Movies for Our Time: 12 Angry Men (1957)


This article is part of the TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Journeys in Classic Film and Musings of a Classic Film Addict. Click on the links for more great articles about Aug. 1 star Henry Fonda and all of the other 2019 SUTS honorees. 

This is the first in an occasional series about classic movies that speak to contemporary culture.

There's no question we live in an angry age. Log onto social media or turn on the TV and you'll find loads of outrage over politics, sports, fashion, movies, and everything in between. The brilliant 1957 film 12 Angry Men has much to say about the tensions of the 1950s, but the film also profoundly speaks to the often rancorous political, racial, and social divides of  our own fragmented culture.


12 Angry Men begins on a hot summer day during a murder trial at a New York City courthouse. A teenager (John Savoca) is accused of stabbing his father to death after a dispute. It appears to be an open and shut case, and 11 of the 12 men who are serving on the jury initially vote to convict the boy and give him a death sentence. Only Juror No. 8 (Henry Fonda), votes to acquit. When he won't back down from his belief that the evidence against the boy is flimsy and circumstantial, it stirs up a volatile debate that reveals much more about the inner life of the jurors than they probably intended.

12 Angry Men is based on a brilliant teleplay by Reginald Rose that was filmed as a Westinghouse Studio One production in 1954 (Robert Cummings, Franchot Tone, and Edward Arnold starred in that version. Click here to watch.) Fonda saw and greatly admired the program, and he and Rose partnered together to make a feature film of the project. They hired fledgling director Sidney Lumet and several great, but not well-known TV and stage actors (if you're an original The Twilight Zone fan, you'll recognize a lot of these faces) to fill out the cast.


The result was a modestly budgeted film made on location that racked up critical accolades and industry awards when it was released in the spring of 1957. The film did especially well in Europe where it was lauded by the famous film magazine Cahiers du Cinema and received the prestigious Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival. However, the movie didn't do well at the domestic box-office -- Fonda blames this on poor distribution by United Artists in his memoirs -- at least until the rise of home video and cable TV, which made 12 Angry Men an ubiquitous part of American life.

Viewed today, 12 Angry Men is an essential civics lesson on how the jury system should work but rarely does. However, it is also a film about how the often unruly emotions that dominate our outrage culture can change the course of a person's life in devastating ways.

Henry Fonda, director Sidney Lumet, and Lee J. Cobb on the set of 12 Angry Men (1957).
The film's title implies that ALL of the jurors are angry in some way, and this is born out by their actions in the jury room when even the mild-mannered Juror No. 2 (future voice of Piglet John Fiedler) has moments of high emotion. 12 Angry Men doesn't really delve into any of the men's personal lives except for the immigrant background of Juror No. 11 (George Voskovec) and the family life of Juror No. 3 (Lee J. Cobb), but the movie isn't all that interested in the sources of the men's anger. Instead, 12 Angry Men concerns itself  with how that anger shapes each man's reaction to the case.

 The two most obviously angry jurors (Cobb and Ed Begley as Juror No. 10) are loud-mouthed bigots who espouse the same tired tropes about immigrants and people of color that are still trotted out regularly today on Internet message boards and even by some world leaders. The rest of the jurors aren't quite as hateful as Cobb and Begley -- one of the most powerful moments in the film is when they all turn their backs during one of Juror No. 10's rants -- but they react to holding a man's life in their hands with a mixture of impatience and indifference that is, when you think about it, just as morally bankrupt as obvious bigotry.


Into this sea of hopeless humanity, enters Juror No. 8: A white knight in a seersucker suit with a penetrating gaze and plainspoken Midwestern manner. He is just as angry as the rest of the peers, but his anger has a purpose and a clarity; it is, to use a Biblical term, a righteous anger that has no time for bigots or even that much small talk. In this scene just before the deliberations start, Fonda placidly stares out the window while the other jurors engage in mindless chatter (click here to watch. By the way, this scene is a masterpiece of blocking from Lumet and cinematographer Boris Kaufman).

Fonda was an underrated comic actor (watch The Lady Eve at 8 pm ET Aug. 1) and he could play a cold-blooded villain with the best of them, but his role as Juror No. 8 is in many ways the culmination of his career. When Fonda passionately fights for the acquittal of the young man in 12 Angry Men, he brings with him all of the other righteous men he portrayed onscreen. Viewers are reminded of Abe Lincoln winning a court case with an almanac and corny jokes in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Wyatt Earp cleaning out a cow town in My Darling Clementine (1946), and, of course, Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (airing at 2 am ET Thursday night/Friday morning) who promises "I'll be there" to the victims of injustice in the 1940 film about The Great Depression.

12 Angry Men ends on a hopeful note, but there's something about the slump in Juror No. 8's shoulders and the weariness in his tread that gives us a glimpse into the high price of fighting the good fight.

TCM will air 12 Angry Men will air at 10 pm ET Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019. The film is available for streaming to DirecTV subscribers. Also on Blu-ray, DVD, and video on demand.



Comments

  1. This film, above all others, is the one that I recommend to young people to open their eyes to great classic cinema, and to make them aware that people haven't really changed. Each generation must learn for themselves the lessons of the past.

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    1. So true. It also shows that not all older films are dated or feature stereotypes, but speak to the issues of our time.

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  2. Great idea to have a series on movies for our time, and 12 Angry Men is an excellent first choice. It is just as relevant now as it was then.

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    1. Yes, a great movie that always makes rewarding viewing.

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