case very seriously but who finds it difficult to speak up when his elders have the floor." When, at the beginning, jurors are asked to speak in turn, Juror Five declines the opportunity. Later, he protests when Jurors Four and Ten speak disparagingly of kids from slum backgrounds, saying that he has lived in a slum all his life. Juror Five's main contribution is in pointing out that an experienced knife fighter would use a switchblade underhand, stabbing upward rather than down. He knows this because he has witnessed such fights. Juror Five is the second juror to switch his vote to not guilty. He acquires a reasonable doubt when it is shown that, because of the noise from the train, the old man could not have heard the boy yell that he would kill his father.
Juror Six is a housepainter, a man who is used to working with his hands rather than analyzing with his brain. He is more of a listener than a talker. In the film version, he suggests early in the debate that the defendant had a motive to kill his father, because there was testimony in the trial about an argument between father and son earlier in the evening. But Juror Eight dismisses this as a possible motive. Juror Six stands up for Juror Nine when Juror Three speaks rudely to him, threatening to strike Juror Three if he says anything like that again. Juror Six also speaks up for himself when he changes his vote, succinctly explaining why he did so. In the film version, he talks to Juror Eight in the washroom, asking him how he would feel if he succeeded in getting the defendant acquitted but later found out that he was guilty.
Juror Seven is a salesman. He assumes that the defendant is guilty and has no interest in discussing Page 293 | Top of Articleit. His only concern is that the deliberations should be over quickly, so that he does not miss the Broad-way show he has tickets for. (In the film version, he has tickets for a baseball game.) At no time does he make any serious contribution to the debate, other than to point out that the defendant has a record of arrests. In the film, he is a baseball fan and uses baseball allusions in almost everything he says. At one point, he gets into an argument with Juror Eleven about why Juror Eleven changed his vote, and he makes some prejudiced remarks about immigrants. He favors declaring a hung jury, because that will mean he will get out of the jury room quickly. Eventually, he changes his vote to not guilty, for the same reason. In the film version, Juror Eleven harshly rebukes him for caring only about ending the proceedings as quickly as possible, rather than whether the man is guilty or not.
Juror Eight is a quiet, thoughtful man whose main concern is that justice should be done. In the film, he is an architect. Although he is usually gentle in his manner, he is also prepared to be assertive in the search for truth. He is the only juror who, in the initial ballot, votes not guilty. He does not argue that the man is innocent but says that he cannot condemn a man to death without discussing the case first. As he probes the evidence, he manages to cast reasonable doubt on many aspects of the testimony given at the trial. He is resolute in suggesting that although, on its face, the evidence may suggest guilt, it is possible that there are other explanations for what happened that night. Juror Eight is a natural leader, and one by one he persuades the other jurors to accept his arguments. A telling moment comes when he produces a knife from his pocket that is exactly the same as the murder weapon; when he says that he bought it cheaply in the neighborhood, he disproves the jury's belief up to that point that the knife is a very unusual one.
Juror Eight remains calm throughout the deliberations. The only times (in the film version) that he becomes heated is when he stops the game of tic-tac-toe that Jurors Ten and Twelve have started and when he calls Juror Three a sadist. The latter incident serves his purpose, however, because it goads Juror Three into saying that he will kill Juror Eight, thus proving Juror Eight's earlier point that when such expression are used, they are not always meant literally.
Juror Nine is an old man. In the author's notes, he is described as "long since defeated by life, and now merely waiting to die." In the film version, however, he is given more strength and dignity, and other jurors insist that he be heard. It is Juror Nine (in both play and film) who is the first to switch his vote to not guilty, saying that he wants a fuller discussion of the case, as Juror Eight has requested. It is Juror Nine who offers an explanation of why the old man might have lied about hearing the boy yell that he was going to kill his father. Juror Nine's explanation is that, because the old man has led an insignificant life and no one has ever taken any notice of him, this is his one chance for recognition. Juror Nine is also extremely observant, and the film version amplifies his role in the final discussion, when he is the one to point out that the female witness at the trial, in an effort to look younger, omitted to wear the glasses that she habitually wore, as shown by the marks on either side of her nose. This is the key point that results in the discrediting of the woman's testimony.
Juror Ten is described in the author's notes as "an angry, bitter man—a man who antagonizes almost at sight. He is also a bigot." He is automatically prejudiced against anyone who comes from a slum. He believes strongly that the defendant is guilty, argues the case forcefully, and is one of the last three to hold out for a guilty verdict. But he loses credibility with the other jurors when he makes a long speech near the end of the play that reveals his bigotry in full. He insists that people from slums are drunks and liars who fight all the time. The other jurors repudiate him, and Juror Four tells him not to say another word; he does not, other than to finally admit that there is a reasonable doubt in the case.
Juror Eleven is an immigrant from Europe, a refugee from persecution. He is possibly Jewish, although this is not stated explicitly. In the film, he is a watchmaker. Juror Eleven feels fortunate to be living in a country known for its democracy, and he has great respect for the American judicial system. He takes his responsibility as a juror very seriously. He is one of three jurors who change their minds, to make the vote split six to six. He further expresses reasonable doubt about the old man's ability to recognize the son in a dimly lit tenement building. In the author's notes, he is described as "ashamed, humble, almost subservient to the people around him," but in the film his character is strengthened. He rebukes Juror Seven for not taking the trial more Page 294 | Top of Articleseriously, and he is prepared to stand up for what he believes. Also in the film version, he questions whether the son would have returned to his father's house at three o'clock in the morning if he had been the murderer.
Juror Twelve works for an advertising agency. He is clever, but as the author's notes point out, he "thinks of human beings in terms of percentages, graphs and polls, and has no real understanding of people." When Juror Three presses him, near the end of the play, to explain his not-guilty vote, he finds it very hard to do so, since he does not, in fact, have strong opinions one way or the other. He is reduced to mumbling about the complexity of the evidence.
The Triumph and the Fragility of Justice
The play is, in one sense, a celebration of justice, showing the workings of the American judicial system in a favorable light. Although initially the jury is inclined to wrongly convict a man without any discussion of the case, the persistence of Juror Eight ensures that the right verdict is reached in the end.
Three key elements of the judicial system are demonstrated in the play. The first is one that almost everyone knows, although Juror Eight has to remind Juror Two of it: According to the law, the defendant does not have to demonstrate his innocence. He is innocent until proved guilty. The second element is that the verdict must be unanimous, since unanimity guards against a miscarriage of justice. Third, the defendant can be convicted only in the absence of reasonable doubt on the part of the jury. If there is reasonable doubt, he must be acquitted. The underlying principle is that it is better that a guilty man be set free than an innocent man be convicted. In the film versions and at least one revival of the play, Juror Six, speaking to Juror Eight in the washroom, shows that he does not understand this principle, since he asks Juror Eight how he would feel if he managed to get the defendant acquitted and later found out that he was guilty (which he may be, since nothing that happens in the jury room proves his innocence). The system is as much about protecting the innocent as it is about convicting the guilty.
The play is also a warning about the fragility of justice and the forces of complacency, prejudice, and lack of civic responsibility that would undermine it. Several jurors show that they are virtually incapable of considering the matter fairly and listening to opposing points of view. Juror Seven, whose only desire is to get out of the room quickly, is clearly unfit for jury service. Juror Three insists that there is nothing personal in his negative comments about the defendant and that he is merely sticking to the facts. He denounces the arguments put forward by Juror Eight as emotional appeals. But there is an irony here, since the truth of Juror Three's position is the opposite of what he claims. He is dominated by his own emotions arising from his bad relationship with his son. Because of this, he cannot look at the case dispassionately. He harbors an unconscious desire to vicariously punish his son by convicting the defendant, who is of similar age. Juror Eight, on the other hand, refuses to let emotions interfere in the case. Unlike Juror Three and Juror Ten, the bigot, he brings no personal agenda to the deliberations and is solely interested in ensuring there is no miscarriage of justice. Whether the play is regarded as a celebration of justice or a warning about how easily justice can be subverted depends on one's views about the likelihood of a juror similar to Juror Eight being present in every jury room.
Overcoming Class and Race Prejudice
In the play, Juror Ten is violently prejudiced against anyone who comes from a slum. "You can't believe a word they say," he says early in act 1. Note that he does not say "he," meaning the defendant, but "they," the group as a whole, which shows that he cannot make a fair judgment about individual guilt. Juror Nine, the old man with much experience of life, sees this immediately and rebukes Juror Ten ("Since when is dishonesty a group characteristic?"). But Juror Ten's bigotry continues to smolder before finally erupting in a long speech near the end that leads the other jurors to reject him. The message is clear that such irrational prejudice is incompatible with justice. Juror Four also shows signs of such prejudice, though he couches it in more acceptable words: "The children who come out of slum backgrounds are potential menaces to society."
In the play, the defendant comes from a slum, but there is nothing to suggest that he is not white, as all the jurors are. In the 1957 film version, however, the defendant is shown in a fairly lengthy shot at the beginning. He is clearly Hispanic, perhaps Page 295 | Top of ArticlePuerto Rican, and looks sad and vulnerable, rather different from the thug the jury initially believes him to be. The defendant as a member of an ethnic minority gives an entirely new, racial dimension to the notion of prejudice. The positive message is that in the end, prejudice is overcome in the light of reason, and perhaps those who express such prejudice are left to ponder how foolish and bigoted they have made themselves look. However, there is another, less positive way of seeing this issue. The ideal of the judicial system is that a person is judged by a jury of his peers, but the cross-section of white males on the jury can hardly be considered peers of the boy whose fate they are called upon to decide. It might also be argued that in showing the jurors almost to a man rejecting the blatant racial prejudice of Juror Ten (in a scene that is visually powerful onstage and onscreen), the playwright presents a rosy view of American society in the 1950s, which could hardly be said to be free of such prejudice against minorities or even to be willing to face up to the existence of it. Another view would argue that the playwright is aware of such social problems and is trying to educate his audience, encouraging them to see and reject attitudes that he has reason to believe many of them may hold.
Democracy and Social Responsibility
The play suggests that not only must class and race prejudice be overcome, so must political differences. Juror Eight adopts a classic liberal position. He tries to understand the social background from which the defendant came, explaining the boy's anger as a reaction to his social conditions: "You know why slum kids get that way? Because we knock 'em over the head once a day, every day." Jurors Three, Four, and Ten adopt a more conservative position. They have no sympathy with examining the social causes of crime and simply want to get tough on the criminal. But the play shows that both liberal and conservative positions are Page 296 | Top of Articleessentially irrelevant in deciding whether the boy is guilty. The jurors must transcend their political differences and work together to find out the truth. In this sense, the play is a microcosm of democracy at work. Everyone has their say, and everyone works together to further the common good, which, in this case, is the administration of justice. It is Juror Eleven who makes this connection between the American judicial system and the democracy that, as an immigrant, he loves and respects because it is so different from what he knew in his home country. He emphasizes that everyone must play their part in it: "We have a responsibility. This is a remarkable thing about democracy…. We have nothing to gain or lose by our verdict. This is one of the reasons why we are strong."
Limited Setting, Claustrophobic Atmosphere
The play has only one setting, the jury room, though both films and later stage productions added a washroom. Props are minimal, consisting mainly of a long conference table and twelve chairs. The room is hot and humid, since there is no air-conditioning and the fan does not work. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, and the men are understandably short-tempered. This confined setting helps produce the basic rhythm of the play: a juror or several jurors will provide exposition, reviewing some of the details of the case, and this will be followed by a flare-up, in which jurors express sharp disagreements and engage in bad-tempered exchanges. These, in turn, are followed by a quieter phase as tempers calm, before more exposition sets the rhythm in motion again. In this way, the static setting, in which no one comes or goes, is overcome by the dramatic rhythm inherent in the dialogue. The static setting is also mitigated by the way the director has the actors move around the stage as the arguments ebb and flow.
In the 1957 film version, the heat of the room is conveyed by the jurors shown with their shirts visibly stained with sweat. This also contributes to characterization, since Juror Four, who remains calm and rational throughout, does not sweat. After the thunderstorm cools the room a little, the sweat dries up, except in the case of Juror Three, which conveys something about his tense, emotional state of mind.
Film provides opportunities a stage director does not have; in the film, the director Sidney Lumet achieves movement and variety by frequently varying the camera angles. The changes in camera angles multiply as the dramatic tension increases. Also, Lumet progressively lowers the level from which the movie is shot. The first third is shot from above eye level, the second third at eye level, and the last third from below eye level. In the last third, the ceiling of the room begins to appear, giving a sense that the room is getting smaller.
Lumet's use of progressively longer lenses also contributes to the seeming diminishment of the room. Lumet began with normal-range lenses of 28 to 40 millimeters and then progressed to 50-, 75-, and 100-millimeter lenses. (The length of the lens refers to the focal length, or the distance from the focal point to the lens.) The longer lens alters the relationships of subject and background, giving the impression in the film that the walls are closing in and also making the table look more crowded, thus adding to the atmosphere of claustrophobia.
Live Television Drama in the 1950s
The decade of the 1950s is sometimes known as the golden era of television, largely because thousands of live dramas were broadcast during that time. These dramas supplemented the standard television fare of variety shows, westerns, and soap operas. It was during this period that television replaced radio and film as the chief medium of entertainment for the American family.
The live programs were in the form of drama anthologies, such as NBC's Kraft Television Theater and Goodyear Television Playhouse and CBS's Studio One. It was Studio One, which ran from 1948 to 1958, that aired Twelve Angry Men and other plays by Rose. Rose recalled in an interview the challenging but rewarding nature of television drama in the 1950s: "It was a terrifying experience, but very exhilarating. But there were always mistakes…. I don't recall a show I ever did when something didn't go wrong" (quoted in "Reginald Rose: A Biography," in Readings on "Twelve Angry Men," edited by Russ Munyan). Rose recalls cameras breaking down and shows that ran either too long or too short to fill the exact time slot allocated.
There was great variety in the content of these dramas. Some were adaptations of stage plays by such playwrights as Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller as well as Shakespeare. Most, however, were Page 297 | Top of Articleoriginal dramas. The constant demand for new plays provided a fruitful creative outlet for writers, directors, and actors in the new medium. Television drama offered actors who were not well known in movies their first national exposure. In 1949, Marlon Brando, then only twenty-four years old, starred in I'm No Hero, a television drama produced by the Actors Studio. Paul Newman and Steve McQueen made appearances on the Goodyear Television Playhouse. Directors such as John Frankenheimer, Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet, and Sidney Pollack, who would later become known for their work in film, began their careers directing television dramas in the late 1940s and 1950s. Live drama died out in the early 1960s, because new technology enabled productions to be filmed. This produced higher-quality technical work, since mistakes could be edited out and scenes could be reshot, but many of the pioneer actors, writers, and directors bemoaned the loss of the excitement and intimacy of live drama.
McCarthyism and Fear of Communism
In the 1950s, during the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, Americans were apprehensive about the spread of Communism around the world and at home. The Communist takeover of China in 1949, as well as the U.S.S.R.'s first test explosion of an atomic bomb that same year, followed by the Communist invasion of Korea in 1950, had all intensified these fears. In the late 1940s, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began to investigate people who were suspected of being Communists. Their focus was on Hollywood and the entertainment industry. In October 1947, nineteen witnesses called before HUAC refused to cooperate with the committee; as a result, ten of them, who became known as the Hollywood Ten, were sentenced in 1950 to between six and twelve months in prison. During the 1950s, many people who worked in film, theater, radio, and television were blacklisted for alleged ties to Communism. They were prevented from working again in the entertainment industry.
The 1950s also saw the rise of Joseph McCarthy, a Republican senator from Wisconsin and a fierce anti-Communist. In 1950, McCarthy claimed that he had a list of 205 Communists who worked in the U.S. State Department. The following year, McCarthy became chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, which gave him even greater authority to pursue suspected Communists. Many people lost their jobs as a result of admitting that they were members of the Communist Party. Some, in order to show they had renounced their left-wing views, gave information about others who were Communist Party members.
Having created an atmosphere of hysteria regarding Communist infiltration and conspiracies, McCarthy overreached himself when he began to investigate Communist infiltration of the U.S. military, which angered military leaders as well as President Dwight Eisenhower, a retired general. From April to June 1954, the Army-McCarthy hearings were televised and watched by an estimated twenty million viewers. When Twelve Angry Men was shown only three months later, on September 20, 1954, viewers could hardly fail to see the contrast in the play's theme of fairness and justice with the witch hunt led by McCarthy. In December 1954, McCarthy was censured by the U.S. Senate, and the McCarthy era essentially came to an end.
When Twelve Angry Men was first shown as a live television drama on CBS in 1954, Leonard Traube, in Variety, wrote one of the first of the many positive reviews the play was to receive. As he puts it, "Seldom in TV history has a story been able to achieve so many high points with such frequency and maintain the absorbing, tense pace."
When Rose revised the play and coproduced a movie version with Henry Fonda in 1957, critical response was also positive. The reviewer for Newsweek calls the film a "hard, emphatic, single-minded drama of extraordinary drive and fascination." In America, Moira Walsh describes it as "continuously absorbing…. It is well constructed and abounds in forceful and abrasive characterizations." However, the film was not an immediate popular success and was quickly withdrawn from large theaters. Subsequently, it was shown at the Berlin Film Festival, where it won first prize. It also won prizes in Japan, Italy, Australia, and other countries. Since then, it has established a reputation as one of the significant films of the 1950s and an all-time American classic film.
Revised by Rose, the play was revived in 1996 at the Comedy Theatre in London, directed by the noted British playwright and director Harold Pinter. The reviewer Matt Wolf, in Variety, finds the play a "startlingly innocent work in its belief in a fundamental integrity to the legal process." He contrasts this with the disillusionment felt by many in the United States in the mid-1990s, after the controversial acquittal of O. J. Simpson on double-murder charges in 1995.
The play was revived again at the American Airlines Theater in New York in 2004. John Simon, writing in New York, praises the strong writing and the characterization and the "underlying faith in democratic procedure not neutralizing the frightful precariousness of its realization." He concludes:
This superficially dated but fundamentally self-renewing play is more than a lesson in civics and shrewd analysis of a cross-section of psyches. It is a nudge toward our leaving the theater a bit better than we entered it.
Aubrey holds a PhD in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, he discusses the play in the context of jury behavior, the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, and the inadequacy of defense counsel in many capital cases in the United States.
There must be many playgoers or moviegoers who come away from a performance or showing of Twelve Angry Men filled with images of themselves acting as the heroic Juror Eight. They, too, when their time came, would be calm and rational in the jury room and motivated only by a desire for justice, and they would gradually, through their integrity and persistence, persuade the other eleven jurors to adopt their viewpoint. It is, of course, natural for the audience to identify with the hero, but people may not realize that this aspect of Twelve Angry Men, in which one juror persuades eleven others to change their positions, is fiction, not reality. The truth is that in real life, no one would be able to act out the admirable role of Henry Fonda (or Jack Lemmon, who played Juror Eight in the 1997 remake of the movie).
The dynamics of group behavior simply do not work that way. In the 1950s, a study of 255 trials by the Chicago Jury Project turned up no examples of such an occurrence. The study, in which microphones were placed in the jury room to record deliberations, found that 30 percent of cases were decided, either for conviction or acquittal, on the first ballot. In 95 percent of cases, the majority on the first ballot persuaded the minority to their point Page 300 | Top of Articleof view. In other words, the way a jury first casts its vote preferences is the best predictor of the final verdict. This conclusion has been confirmed by much research in jury behavior over the past half-century. So if Twelve Angry Men had been true to life, the defendant would almost certainly have been convicted. In group situations such as jury deliberations, there is simply too much pressure on a lone individual to conform to the view of the majority. The Chicago Jury Project showed that in the 5 percent of cases in which the original minority prevailed, there were always three or four jurors who held their minority views from the start of deliberations. (The results of the Chicago Jury Project are reported in "Twelve Angry Men Presents an Idealized View of the Jury System," by David Burnell Smith.)
In cases where one juror persists in maintaining his or her view against the majority, the result will be a hung jury, although research on juries suggests that hung juries are more common when there is a sizable minority rather than a minority of one. There is also a body of opinion within the legal profession that indicates that in cases where a lone juror opposes the majority, the holdout is unlikely to resemble Juror Eight in Twelve Angry Men, who is devoted to justice and acts with integrity. In fact, such a juror is more likely to be the opposite, a stubborn and antisocial person who, for some reason, feels driven to oppose the majority, sticking to his or her opinion when there is no evidence to support it. In a review of the play in the Michigan Law Review, Phoebe C. Ellsworth summarizes this view:
The juror who opposes the majority is seen as essentially unreasonable…. The majority jurors, on the other hand, are seen as reasonable, willing to spend time sifting through the issues and listening carefully to the arguments of the minority even if the initial verdict is 11-1 and they have enough votes to declare a verdict.
If this aspect of Twelve Angry Men is more fiction than truth, the play does raise other issues that are as relevant for the criminal justice system today as they were in the 1950s. The most important of them is the nature of eyewitness testimony. At first, the jurors in Twelve Angry Men, with one exception, accept the eyewitness testimony at the trial at face value. This testimony is crucial to the case for the prosecution, and the jurors do not think to question the old man's claim that he saw the murdered man's son fleeing or the testimony of the woman across the street, who said that she actually saw the murder being committed. The jurors repeatedly refer to this testimony as the "facts" of the case, and near the end of the play, Juror Four even says that the woman's account of what she saw is "unshakable testimony." Juror Three adds, "That's the whole case."
The jurors in the play are conforming to what most people, when called to jury duty, believe—that eyewitness testimony is extremely reliable. The truth is rather different. Many studies have shown that eyewitness testimony is often unreliable, with an accuracy rate of only about 50 percent. Some experiments have shown even lower percentages for accurate identification, such as the 41.8 percent reported in Brian Cutler and Stephen Penrod's Mistaken Identification: The Eyewitness, Psychology, and the Law.
It seems that despite what people believe, humans do not have a good ability to identify people they may have seen for only a few seconds. Eyewitnesses have been shown to be especially poor at making interracial identification (in the film, a white man and a white woman identify a Hispanic individual). Research has also shown that people in stressful situations have less reliability of recall than those in nonstressful situations. Obviously, witnessing a murder is almost by definition a stressful situation. In addition, people find it harder to recall information about a violent event than about a nonviolent one.
Many experts believe that mistaken identity based on eyewitness testimony is a leading cause of wrongful convictions in the United States. In her book Eyewitness Testimony, Elizabeth F. Loftus discusses the issue in depth. She analyzes the famous and controversial Sacco and Vanzetti case in the 1920s, in which two men, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were convicted and executed for murder. It appears that eyewitnesses initially Page 301 | Top of Articlefailed to identify either man as the perpetrator of the crime but later testified that they were certain of their identifications. (Loftus raises the possibility that they were improperly influenced by repeated questioning.) The jurors believed the eyewitnesses, despite plausible alibis presented by both defendants establishing that they were elsewhere at the time of the murder.
Loftus describes another case in which eyewitness testimony against the accused was accepted by a jury, even when evidence pointing to the man's innocence far outweighed it. (The conviction was later reversed.) Loftus also discusses an experiment in which subjects were asked to play the role of jurors trying a criminal case. When eyewitness testimony was included in the experiment, establishing that someone saw the murder, the percentage of the fifty jurors voting for conviction rose from 18 percent to 72 percent. Then a variation in the case was introduced that has some relevance for Twelve Angry Men. The defense established that the witness had not been wearing his glasses on the day of the crime and had very poor vision. Therefore he could not have seen the robber's face. Even with this variation, 68 percent of jurors still voted for conviction. In Twelve Angry Men, it is a juror's realization that an eyewitness who wears glasses could not have been wearing them at the time she witnessed the crime that is the decisive factor in swinging the final three jurors to a vote of not guilty.
The legal system does have safeguards against misidentification by eyewitnesses. Since Twelve Angry Men was written, there has been a trend toward accepting expert testimony on the reliability of eyewitness identification. In such cases, an expert would advise the jurors on how much weight they should attach to the eyewitness testimony presented at the trial. Another legal safeguard is the right of the defense attorney to cross-examine an eyewitness. The attorney may ask questions about how long the eyewitnesses saw the defendant, what the lighting was like, how much stress they were under, the degree of certainty in their identification, and other relevant questions.
Such cross-examination requires a competent attorney. In Twelve Angry Men, the defense attorney's cross-examination of the witnesses is weak, according to Juror Eight, who says, "Somehow I felt that the defense counsel never really conducted a thorough cross-examination. Too many questions were left unasked." Juror Four agrees with him that the defense attorney was bad. In the 1957 film, this point is expanded. Juror Eight points out to Juror Seven that since the defense attorney was court appointed, he may not have wanted to take the case. There would have been neither money nor glory in it for him. In addition, he probably did not believe in the innocence of his client and so did not mount a vigorous defense. Thus, in Twelve Angry Men, the jury ends up doing the defense attorney's job for him, which is hardly an ideal situation.
Unfortunately, the inadequacy of defense counsel in death penalty cases is a persistent problem in the criminal justice system in the United States. On its website, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) summarizes several death penalty cases in which inadequate representation has led to wrongful or dubious convictions. The reason for this is that capital cases are extremely complex and require expertise and experience on the part of the defense counsel, who must devote large amounts of time to the case. Because most defendants cannot afford a lawyer, the court provides them with one, but few states offer adequate compensation in such cases. The result, according to the ACLU, is that "capital defendants are frequently represented by inexperienced, often over-worked, and in many cases incompetent, lawyers." The ACLU cites one egregious example of a court-appointed lawyer in Alabama who was so drunk during a capital trial in 1989 that he was held in contempt and jailed.
The facts as presented by the ACLU suggest that the ability of the jurors in Twelve Angry Men to reach a just verdict despite the failures of the defense counsel is not replicated in real life. Although some playgoers and moviegoers may feel that Twelve Angry Men vindicates the criminal justice system—because the right verdict is reached—it seems more accurate to view the play as an indictment of the system, since had it not been for the presence of the larger-than-life Juror Eight, justice would most certainly not have been served. The system was saved by one man, and that, sadly, is the stuff of fiction, not reality.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Twelve Angry Men, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
In the following review, Simon calls Twelve Angry Men "a classic in the making" and praises Rose's characterization and economy.
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Source: John Simon, "No Doubt," in New York, Vol. 37, No. 39, November 8, 2004, pp. 71-72.
Thomas J. Harris
In the following essay, Harris provides an overview of the plot and characters in the film version of Twelve Angry Men, taking issue with Juror 8's omniscience and some of the story's simplistic philosophies, but praising it as "exhilarating drama."
An Orion/Nova Production, released through United Artists, 1957. Coproducers: Henry Fonda and Reginald Rose. Director: Sidney Lumet. Story and Screenplay: Reginald Rose. Director of Photography: Boris Kaufman, A.S.C. Editor: Carl Lerner. Art Director: Robert Markell. Music: Kenyon Hopkins. Assistant Producer: George Justin. Assistant Director: Donald Kranze. Operative Cameraman: Saul Midwall. Sound: James A. Gleason. Script Supervisor: Faith Elliott. Makeup: Herman Buchman. Black-and-white. Running time: 96 minutes.
Cast: Henry Fonda (Juror 8), Lee J. Cobb (Juror 3), Ed Begley (Juror 10), E. G. Marshall (Juror 4), Jack Warden (Juror 7), Martin Balsam (Juror 1), John Fiedler (Juror 2), Jack Klugman (Juror 5), Joseph Sweeney (Juror 9), Edward Binns (Juror 6), George Voskovec (Juror 11), Robert Webber (Juror 12), Rudy Bond (Judge), James A. Kelly (Guard), Bill Nelson (Court Clerk), John Savoca (Defendant).
It is convenient that the first chapter of this book on courtroom cinema should center on the most pivotal aspect of a trial—the jury: with a thorough understanding of its intricacies, the reader will be able to appreciate better the statements made by the writers and directors of the films to come regarding the reliability of the judicial system in general.
Strangely enough, as of 1957 the subject of the jury had only received one serious treatment in all of world cinema—by French writer-director Andre Cayette in his 1950 film Justice est Faite (Let Justice Be Done), which explored the extent to which the personal lives of the jury members in a mercy killing affected their verdict. Its main point was that the attainment of absolute impartiality is impossible in a jury situation, to which people unavoidably carry with them deep-seated prejudices and convictions.
Some three years after the release of the Cayette film in France, a young American TV writer named Reginald Rose found himself confronting precisely the same dilemmas that had plagued Cayette's characters when he was asked to serve on a New York jury. Rose was so affected by his experience that he fashioned a teleplay from it. When 12 Angry Men, as it was called, aired in early 1954, it proved an immediate critical and commercial hit—its potency of theme appearing all the more credible due to its basis on actual events.
Two years later, in 1956, Rose was asked by Henry Fonda, who had seen the TV production of 12 Angry Men and who was looking for a commercial property over which he could serve as producer as well as a starring vehicle for himself, to expand his teleplay to feature length. This practice had become fairly common during the 1950s, what with the number of original story ideas for motion pictures steadily declining. Producers had begun to turn to their greatest rival, television, for new material. Paddy Chayefsky's TV plays Marty and The Bachelor Party were both transferred to the screen in 1955 and 1957, respectively, by their original director, Delbert Mann. Since television was primarily a writer's (although to a great extent an actor's) medium, it was wisely Page 305 | Top of Articledecided that the screen adaptations of these teleplays would rely heavily on dialogue, in addition to the other fundamentals of television: "a narrative style based on medium close-ups … a highly mobile camera enclosed within a limited space and the intimate quality of … situations."
These films were also made at low costs, because they utilized television crews instead of motion picture crews (Alfred Hitchcock was to discover just how cheaply a feature film could be made in 1960 when, using the crew from his TV show, he produced and directed Psycho, his top-grossing film of all time, for a mere $800,000).
The man chosen to direct the screen version of 12 Angry Men was Sidney Lumet, who was still a novice to movies (hard to believe from today's stand-point) but who was well-experienced in TV, having directed episodes for such popular series as You Are There, Playhouse 90, Kraft Television Theatre, and Studio One. In addition, most of the acting ensemble was drawn from among the ranks of TV performers: E. G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Edward Binns, John Fiedler, Martin Balsam, among others.
12 Angry Men opens on a steamy summer afternoon in a courtroom inside Manhattan's Court of General Sessions. A judge is wearily grumping his charge to an equally dog-tired and heat-soaked jury: first-degree manslaughter with a death penalty mandatory upon a guilty verdict. However, he reminds them, to send the defendant (a slum boy) to the chair their verdict of guilty must be unanimous; if there exists in any juror's mind a reasonable doubt as to the guilt or innocence of the accused, a vote of not guilty must be entered. As the jury remove themselves from the box, the viewer is shown a lingering close-up of the frightened boy. Kenyon Hopkins' grim, sympathetic theme (which will recur each time a life-or-death situation is faced) continues until the credits fade as the jury—and the audience—settle themselves in that sweltering broom closet for the next hour and a half. Already Rose has established the contrast between the slum kid of a minority race and the white, middle-class males who have been selected to determine his fate. We will soon discover that the defendant in the case is not only the boy on trial but also the jury and, in a broader sense, the judicial system itself.
Once inside the jury room, the men are introduced to the viewer as they talk among themselves about how "open-and-shut" the case against the boy seems. Assuming the airs of the intelligent, respectable citizens they presume themselves to be, they never for a moment doubt the validity of their convictions, but instead speak of how "exciting" the trial was or of the stifling atmosphere of the room (they are unable to get the fan to work) or of how the proceedings have rudely interrupted their daily routines (one is anxious to get to the ball park). They act as though they've seen it all before; in fact, one of them later says to Henry Fonda, who casts the only vote for not-guilty, "You couldn't change my mind if you talked for a hundred years." However, by the end of the film all eleven of them will have been persuaded by Fonda to open their minds to the possibility of the existence of a reasonable doubt in the case.
Juror 1 (Martin Balsam) is chosen to be the foreman. He is a high-school gym teacher, about 30, somewhat dumb and weak-willed, and extremely sensitive—when someone objects to one of his decisions, he says, "All right, then do it yourself. See how you like being in charge." His opinions will be overlooked while the other eleven take over. In short, he is a foreman by name only.
Juror 2 (John Fiedler) is a wimpy bank teller of about 35. He (like some of the others) is used to having decisions made for him and enjoys going along with the majority so he'll look good and won't have to stand up for himself. Whatever views he has are usually silenced by the more aggressive types in the group. However, he does make an effort to maintain the level of interpersonal contact among the men when arguments ensue by offering cough drops.
Juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb) is a husky, loud-mouthed, domineering bully who runs a messenger service. He states in the beginning that he has no personal feelings about the case, but we eventually Page 306 | Top of Articlelearn that his own teenaged son has deserted him and for that reason he is taking out his anger on the defendant. His blind desire to side with anyone who is ready to convict the boy allows Fonda and the others on his side to come up with new evidence to support the theory that there exists a reasonable doubt concerning the boy's guilt.
Juror 4 (E. G. Marshall), the stockbroker, is a cold-blooded (so much so that he says he never sweats) rationalist who treats the whole case as if it were a detective puzzle and not a question of whether a human being is going to live or die. "Studies confirm that slum kids are potential criminals," he declares. He is conceited and stuffy and does not hesitate to tell the others what he thinks of them whenever the opportunity arises. He is, however, obviously a good producer of information and has excellent recall, and is helpful in that respect at least.
Juror 5 (Jack Klugman) is an insecure victim of a slum upbringing. He is not a mean man, but would vote in favor of the boy's guilt simply because discussing the details of a case with many parallels to his own childhood is too much for his conscience to bear. However, once he has come to grips with his past, he is eager to assist Fonda and the others in reevaluating the case against the boy.
Juror 6 (Edward Binns) is a working-class "Joe" more inclined toward using his hands than his brains. "I'm not used to supposing," he tells Fonda. "My boss does that for me." He provides a facilitation function in the group—that is, he tries to make things go smoothly—as when he badgers the bully for silencing Juror 9, the old man: "You say stuff like that to him again, and I'll lay you out."
Juror 7's (Jack Warden) only desire is to get out of his seat in the jury room and into one at the ball park. In fact, he is so completely obsessed with baseball that he makes unconscious references to it in virtually everything he says; he calls Juror 5 "Baltimore" because of his attachment to the Orioles; he tells the foreman to "just stand there and pitch" when he says something irritating; he recites the ratio of guilty to not-guilty votes as if it were a player's hit-and-miss record. He is perhaps the most alarming figure in the whole group because he has absolutely no concern for the defendant's welfare. He preoccupies himself with cracking jokes and performing stupid acts like throwing paper balls at the fan. When Fonda finally secures a majority of not-guilty votes, he switches his vote to not-guilty simply to facilitate the establishment of a unanimous verdict; he has no convictions either way. That he appears amusing on the surface seems all the more appalling when one reflects upon the seriousness of the situation which he's making light of.
Juror 9 (Joseph Sweeney), the old man, needs moral support, for he has an inferiority complex. Fortunately, Fonda, the working man, and some of the others manage to see to it that he gets the floor once in a while despite the dominance of the loudmouths in the group. In spite of his years, however, he is extremely perceptive, and some of his observations—unseen by any of the others—result in altering the opinions of a few of the more stubborn among the men.
Juror 10 (Ed Begley) is a garage owner who is absolutely seething with racial prejudice. "They're all the same—can't trust any of 'em—know what I mean?" is his recurrent statement with regard to the boy's ethnic background. He is nasty and quick to accuse (when Fonda is the only one to vote not-guilty at the beginning, he immediately snickers, "Boyoboy, there's always one"). Although he acts tough, it becomes increasingly clear that his rantings and ravings last only as long as there are supporters to urge him on.
Juror 11 (George Voskovec), a German-American, is an immigrant watchmaker who initially votes guilty simply because his reverence for the principles of American justice has blinded him into believing that the system is infallible: the boy seems guilty, therefore he must be. He is somewhat arrogant but is rightfully angered at the baseball fan's indifference and the bully's rudeness. By standing up for his beliefs he gives direction to the group.
Juror 12 (Robert Webber) is an ad man accustomed to making decisions for appearance's sake. He has no deep-seated convictions regarding the guilt or innocence of the boy and as a result has difficulty making up his mind when his opinion is needed to break a tie vote.
From an examination of these men it becomes clear that Rose has chosen a pretty fair cross-section of society to fill his jury. After they are certain that they've given the case a thorough evaluation (they've talked for all of five minutes), one calls to the man (Juror 8, Henry Fonda) who has been standing alone by the window. Fonda has been thinking the case over in his mind, not worrying about his own problems. The contrast between him and his fellow jurors is firmly established when a vote is taken and he is the only one who raises his hand for not-guilty. After the others have somewhat tempered their initial hostility, they agree to explain Page 307 | Top of Articleto him why they think he should change his mind. It must be pointed out that he has not voted not-guilty because he is sure the boy is innocent, but because there exists in his mind a reasonable doubt as to guilt. The law states that this is all that is necessary for acquittal.
After a once-around-the-table, it becomes obvious that no one has given the case much thought. "I just think he's guilty … the evidence all seemed to point in that direction," are the empty generalizations spouted by these eleven men who are prepared to send a boy to the chair without even a second thought.
Since it is evident that they would rather ignore Fonda and wait for him to "come to his senses" than try to help him see their point of view, Fonda realizes that it is up to him to convince them that there is room for reasonable doubt. He has his work cut out for him, though, for he must contend with the hostility of the others in the group—the garage mechanic in particular—who are growing more and more impatient.
It is already clear to the viewer that Fonda is the only man present who is not indifferent and who has not allowed personal prejudice to obscure his perception of the case. He is also apparently the only one with a lucid understanding of the judicial process—and the one with the most common sense. He has to remind the bank teller that the burden of proof is on the prosecution, not the defense. He cleverly makes the ad man contradict his belief that witnesses who say things under oath cannot be wrong by getting him to admit, "This isn't an exact science."
Nevertheless, for all his effort, Fonda elicits nothing but jeers from those to whom he points out shortcomings in reasoning. Discouraged, but secretly hoping that he has penetrated the stubborn veneer of at least one of the other jurors, he agrees to another vote—but this time on secret ballot, with himself abstaining. He says that if the outcome is a unanimous guilty vote, he will not stand in their way; however, if there is one vote for not-guilty among them, then they must stay and talk it out. He is taking a great risk by placing his confidence in this largely ignorant and biased bunch.
Fortunately, there is one vote for not-guilty (we later discover that it came from the old man). Reluctantly, the other members of the jury set out to reexamine the case. Fonda's task from this point on will be to convince the other ten that there is a question of doubt regarding the case of the defendant. Because he is a keen judge of character, he avoids pleading his cause directly to the most seemingly intractable types—the baseball fan, the garage owner, and the messenger-service operator—and instead concentrates on the more reasonable types—the working man, the slum kid, the bank teller, etc. He knows that once they begin to accept him as a leader, he will be able to break down the stronghold of personal prejudice that the others possess. It should be mentioned at this point that there are many temporary leaders in the group; practically everyone gets the floor once in a while. Leadership is a function, not a position. However, Fonda becomes the strongest and most influential leader because he manages to gain the support of the others in the group; lasting leadership demands followers. Fonda's unfaltering independence of judgment will gradually strengthen the independence of judgment of the others. One by one, the other jurors will begin to realize how close they came to sending a boy to die due to their indifferent attitudes.
Fonda begins to introduce pieces of evidence that throw doubt upon the so-called "open-and-shut" appearance of the case against the boy. He confounds the other jurors when he produces a knife identical to the one with which the boy allegedly stabbed his father. His point is that someone else could have bought the knife, as he did, at a store in the boy's neighborhood and used it to kill the boy's father. "It's possible, but not very probable," declares the stockbroker in his usual perfunctory tone. Nevertheless, it is still to Fonda's credit that he was concerned enough to give up some of his free time to search the boy's area, whereas the others never gave the knife a second thought because it was an unusual-looking instrument and seemed to be one of a kind.
Fonda also brings up the crucial question of the accuracy of the testimony of the lame old man who said that he got up from his seat in his bedroom after hearing what he thought were screams, went to the front door immediately, opened it, and saw the boy running past. Using a diagram of the man's apartment and imitating his movements while clocking them, Fonda shows that it would have been impossible for the handicapped witness to walk forty feet from his bedroom to the door in the twelve seconds he said it took him to do so. It would have taken him at least three times that long. Therefore, it is highly probable that the man merely heard someone running past and assumed it was the boy. Earlier, Fonda had reasoned that the old man's statement that he heard the boy say he was going to kill his father would have meant that the shouts were picked up over the deafening roar of an Page 308 | Top of ArticleL-train. When Juror 3 asked what difference it made how many seconds it took before the old man heard the screams, that no one could be that positive, Fonda had replied, "I think that testimony that could send a boy to the chair should be as accurate as seconds." This points up another major concern of the film—the reliability of the testimony of people who are, after all, only human and therefore prone to making mistakes. Just because someone says something under oath does not necessarily signify that it is unquestionable. Sometimes people say things for appearance's sake—as Juror 9 points out when he says that the old man on the stand may have been making an effort to look distinguished for possibly the first time in his life and that as a result he may have deliberately twisted the facts. Even the persons with superior recall—and there are not many in the group—are not totally reliable—as we will discover later with regard to the stockbroker. However, the other jurors' excessive faith in the accuracy of the judicial process would have them believe that human error somehow becomes nonexistent once a person enters a court of law. The question of what motivates a witness' testimony will be explored again in Witness for the Prosecution and most extensively (and realistically) in Anatomy of a Murder.
Apparently Fonda's efforts have not gone unrewarded, for the next vote finds the count 8 guilty to 4 not-guilty, as opposed to the original 11 to 1; the watchmaker has now changed his mind. It is at this point that Juror 3, who has been castigating those who have sided with Fonda ("You bunch of bleedin' hearts … what is this—Love Your Under-privileged Brother Week or something?") allows all his latent hostility with regard to his runaway son to surface:
Juror 3: You're letting him slip through our fingers!
Fonda: Slid through our fingers?! Who are you, his executioner?
Juror 3 (clenching his fist): I'm one of 'em.
Fonda: Perhaps you'd like to pull the switch.
Juror 3: For this kid, you bet I would.
Fonda (contemptuously): I feel sorry for you. What it must feel like to want to pull the switch. Ever since you came in here you've been acting like a self-appointed public avenger…. You're a sadist.
During this exchange all the other jurors have gathered around Fonda and have been staring, astonished, at Juror 3; he has been singled out, just as Fonda was the first time we saw him. These two are clearly the most diametrically opposed individuals in the room. Juror 3 lunges at Fonda, declaring, "I'll kill him." Fonda, defiantly: "You don't really mean you'll kill me, do you?" And Juror 3 realizes that Fonda is right. From this point on, Juror 3 appears more introspective—he speaks out less often—but still retains his angry facade. His outburst has also caused the other jurors who voted guilty to ask themselves whether they have similar prejudices which are preventing them from changing their perspectives. They are again given pause to reflect after the watchmaker's aweinspired speech about the merits of the American jury process: "We have nothing to gain or lose by our verdict. We don't know the boy" (even though Juror 10 would contend, "They're all the same"). The next vote is a tie: 6-6.
At about this time the frustrated and exhausted men are given relief by a downpour. The rain acts to reduce the tension: it cools the intense emotional atmosphere of the room as well as the men themselves. By the next vote, Fonda has secured a majority: 9 not-guilty to 3 guilty. The three dissenters are the bully, the stockbroker, and the bigot. Fonda demands that they state their reasons for holding onto their conviction. The stockbroker's smug attitude is finally broken down by Fonda and the old man. The rationalist had refused to believe that the boy couldn't remember the names of the films he allegedly saw the night his father was murdered. However, when Fonda confronts the stockbroker with a similar question, the latter finds his usually infallible memory failing him; he cannot name all the stars in the double-feature he saw three nights ago. Fonda: "And you're not under emotional stress [as the boy was], are you?" The old man notices the stockbroker rubbing the marks on the sides of his nose and remembers that the woman who testified against the boy had been doing the same thing: in both cases the marks were caused by glasses (and nothing else, as the stockbroker himself admits), but the woman on the stand, in an effort to look younger, was not wearing hers. It is also deduced by the stockbroker that she would not have been wearing them to bed on the night she heard screams in the boy's apartment. Therefore, in the split second she said it took her to jump out of bed and look out the window through the cars of a passing L-train (at which point she said she saw the boy knife his father) it is highly unlikely that she took time to put on her glasses (her neglecting to wear them to court confirms that she is not in the habit of using them). Fonda concludes that she couldn't have been certain about what she saw under those circumstances. Finally, the stockbroker admits that there is room for reasonable doubt and changes his vote to not-guilty.
Next, the bigot, who is absolutely fed up with the "soft hearts" of the other jurors, launches his longest tirade against minorities. Everyone demonstrates how intolerant they have grown of his attitudes when they get up from the table and turn their backs to him, leaving him babbling in vain in the middle of the room. Evidently without others to fuel the fire of his racism, it soon dies out. When the stockbroker tells him, "Sit down and don't open your mouth again," he obsequiously complies. For the remaining period, he sits quietly by himself in a corner of the room, most likely contemplating for the first time the ludicrousness of his prejudiced views.
Finally the vote is reversed: 11 not-guilty to 1 guilty. Now the Angry Man stands alone. He tries desperately to get others to support him, but it is clear that his personal problems are the only things keeping him from going along with them. "You're trying to turn this into a contest," says the stockbroker. Reginald Rose drops his final comment on the unreliability of witness testimony when Juror 3, having resorted to bringing up the presumably settled issue of the vain woman who testified against the boy, shouts, "You can talk all you want, but you can't prove she wasn't wearing glasses. This woman testified in court." After all of Fonda's efforts over the past hour and a half to illustrate the fact that human weakness is present everywhere—even, perhaps especially in court—and that things are not always what they seem, the words "testified in court" have virtually lost all their meaning. Realizing that he is getting nowhere, Juror 3 pulls out his wallet to show the others some "facts" that he has presumably scribbled down—and out flies a picture of him and his son together. He stares at it for a moment, then uses all his pent up rage to tear it to shreds. Having finally come to grips with his conscience, he sobs, "Not guilty."
The final moments show Fonda exiting the courthouse. The old man stops him and asks him what his name is. "Davis," he replies. "Well, so long," says the old man. Here is another of Rose's subtle points: these men have been sitting in a courtroom for ninety minutes without knowing much personal data about the others in the group outside of their emotional temperaments and intellectual capacities (they've all accepted each other as "normal"—all of them being white males), but they have judged the boy as though they understood him completely, when in fact they know less about him than they do about each other. The racist assumed he was untrustworthy because he was "one of them," and the bully envisioned him as having the same characteristics as his rebellious son. Unfortunately, oftentimes people are more inclined to let their emotions govern their decisions than to use unbiased logical reasoning.
We realize that the final exchange between Fonda and the old man is a meaningless formality: they will probably never see each other again. Looking back, we see that in the beginning this group of diverse individuals was prepared (with the exception of Fonda) to send a boy to the chair and then go home and forget all about it. It is frightening to consider just how close they came to doing so. It must be stated, however, that the jury's final verdict of not-guilty does not prove conclusively that the boy did not murder his father; rather, the script shows that the case against the boy is not as strong as the case for him—the presence of reasonable doubt is Rose's concern. What if there had been no Juror 8? Rose may be praised for his convincing account of how a liberal man who is devoted to his cause is able to sway the ignorant and prejudiced minds of his peers. However, at the same time it may be said that the script relies too heavily upon the chance presence of such a man; if he had not been there to point out evidence that no one else had been able to produce, the boy would presumably have been sent to the chair. It is also questionable whether such a man, even if he happened to be present, would have the stamina to enable him to ignore the incessant badgering of his colleagues—as one character in the film remarks, "It isn't easy to stand up to the ridicule of others." Indeed, because the story "is based on the dramatically convenient but otherwise simplistic assumption that people's prejudices can be traced to specific occurrences in their past and can thereby be accounted for and removed … the Fonda character had to come on as a combination Sherlock Holmes and Perry Mason, as well as double as confessor, catalyst, and instant psychiatrist to a number of the jurors." Also, due to the great reliance upon Fonda's presence, details are exposed and clarified much too smoothly. It is only Fonda who employs logical reasoning most of the time, and even when someone else brings up a point it usually comes as the result of Fonda's questioning. It may also be stated that, as Adam Garbicz and Jacek Klinowski remark in their article on the film in Cinema: The Magic Vehicle, "the actors are hardly a team, but rather a group of diverse individuals against whom Henry Fonda shines with all the more brightness." The subordination of details to suit a single star role would also mar the effectiveness of another courtroom drama of the 50s, Robert Wise's I Want to Live! (1958), as we shall see in Chanter 3.
In addition to the issue of the omniscience of the Fonda character, the script eschews realism for dramatic convenience in other respects also. Juror 3's sudden emotional breakdown, for example, remains largely unconvincing because it is triggered by the chance appearance of a photo of him and his son when he throws the wallet down on the table. Since all the others have sided with Fonda, Rose is left with no alternative but to find a quick and easy method for getting Juror 3 to do the same.
Nevertheless, Rose does manage to point out ironic truths abouth the judicial system on a reasonably frequent basis. There is, for example, the bigot's complaint that the old man is "twisting the facts" when he says that the elderly gentleman on the stand gave testimony mainly to look distinguished. Since the jurors are not the people on the stand, they cannot know what the witnesses are thinking; hence, the truth is often never revealed. The best the jury can do is try to read between the lines and make intelligent guesses; however, we have seen that initially no one except Fonda even considered the possibility of testimony being inaccurate.
There is also the fact that the presence of certain individuals in the jury room can alter the course of events. No one except Juror 5, who was once a slum kid, knows how a switchblade is handled. He demonstrates how awkward it would have been for the boy, who was much shorter than his father, to stab upward into the chest. The old man, preoccupied with studying people his own age, deduces from his observations of the vain woman in the witness box that she wasn't wearing her glasses.
Rose leaves it up to the viewer whether the experience of being a jury member has changed the characters of the men who have been shown their true selves as a result. It appears as though the bigot and the bully have confronted deep-seated personal conflicts for the first time in their lives. One wonders, however, whether the lessons they learned in court will have a long-term effect on their perceptions of the world.
Although Rose's script has its shortcomings, there is no denying that it is brilliantly tight, that it makes for exhilarating drama, and that it is food for thought. However, it is director Lumet who deserves credit for bringing Rose's words to life. For his success in overcoming the otherwise inevitable static quality of such an enclosed situation enough cannot be said. His camera probes those four walls relentlessly; of the 375 shots of the film, almost all were taken from a different angle. Throughout, he heightens dramatic tension and creates suspense by using extreme (and often grotesque) close-ups and by illuminating subtle nuances of character. For instance, after Juror 3 finishes telling the others about his runaway son the first time, the camera continues to keep him in the right foreground, alone and in silent meditation, as the proceedings continue. The stockbroker early on tells Juror 5 that he never sweats; yet, after listening to the old man's revealing speech about the woman's glasses, we see him quickly take out a handkerchief and wipe his brow.
Lumet and his cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, constantly emphasize the claustrophobic atmosphere of the drab, cramped, stuffy jury room. The sound of someone coughing or sneezing often blocks out another's dialogue. The uncomfortable physical environment matches the emotional tensions generated by the discussion. Kaufman, by the way, was by this time well-accustomed to shooting in real locations (12 Angry Men was shot in an actual jury room): he had photographed Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954) on the docks of Hoboken and Baby Doll (1956) in the decaying Southern atmosphere of Benoit, Mississippi. Kaufman would later assist Lumet on That Kind of Woman (1959), The Fugitive Kind (1960), Long Day's Journey into Night (1962), The Pawnbroker (1965), The Group (1966) and Bye Bye Braverman (1968).
Finally, there are the performances. The whole ensemble is expert and thoroughly credible (indeed, this could be said for most of the films of Lumet's early career, characterized as it was by group situations), but the more prominent players must be singled out. Lee J. Cobb brought his muscular Johnny Friendly presence from On the Waterfront to his portrayal of the vengeful bully and again seemed singularly suited for his role. Ed Begley made a thoroughly repellent racist. Henry Fonda once again proved himself to be the epitome of the decent, honest, soft-spoken liberal. Lumet would return Fonda's favor by using him in two subsequent features, Stage Struck (1958) and Fail-Safe (1964).
In terms of cinematic execution, 12 Angry Men was clearly a film of its time. It is probable that if it were made today under the same conditions (with a TV crew and at TV speed), audiences who have since come to accept motion pictures and television as two unique forms of entertainment—with much higher standards for films—would dismiss it as a laughable "gimmick" film despite the gravity of its messages.
Nevertheless, after nearly thirty years 12 Angry Men remains one of the most absorbing exposés of Page 311 | Top of Articlethe workings of the judicial process. This is due mainly to Rose's penetrating indictment of the reliability of the jury system. Lumet's contribution was pretty much technical (although his direction of the actors was superlative); indeed, what with the challenge of having to complete the shooting in a mere twenty days, he could hardly have been expected to develop any sort of personal philosophy. Although the film ends on a happy note, the viewer (as mentioned before) is inescapably reminded of the more serious implications of the previous ninety minutes: the extent to which personal biases can taint a juror's perceptions of the real issues and as a result endanger the lives of the (presumably innocent) parties on trial. Even though Rose, like Cayette in Justice est Faite, does not offer alternatives to the present system of trial by jury, his screenplay is, on the whole, a more fervent and angered denunciation of the American public's idealistic approach to the reliability of the system. His message, that "the law is no better than the people who enforce it, and that the people who enforce it are all too human," is just as pertinent today as it was in 1957.
Source: Thomas J. Harris, "12 Angry Men," in Courtroom's Finest Hour in American Cinema, Scarecrow Press, 1987, pp. 1-21.
In the following review of the original movie version of Twelve Angry Men, Alpert asserts that the story "pins too much faith on the presence … of the open-minded man," but calls it "a tight, absorbing drama," nonetheless.
Henry Fonda has a most reassuring face. Something about the set of the jaw, the leanness of the cheeks, the moodiness of the eyes, inspires respect and confidence. The parts he has played in films and on the stage have made him close to an American symbol of the unbiased, uncorrupted man, and he is just about perfect for the role of Juror #8 in Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men. Fonda, in this study of a jury's intimate deliberations, must stand alone, at first, against eleven men who are convinced that a tough boy of the slums has killed his father. They're ready, all except Juror #8, to wrap up the case, send the boy to the chair, and then go home and forget about it. Out of this situation Reginald Rose makes a tight, absorbing drama.
One of the jurors is anxious to get it over with and get on to the ballgame; another remembers a boy of his own, who at just about the same age escaped his authority; a third is a crowd-pleaser—he wants to be part of the majority; and a fourth is a man of reason who has added up all the evidence in his own mind and has found no reasonable doubt of the boy's guilt. If Twelve Angry Men does nothing else, it reminds us, like a catechism, of the function and responsibility of the people of the jury. It is also a primer in the definition of those important words, "a reasonable doubt." The entire action is concerned with establishing it.
With so single a notion, the story is bound to be limited. Sidney Lumet, however, has given it some sharp, restless direction—what might be called a maximum of movement in a minimum of space. Since practically all the action takes place in the small jury room, there's not much chance for vistas and scenery. Thus, the emphasis was placed on the actors; their faces and movements provide the mobility and, surprisingly, it is enough. This is because they're all—those who play the twelve jury men—exceedingly capable and playing at peak ability. From E. G. Marshall's calculating but reasonable businessman to Lee J. Cobb's study of a neurotic sadist they are remarkable performances. It's unfair to single any of them out; Ed Begley is fine as an elderly man shot through with prejudice, so is Jack Warden as the guy in a hurry to get out to the ballpark. And there's Fonda's own sensitive work.
The French picture, Justice Is Done, explored some of the same ground, and left the audience seeing an almost visible question mark on the screen at the end. It probed more, it was perhaps more vital. And perhaps the thesis of Twelve Angry Men pins too much faith on the presence in a jury of the open-minded man, the one who looks at all the evidence and even comes up with evidence that neither the lawyers nor the judge suspected existed during the course of the trial. If this man had not been on the jury, if he hadn't deduced facts that no one else during the course of the trial, nor in the jury room, had been able to deduce, then, presumably, the boy would have been sent to his death. It is this stacking of the story that gives it its weakness.
Beyond that, Twelve Angry Men is remarkably successful at establishing its atmosphere, from the sultriness of the room on a hot summer day to the tension created by the clash of overheated minds. Reginald Rose's screenplay is considerably improved and developed over its original version seen a few seasons ago on TV; Sidney Lumet's direction (his first in the movie medium) is expert enough to qualify him as an important new talent; and it looks as though Henry Fonda, in his first time out as a producer, has come up with a winner.
Source: Hollis Alpert, "Gentlemen of the Jury," in Saturday Review, April 20, 1957, pp. 29-30.
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), "Inadequate Representation," http://www.aclu.org/DeathPenalty/DeathPenalty.cfm?ID=9313&c=62 (posted October 8, 2003).
Cutler, Brian L., and Stephen D. Penrod, Mistaken Identification: The Eyewitness, Psychology, and the Law, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 12.
Ellsworth, Phoebe C., Review of Twelve Angry Men, in Michigan Law Review, Vol. 101, No. 6, May 2003, pp. 1387-1407.
"Inside the Jury Room," in Newsweek, April 15, 1957, p. 113.
Loftus, Elizabeth F., Eyewitness Testimony, Harvard University Press, 1979, pp. 1-7, 9-10, 171-74.
"Reginald Rose: A Biography," in Readings on "Twelve Angry Men," edited by Ross Munyan, Greenhaven Press, 2000, p. 19.
Rose, Reginald, "Author's Commentary," in Six Television Plays, Simon and Schuster, 1956, p. 156.
―――――――, Twelve Angry Men: A Play in Three Acts, Dramatic Publishing Company, 1955, pp. 4-5, 15, 16, 21, 22, 44, 45, 60.
Simon, John, "No Doubt," in New York, Vol. 37, No. 39, pp. 71-72.
Smith, David Burnell, "Twelve Angry Men Presents an Idealized View of the Jury System," in Readings on "Twelve Angry Men," edited by Ross Munyan, Greenhaven Press, 2000, pp. 97-101.
Traube, Leonard, "The 1954 Production Was Excellent Television Drama," in Readings on "Twelve Angry Men," edited by Ross Munyan, Greenhaven Press, 2000, p. 108; originally published in Variety, September 24, 1954.
Walsh, Moira, Review of Twelve Angry Men, in America, April 27, 1957, p. 150.
Wolf, Matt, "The 1996 London Stage Version Is Timely," in Readings on "Twelve Angry Men," edited by Ross Munyan, Greenhaven Press, 2000, p. 122; originally published in Variety, May 20-26, 1996.
Abramson, Jeffrey, We the Jury: The Jury System and the Ideal of Democracy, with a new preface, Harvard University Press, 2000.
Abramson, who is a former prosecutor, describes the history and function of juries in democratic society. He discusses such issues as mandatory cross-section representation for juries and scientific jury selection and advocates mandatory unanimous verdicts. He concludes that the jury system works well and serves the interests of democracy.
Burnett, D. Graham, A Trial by Jury, Vintage, 2002.
Burnett, a historian of science, was the foreman of the jury in a murder trial in New York City, and in this book he discusses the responsibilities and frustrations of jury duty. The result is an excellent account of what really goes on in a jury room. Reviewers made comparisons between this book and Twelve Angry Men.
Hans, Valerie P., and Neil Vidmar, Judging the Jury, Perseus, 2001.
The authors discuss the performance of juries and conclude that on the whole, they do a competent job. Other issues discussed in the book include jury selection, the effects of prejudice, and the significance of whether the verdict is unanimous or a majority decision. They also cover the history and development of the jury system.
Yarmey, A. Daniel, The Psychology of Eyewitness Testimony, Free Press, 1979.
Yarmey presents the psychological and legal aspects of eyewitness identification. He also discusses the implications for criminal justice of the scientific literature on memory, perception, and social perception.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3420700025