March 31, 2007
12 Angry Men Turns 50By Michael Margolies
This March marked the 50th anniversary of one of Hollywood's most revered, indeed sacrosanct films, 1957's 12 Angry Men, an icon of liberal judicial reform. The film served as a classic plea for defendants' rights, depicting a jury deciding the fate of an 18 year old boy on trial for murder. Through the efforts of the film's hero, juror #8, portrayed by Henry Fonda, the eleven other members are swayed from a quick vote to convict in a death penalty case to an eventual acquittal.
At the time of its release and since, 12 Angry Men was considered a parable about McCarthyism, reflecting a supposedly callous society's indifference to the less fortunate and willingness to unjustly sustain false accusations. But go beneath the surface and the emotional manipulation of the audience and characters on screen, and one discovers that from the judge's charge to the jury's verdict, we are witness to a fraud, a set-up from beginning to end, a piece of agitprop designed to fool the audience into believing that justice is being pursued when in fact justice is being denied.
But it's also a terrific film, full of great dialogue, drama, intensity, and superb acting, so tightly produced that there is not a moment or shot wasted. Virtually the entire film is set in one jury room in New York State's Supreme Court Building in Manhattan (where they film many outside shots of the current TV series Law and Order). The film's claustrophobic setting not only heightens the tensions among the jurors, it leads the audience to share a sense of being trapped.
12 Angry Men didn't win any Academy Awards though it was nominated for three, Best Picture, (losing to Bridge on the River Kwai), Best Director, Sidney Lumet, and Best Screenplay based on material from another medium, in this case, Reginald Rose's adaptation of his own television script of 1954. Rose went on to champion all sorts of liberal judicial causes on the television series The Defenders, for which he wrote more scripts than other writer, and which starred E.G. Marshall, who played one of the jurors in 12 Angry Men.
In 12 Angry Men, a young man who remains nameless, a boy really, 18 years old, though in the only shot we see of him looks to be 15 or 16, is on trial accused of murdering his father. The evidence appears overwhelming to eleven of twelve jurors. Eventually however, eleven are led to see the wisdom of reasonable doubt by the twelfth. In fact, they are tricked, cajoled, brow beaten, and simply worn down as they fall like dominoes in Rose's cynical script. And that cynicism's vehicle is juror number 8, Henry Fonda, supposed liberal, but often more reminiscent of a commissar, made out by Rose to be an obelisk symbol of moral stature, who must move the wayward jurors to his way of thinking, that is, a not guilty verdict.
What the film was really about was a worldview, Rose's and many others', that something was critically wrong, that America was going to hell in a handbasket, with unjustice piling up on a daily basis because of our prejudices and unwillingness to question authority. In many ways 12 Angry Men was a precusor and contributor to liberal reforms of court procedure that transformed the justice system in the 1960s and beyond, accompanied by a vast increase in violent crime rates.
Rose brilliantly set up a trial in which each "fact" which appeared to prove the defendant's guilt was faulty in some way, providing the defendant's jury room advocate Henry Fonda with a series of gotcha moments. When one or two pieces of spurious evidence sway the perhaps too accepting jurors, we can make exception for human failing. But when 6 or 7 pieces of such spurious evidence show up, we have gone from a jury's human failure to the writer's propaganda.
The young stereotypical Italian teenager, with the can't miss greasy black hair, (today's easily offended minority groups please note) who is charged with patricide, is onscreen for less than 20 seconds as the judge explains the charge to the jury, and the set up is under way. The twelve jurors, soon to become twelve angry men, are instructed that this is a case of premeditated murder, that the only option under the law for that charge (this is 1957) is guilty or not guilty, and that a guilty verdict will result in the death penalty, with no allowance for mercy. Since the evidence in the case shows that if the boy had killed his father it could easily be interpreted as an unplanned outburst, and not premeditated, not giving the jurors any leeway to convict on something short of the death penalty in the event they find the boy guilty was the first part of the set up. After all, it's one thing to give the murderer the chair (as they used to phrase execution) in the case of a mature man, but to give it to an 18 year old who looks 15 or 16 is another matter entirely.
Whether one agrees with Rose's premise that something major (McCarthyism) was befouling America, or believes that his film was a sort of reverse McCarthyism, or simply thinks this was just an engaging piece of entertainment, it was certainly brilliantly conceived. Rose made sure that every possible bit of evidence was weighted, first to convict, and later, to clear the kid. A neat trick to be sure, but a trick nevertheless.
Among the evidence presented by the prosecutor was a knife so unusual that no one, not even the pawn shop owner who sold it to the boy, had ever seen another like it before. But juror # 8, Henry Fonda, just happened to have found an identical looking one during a night time stroll through the defendant's crime-ridden slum neighborhood.
A old man with a limp who lived downstairs from the father and son, said in court he saw the boy running down the stairs after he heard the boy yell to his father "I'll kill you" and then heard the body fall a second later. But juror Fonda had the other jurors time him dragging his leg and limping around the jury room, "proving" it would be impossible for the old man to cover the distance from his bedroom to the stairwell in time to see the boy descending the staircase getting away.
A woman who didn't wear glasses while testifying in court saw the boy stab his father, but it was through a moving El train 60 feet across the street. So juror #8 hypothesized that she wears glasses and then hypothesized that she wasn't wearing them at the time in question, and therefore, well, maybe she misidentified him.
The defendant claimed he was at the movies at the time of the murder but couldn't remember the names of the movies or the actors in them a few hours later when the cops were questioning him. Fonda simply showed that juror # 4, played by E.G. Marshall, couldn't remember the exact title to the second movie in a double feature, or the name of a little known actresses who starred in it, four nights after seeing it.
Well, as Henry Fonda would say in gainsaying every fact presented by the prosecution "It's possible".
Fonda was not saying the boy didn't stab his father, but it's possible he didn't. Fonda was not saying the woman didn't see the boy stab his father, but it's possible she really didn't. Fonda was not saying the old man didn't hear the boy shout "I'll kill you" to his father and then see him running down the stairs, but it's possible he was mistaken or lying. Fonda's juror # 8 no doubt could have said with similar ease, "I'm not saying it wasn't Islamic terrorists who plowed two planes into the WTC, but it's possible." With jurors like Fonda, forget DNA, just open up the prison doors and let everybody out.
Fonda's' foil, the Immovable Object to his Irresistible Force, was played by Lee J. Cobb. Though 1957 was a great year for movies and actors, (Alec Guinness won Best Actor for Bridge on the River Kwai), it seems a cinematic injustice that Cobb, the angriest of the twelve jurors, the last domino to fall to Fonda's pressure, was not at least nominated for Best Supporting Actor. His brutishness was the flip side to Fonda's calm civilized appearance. His ferocious honesty collapses under a manipulative psychological assault from the Fonda character. Fonda probed his background and then twisted Cobb's own son's rejection of him into his rejection of the boy on the stand. This is the weakest moment of Rose's script.
Cobb's curling lip as his anger increases is glorious acting. His ferocious fist shaking and finger pointing as he rebutted the by now accepted (by everyone but him) claim that the woman who saw the boy plunge the knife into his father's chest was mistaken, as he defiantly shouts,
"You can't prove the boy didn't do it. Sure you can bring in all these little things, but this woman swore in open court she saw the boy kill his father."
With all respect to the great Brando, Cobb's complete monologue here is every bit the equal of Brando's best.
Leaving aside the politics of 12 Angry Men, the rest of the cast were magnificent. Eight or nine went on to have successful Hollywood careers. Jack Klugman, who plays here a son of the New York slums, and Jack Warden, as the marmalade salesman and baseball fan, are probably the best known, Martin Balsam, jury foreman, and E.G. Marshall, the stockbroker, follow. Edward Binn, the workingman, and Robert Webber, the advertising executive who had some low key but hilarious lines, did good work, as did Ed Begley, the out and out racist of the jury, a role that interestingly went to Mykelti Williamson, a black man, in the 1997 made-for-TV version, who had it in for Puerto Ricans.
Some of the others did not prosper as actors, though. John Fiedler, the mild bank clerk and Joseph Sweeney, the wise old man, had lesser careers. And George Voskovec, who played the East European immigrant and had a absolute gem of a scene in which he castigated Jack Warden for his flippant attitude, had plenty of supporting acting roles, but never one so memorable as this.
The editing contributed greatly to the effectiveness of the film. Sidney Lumet and editor Carl Lerner used precise cutting from juror to juror as tension rose among them, until at the end the pressure on lone holdout Cobb was, as the say, palpable.
My passion for so dishonest a film is a testament to the great acting, directing, editing, and dialogue throughout. It may be akin to having undying feelings for a love interest who has conspicuously done you wrong. You know you should break it off, but something keeps piquing your interest.
Fifty years after it first appeared, this film is worth coming back to, if you recognize its major faults.