Overview: Twelve Angry Men

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Date: 1997
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Work overview
Length: 2,970 words

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About this Work
Title: Twelve Angry Men (Screenplay)
Genre: Screenplay
Author: Rose, Reginald
Occupation: American writer
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Reginald Rose was born in New York City on December 10, 1920. After graduating from City College he worked at a series of odd jobs, including a receiving clerk, window cleaner, and camp counselor. He then served in the U.S. Army in World War II, completing his tour of duty as first lieutenant. In 1951 Rose sold his first teleplay, The Bus to Nowhere, and went on to write numerous television scripts in the 1950s and 1960s, including Twelve Angry Men. He later expanded the hour-long drama into a full-length movie, and received an Oscar nomination for co-producing the 1957 film. Known for focusing on current and biting social issues, Rose wrote Twelve Angry Men as a close-up examination of the American jury system.

Events in History at the Time of the Screenplay

The Jury System

The system of trial-by-jury began to take its present form in the English world about the time the Normans came to England in 1066. Juries were initially made up of knowledgeable citizens who were likely to be familiar with the facts of the case. The introduction of lawyers in the fourteenth century and the subsequent use of witnesses modified the system until it evolved into its present form. The role of jurors changed as well. In contrast to the jurors of antiquity, who were familiar with the facts of a case, modern jurors are chosen only if they have no personal knowledge of the facts of the case and can therefore be considered unbiased.

The Constitution of the United States embraced the jury system, elaborating on jury trials for criminal cases in the Sixth Amendment, which provides the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury of the state and district in which the alleged crime has been committed. Twelve Angry Men takes place in the criminal court of New York State, whose own constitution (Article 1, Section 2 and Article 6, Section 8) mandates trial by jury. In criminal cases in New York, the charge is first considered by a “grand” jury composed of sixteen to twenty-three members. It hears witnesses against the accused, and if twelve of the jurors believe that there is sufficient evidence to prosecute, an indictment is handed down. The jury for the trial itself is called a “petit” (or petty) jury on account of its smaller size (twelve members).

The method of selection of jurors has become fairly standardized. In keeping with the desire for untainted jurors, potential candidates are examined by counsel and by the judge to ensure that they are unbiased and have no special knowledge of the matters in dispute. Once selected, the jury (usually with several alternates) takes an oath to act fairly and without preconceptions. At the trial's conclusion the judge instructs the jury concerning the verdict, as happens at the outset of Twelve Angry Men.

The Golden Age of Television Drama

The decade of the 1950s is generally considered television's golden age. In addition to Reginald Rose, this period produced such well-known writers as Paddy Chayefsky, Robert Alan Arthur, and Rod Serling. One significant controversy within the medium during this era centered around the comparison of filmed versus live-program formats. This debate grew into broader issues, such as New York versus California as production centers (live broadcasts originated primarily from New York), the aesthetic value of different dramatic styles, and disputes over the constraints of commercial censorship. The commonly held perception of the superiority of live television or TV shows over cheap, genre-based thirty-minute telefilms can be explained in part by television's drive to compete against the older industries of radio and movies. It was commonly held that the key technological advantage of television over the motion picture was TV's capacity to convey a performance as it was happening. In this regard, television offered a unique product—a synthesis of the immediacy of live theatrical performance and the visual strategies (primarily close-up shots) of film. As a result, the prominence and prestige accorded to writers of live television drama were often contrasted with the plight of writers working in feature films and filmed television. In 1957 Rod Serling, a prominent writer of live television, compared the prestige associated with it to filmed television: “The writer of the filmed television play was never and is not now an identifiable name in terms of the audience. This is in sharp contrast to the New York live television writer who has been granted an identity, importance and respect second only to the legitimate playwright” (Serling in Boddy, p. 88).

Although Reginald Rose wrote many films, he began as a writer of live television, and as Twelve Angry Men illustrates, he tailored his craft to the particular strengths of the medium. He used narrow, often indoor settings, and he centered his conflicts on small but crucial individual moral choices. In 1950, would-be television playwrights were advised more or less to do just that: “[A] good television script must be simple to produce,” with sets that are “few and inexpensive,” and “special effects should be avoided in instances where simpler methods would be just as dramatic” (Kaufman and Colodzin in Boddy, p. 83). Three years later, another writer cautioned that “live TV is limited in scope: that is, it cannot depend upon broad panorama, colossal montages, or the thrill of the hunt or chase to help the limping script” (Boddy, p. 84).

Capital Punishment

Capital punishment, or the imposition of the death penalty by the state, was widely applied in ancient times. From the fall of Rome to the beginnings of the modern era, capital punishment was practiced throughout western Europe. The modern movement for the abolition of capital punishment began in the eighteenth century with the writings of two French philosophers, Charles-Louis Montesquieu and Voltaire, and has been gaining ground since. Nevertheless, before the 1970s, a wide range of capital crimes remained on the books of many locales in the United States, as the following chart illustrates. In the fifty-five jurisdictions examined—the fifty states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, federal civil jurisdiction, and military jurisdiction—a number of offenses were deemed punishable by death.

Traditionally, under English law, death penalties were mandatory; once the defendant was found guilty of a capital offense, the court had no alternative but a death sentence. The jury therefore could avoid delivering a death penalty in a capital punishment case only by acquitting the defendant or by a finding of guilt on a lesser offense. This is the situation in Twelve Angry Men. In the United States, discretionary capital punishment laws slowly replaced mandatory death penalties. New York, however, did not make this change until 1963, becoming the fortieth state to do so (Bedau, p. 10). A decade earlier in 1953, when the play was first presented, sixty-two prisoners died by execution in the United States.

Events in the early 1950s called greater attention to both the jury system and the death penalty. This was the era of the Cold War and the attendant panic in America over communism. Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy headed a congressional committee investigating possible subversive elements within the U.S. government, and this scrutiny also came to be focused upon well-known personalities in the entertainment industry and even on ordinary Americans. People were accused seemingly at random of treason, especially if they had or once had ties to any legitimate American socialist or communist organizations. Many people who disagreed with McCarthy's ultra-conservative ideas were brought to trial on charges that could have resulted in executions. One such trial was that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Accused of passing information about nuclear technology to the Russians, the pair were arrested in 1950 and brought to trial largely on the testimony of Ethel's brother, testimony bartered for by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The husband and wife were convicted of treason and sentenced to death. In 1953 that sentence was carried out, but not before heated arguments arose on both sides. Many protested that the evidence presented was simply not enough to condemn the pair to the electric chair. It was not until 1995 that the federal government revealed previously secret evidence that seemed to justify the actions of the judge and jury.

The McCarthy hearings and notorious cases such as the Rosenberg trial stimulated discussion about a criminal court system whose regulations had evolved through tradition and practice. In 1952 the legal profession chose a blue-ribbon committee to develop a unified legal code to guide participants in trials. Still, at the time of Twelve Angry Men, only six of the then forty-eight states had rejected the death penalty allowed by federal law for the crimes of murder, kidnapping, the sale of heroin, and criminal attacks. Forty-two states agreed that death was a reasonable retribution for murder. Left to be determined by individual courts for the most part was “reasonable doubt,” which, if established, would enable the defendant to avoid the death sentence. In New York, as portrayed in Twelve Angry Men, reasonable doubt became very important since it was an escape from a mandatory sentence of death in cases involving murder.

The Screenplay in Focus

The Plot

The film version of Twelve Angry Men opens in the Court of General Sessions in New York, just as the trial of an impoverished nineteen-year-old boy accused of knifing his father to death has come to an end. The judge gives the twelve jurors their instructions, stressing that the defendant must be viewed as innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and reminds them that a guilty verdict in this case must result in the death penalty. Expecting a rapid verdict in what appears to be a conclusive case, the foreman invites an immediate vote on what most believe will be a unanimous guilty verdict. A show of hands reveals eleven guilty votes. The lone holdout is Juror #8. He senses that the “beyond a reasonable doubt” condition stipulated by the judge has not been met. The others are baffled by his refusal to raise his hand, and not a little irritated. “Boy-oh-boy,” says Juror #10. “There's always one” (Rose, Twelve Angry Men, p. 176). Grudgingly, they agree to re-examine the evidence. Later, a second vote is taken, and this time there are four votes for acquittal.

The deliberation continues, and as the debate becomes more heated, the character of each man emerges. The foreman is a man who wants no trouble and will go along with the majority rather than risk causing offense. Juror #2 is a meek bank clerk who is not accustomed to making his own decisions. The third juror is a temperamental, impatient man with “a streak of sadism” (Twelve Angry Men, p. 159); Juror #4 is a stockbroker with refined mannerisms and an air of superiority. The fifth juror is a street-wise mechanic whose origins, which he would rather forget, are close to those of the defendant, and Juror #6 is a plodding, dull-witted housepainter. Juror #7 is a restless, callous, and obtuse salesman. Much of the dialog centers around Juror #8, a thoughtful, compassionate, earnest man, an architect, whose only goal is to seek the truth. Juror #9 is an elderly, depressed old man; the tenth juror is an irascible bigot. A first-generation immigrant, Juror #11, speaks only occasionally, and is rarely listened to. The final member, Juror #12, is a snobbish, superficial advertising man.

As the deliberation continues, the architect forces the others to take a closer look at the circumstantial evidence presented by the prosecution. His calm, purposeful arguments gradually sway the views of his fellow jurors, until at last all but one, the stockbroker, agree that the evidence is insufficient. Finally, when it is revealed that this juror's troubles with his own son have interfered with his judgment in the case, he breaks down and changes his vote. The unanimous vote is for acquittal, and the men, still strangers who don't know each other's names, disperse and return to their respective lives.

The Nonconformist

Twelve Angry Men is a story about one juror who refuses to conform to the opinions of those around him. It would be much easier for everyone involved if Juror #8, the architect, simply voted guilty with the others at the start of deliberations. In fact, after the first vote is taken, the others show their impatience with his unwillingness to conform. The architect's refusal to suppress his inner convictions merely to align himself with the group has a curious effect on the others—it sparks a chain reaction in which each man is forced to re-examine the rationale behind his own decision. The story documents the progressive effect the architect's individual strength of character has over the others. Juror #9, the first man to reconsider and change his vote from guilty to not guilty, gives this explanation:

This gentleman (Indicating #8) has been standing alone against us. He doesn't say the boy is not guilty. He just isn't sure. Well, it's not easy to stand alone against the ridicule of others, even when there's a worthy cause. So he gambled for support, and I gave it to him. I respect his motives. The boy on trial is probably guilty. But I want to hear more.
(Twelve Angry Men, p. 219)

When the others berate Juror #9 for changing his mind, Juror #11, the European immigrant, comes to his defense: “I have always thought that a man was entitled to have unpopular opinions in this country. This is the reason I came here” (Twelve Angry Men, p. 217).

The tension presented in Twelve Angry Men between the group and the nonconformist is a revealing microcosm of a larger phenomenon in American society in the 1950s. The pressure to conform to social values and beliefs presented by the mass media, big business, and suburban living was well documented in bestselling books such as David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd (1950) and William Whyte's The Organization Man (1956). Riesman's thesis was that Americans had become “other-directed” (controlled and determined by outside influences) rather than “inner-directed” (remaining true to oneself, as in the case of the architect in the play) while Whyte's work held that the modern man was now concerned more with excelling in an organization than with his own personal excellence. Both books point to a decline in individualism and a corresponding rise in the power of the group that transpired during the decade.


The action of Twelve Angry Men takes place almost entirely in a single setting—an actual New York State jury room. These production features originated in the restrictions that live television placed on the original teleplay, and ironically they are largely responsible for making Twelve Angry Men a landmark film in its day.

At the outset of his career, in the 1950s, Reginald Rose was a writer passionately committed to protesting social injustice: “The things I used to write about all involved violence. Injustices and outrages that I saw bothered me ... and I wanted to fight against them” (Rose in Polier, p. 8). Rose's method was to begin with a story centered around a particular issue. Only after that was determined would he populate his fictional landscape with characters. In a 1957 article in the New York Times, Rose outlines the process by which he composed Twelve Angry Men. He began by describing the plot and the conditions to which the script had to conform. Then came the characters:

First, of course, there had to be twelve characters, so I was faced at the outset with the following relatively simple problems. How old is each of these men, what in general does he look like, and what does he do for a living? Is he married, unmarried, divorced? Is he rich, poor or middle-class? ... These questions, and many others, had to be asked and answered before I could sit down to write a single word of dialogue.
(Rose,“The Trying Talesman,” p. 5)

Later in life, Rose admitted to sacrificing depth of character in exchange for dealing with social issues. In the case of Twelve Angry Men, he wrote both the screenplay and the teleplay on this premise.


The critical reaction to the 1957 film version of Twelve Angry Men was unanimously positive. A. H. Weiler's New York Times review was typical: “Reginald Rose's excellent elaboration of his fine television play of 1954 ... is a penetrating, sensitive and sometimes shocking dissection of the hearts and minds of men who obviously are less than gods. It makes for a taut, absorbing drama that reaches far beyond the close confines of its jury room setting” (Weiler, p. 24). Eleanor Roosevelt witnessed a private screening of the movie and liked it enormously, writing about it in her newspaper column “My Day”: “As a character study, this is a fascinating movie, but more than that, it points up the fact ... of what it means to serve on a jury when a man's life is at stake” (Roosevelt, pp. 128–29). Both Rose and lead actor Henry Fonda received Oscar nominations for their role as co-producers, and director Sidney Lumet was also nominated for his work.

Financially, however, the movie did not perform well. Released as a conventional booking in large theaters (rather than being distributed only to small art houses, where it might have gained a major following and run for months on the strength of favorable reviews), the film failed to make a profit. Yet the picture continued to be screened for years in civics classes in schools and for business people as a lesson in decision-making. Despite its anachronisms (the all-white, all-male jury), Twelve Angry Men continues to appeal to audiences to this day, and it remains Rose's most acclaimed and best-known work.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1430002925