These are very angry times. It is not easy to share your thoughts or opinions on almost anything that is political or “class” based. It is sad and horrifying that people are unable to discuss hot topics. If you don’t stand with me, then you’re against me is the mantra for many. Rising voices, shouting, name-calling, and sometimes violence has become the norm. I believe our society is not as civilized as it once was. Most of us don’t want to bring up subjects that we know will lead to arguments and inappropriate statements, so we stay quiet instead. We walk on eggshells of fear every day with our family and friends. We avoid confrontations, getting together, and calling less and less. This has happened to me with two of my dear friends. We don’t see eye to eye, so we tiptoe around a dozen other conversations, never clearing the air and finding peace with each other. It is hard work to just simply “talk” because anything could be a trigger. Neither one of us really wants to end the relationship. We just want to stand together once again on solid ground. I often wonder what the outcome would be if we were locked in a room together until we did find harmony and truth once more. Would we survive the ordeal? Or would we still be aggrieved in the end? This is the premise for one of the all-time greatest films created for actors. It pushed the limit of every personal button over and over for 12 ANGRY MEN.
12 ANGRY MEN was based on a teleplay written by Reginald Rose. The studio had mixed feelings about making it into a film, but once they had Henry Fonda onboard as Juror #8, and he agreed to be the producer, everything fell into place. Henry said being the producer and staring in a film was a ton of work, and he never produced another movie again, but he did let the first-time feature director, Sidney Lumet, know after watching some “dailies” he thought “the film was “magnificent.”
12 ANGRY MEN opened in 1957. They rehearsed for two weeks, then filmed for 17 days, mostly in a small jury room except for only three minutes recorded outside the courthouse. It was nominated for many awards, including three Oscars. It came in under the $350,000 budget.
Twelve men were featured in this story. They were locked in a small room with just a table and twelve straight-back chairs. No frills whatsoever. No air conditioning on a hot, humid summer day in New York City. The fan didn’t even work. These men had to decide the fate of an 18-year-old boy who was raised on the wrong side of the tracks and never had a break in his life. He was charged with first-degree murder of his father, and if convicted, he would receive the electric chair. He had no money for a lawyer, so he had a public defender. Everything was “sing-songy” monotonous until the jury door was locked, and the deliberations began. The film basically concluded when they came to a decision and were able to leave the room. It was a testament to the director’s choice to make it all come alive and feel real and authentic. The right camera angles became imperative throughout the movie, starting higher at the beginning and ending at eye level. The use of close-ups later helped make it all feel very claustrophobic and uncomfortable. Watching them all sweat profusely in their long sleeve shirts, ties, and jackets made me feel excessively hot as well.
The vote is 11 to 1…guilty. Thus begins one of the greatest acting classes ever assembled. Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Martin Balsam, Ed Begley, Jack Warden, John Fiedler, Joseph Sweeny, and George Vaskovec, to name a few of the star power. It was brilliant to witness each individual characterization. Their pauses, their breaths, their facial expressions, their anger, and their breakdowns were hypnotic. Each of them held the viewer in the palm of their hand until the next juror took over for a monologue or dialogue. The amount of inbred hatred of people “different” from themselves was nauseating. They spewed some of their deepest, darkest tropes about “slum kids” and people who don’t deserve anything better. But make no mistake…even through all the yelling and bitterness, a discussion ensued, bringing all their anger to a conclusion of profound enlightenment and growth. Reasonable doubt can make prejudices melt away. Simply spectacular.
12 ANGRY MEN received a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. This does not happen very often. Many critics call it “perfect” and “one of the best courtroom dramas ever made.” I would agree. In only 95 minutes, this film plummets audiences into a riveting “talky,” conflicting journey that is captured within each close-up and camera frame. It places every polarizing thought out into the light of day. It is then thoughtfully, masterfully, rendered neutral through the genius talent of 12 men without a gimmick or flashback sequence. A stunning, powerful classic for all time. It deserves to be rewatched until we, as a society, get it right.
12 ANGRY MEN is available to stream on TCM.