12 Angry Men (aks Twelve Angry Men) (1957): Lumet’s Oscar-Nominated Stunning Debut, Starring Henry Fonda (also Producer) and Terrific Ensemble

The first picture that Sidney Lumet directed was Twelve Angry Men, an adaptation of Reginald Rose’s 1954 play that Lumet had first staged on television.

This absorbingly compelling drama dissected in unprecedentedly penetrating and sensitive detail the judicial system, the innermost feelings and thoughts of jury members. It showed what exactly goes on during and in between jury deliberations, the sudden twists, the impassioned monologues, the tempers that erupt, the reluctance to acknowledge mistakes and errors of judgments.

Grade: A (***** out of *****)

A uniquely American expose, the film tells the story of a murder-trial jury that is balked in its rush to condemnation by a lone dissenter, Juror No. 8, a thoughtful man of conscience (terrifically played by Henry Fonda), who wins the other eleven jurors over, one by one, to a judgment of not guilty.

It’s a brilliant film about one man who tries to convince 11 other jurors that their hasty conviction of a boy on trial should be reconsidered. At first, only one juror, No 8, has doubts. But then, little by little, his calm logic begins to change his colleagues’ minds.

At first there seems to be strong evidence against the defendant, a boy of unspecified ethnic minority, though he seems Hispanic. The jury’s first straw vote is 11 to 1 for conviction. The sole dissenting voice belongs to Juror 8, who is not certain about the boy’s guilt-or about his innocence. As he says: “It’s not so easy for me to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first.”

It is the story of a murder-trial jury that is balked in its rush to condemnation by a lone dissenter, a thoughtful man of conscience (played by Henry Fonda), who wins the other eleven jurors over, one by one, to a judgment of not guilty.

Unlike most courtroom dramas, the film is not set in the court, but in a single jury room, during one sweltering afternoon, when 12 jurors (all men) debate the fate of a black boy accused of murdering his own father.

In the course of the drama, Henry Fonda, as the liberal Juror No. 8, succeeds in reversing the majority’s opinion.

How the movie was made?

Fonda the actor was also instrumental in making the film as a producer. Of all his films, “12 Angry Men” was the one he was the proudest of, a film he was determined to make at all costs. After no studio in town showed interest in the film version of Reginald Rose’s play, which he admired.

Joining forces, Fonda and Rose chose Lumet, then best known for his TV and theater work, to make his feature directorial debut. Though flattered, Lumet made one condition that he will have the final authority in selecting the cast. To that extent, he hand-picked the best actors of the New York stage.

The formidable cast includes many character-star actors to be: Jack Warden, Ed Begley, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Martin Balsam, and others.

In fact, the entire ensemble is excellent, with not even one weak performance. Like other ensemble-driven pictures, none of the actors was nominated for an Oscar.

Rose’s play and film were confined to one jury room, where 12 men are deliberating the fate of a boy who is accused of killing his own father.   By keeping the cameras focused on and around the jury table, Lumet conveyed in realistic detail the atmosphere of the jury room. But alas the Academy also failed to acknowledge Boris Kaufman’s poignant black-and-white cinematography, which was a crucial in generating sustained tension, and propelling the action forward.

What ensues is a fierce battle of minds and opinions, unexpected motivations (both personal and legal), and twists of personality and character changes that only reveal themselves gradually.

Fonda dominates the proceedings as the one reasonable man, the one with doubts, again submerging himself completely as a star to the needs of the whole ensemble.

It’s hard to think of another 1950s movie that is so well cast and so well acted as “Twleve Angry Men.”

The movie was shot in only 20 days for the extremely low budget of $340,000, which was put by its producer and star, Henry Fonda.

The movie went on to win awards in various contexts, including Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director (see below).

“12 Angry Men” is still one of the most in-demand pictures for showings at schools, colleges, and universities around the world. It’s also frequently aired on TV. Here is a film that’s as politically significant as it is artistically impressive.

But despite the critical acclaim, the movie was not a commercial success and did not even recoup its budget upon its initial theatrical release.

Fonda and Lumet claimed that the movie was booked into the wrong theaters, that it was treated just like any other commercial Hollywood movie, which it was not.

Critical Response

Critics were unanimous in their praise of the film, which was brilliantly economic and tight in its narrative structure.

Hollis Alpert of the Saturday Review wrote: “Henry Fonda has a most treasuring 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 have made him close to an American symbol of the unbiased, uncorrupted man. He is just about perfect for the role of Juror No. 8.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, “My Day.” “The other night I saw a private showing of Henry Fonda in ‘12 Angry Men.’ He is magnificent, but the whole cast is made up of excellent actors. As a character study, this is a fascinating movie, but more than that, it points up the fact which too many of us have not taken seriously, of what it means to serve on a jury when a man’s life is at stake. In addition, it makes vivid what ‘reasonable doubt’ means, when a murder trial jury makes up its mind on circumstantial evidence.”

A.H. Weiler of the “New York Times” pointed out that the filmmakers “have kept the fair sex out of their jury room,” and that “although it may seem ungallant, these 12 Angry Men are all right without distaff glamour. Their dramas are powerful and provocative enough to keep a viewer spellbound.”

As for Fonda, he noted that the actor “gives his most forceful portrayal in years as the open-minded juror. In being strikingly emotional, he is both natural and effective.”

Oscar Nominations: 3

Picture, produced by Henry Fonda and Reginald Rose
Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay (Adapted): Reginald Rose

Note:

If you want to know more about the Oscars, please read:

Oscar Awards: None

David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai won in every category it was nominated but Supporting Actor, which went to Red Buttons in “Sayonara.”

The Bridge on the River Kwai swept most Oscars, though it was not the most nominated picture. That honored was claimed by “Sayonara,” with 10 nominations, and “Peyton Place,” with nine.  Like “Angry Men,” the fifth other nominee was also a courtroom drama, Billy Wilder’s old-fashioned but well- acted “Witness for the Prosecution.”

Three of the Best Picture nominees, “Peyton Place,” “Twelve Angry Men,” and “Witness for the Prosecution” didn’t win any awards.

This was actor Henry Fonda’s only credit as producer. Nominated for two Best Actor Oscars, for “The Grapes of Wrath” in 1940, and for “On Golden Pond” in 1981, he won for the latter

Cast

Martin Balsam as Juror 1, the jury foreman, an assistant high school football coach.

John Fiedler as Juror 2, a meek, unpretentious bank worker, dominated by others.

Lee J. Cobb as Juror 3, a hot-tempered owner of a courier business, estranged from his son; the most passionate advocate of a guilty verdict.

E. G. Marshall as Juror 4, a rational, unflappable, self-assured stock broker.

Jack Klugman as Juror 5, a man who grew up in a violent slum, sensitive to insults about upbringing.

Edward Binns as Juror 6, a tough house painter who consistently speaks up when others are verbally disrespected, especially the elderly.

Jack Warden as Juror 7, a wisecracking salesman and Yankees fan who is indifferent to his role.

Henry Fonda as Davis, Juror 8; an architect, initially the only one to vote “not guilty” and openly question the seemingly clear evidence presented.

Joseph Sweeney as McArdle, Juror 9; a wise and observant senior.

Ed Begley as Juror 10, a pushy, loud-mouthed, and bigoted garage owner.

George Voskovec as Juror 11, a European watchmaker and naturalized American citizen with strong respect for democratic values

Robert Webber as Juror 12, an indecisive advertising executive.

Uncredited
Rudy Bond as the Judge
Tom Gorman as the Stenographer
James Kelly as the Bailiff
Billy Nelson as the Court clerk
John Savoca as the Defendant
Walter Stocker as Man waiting for elevator