12 Angry Men (Lumet, 1957)

"Few films have gambled as much on a simple portrayal of the dynamics between desperate men"
- Christopher Nolan (Quoted in Criterion, 2013)

In the hands of another director, Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men (1957) could have easily fallen into a cycle of 'fatal tediousness' (Petrie, 1967:11), it's a film about 12 men arguing in a confined space after all. Regardless of the location constraints of filming in a single room, or the limitations that came from adapting a restrained stage play into a film, Lumet believed that rather than to try and escape these restrictions, he would instead work with them to tell this story. Although this was the directors' feature debut, he had a great deal of television experience that he would later be grateful for in giving him the skills to make 12 Angry Men such a great example of visual storytelling. Other than the technical accomplishments of the film, it also raises important questions about the pros and cons of the American legal system, and whether it is right to leave the fate of a person's life in the hands of a group of strangers, especially considering the political climate at the time that Reginald Rose wrote the screenplay.

12 Angry Men follows a group of people picked for jury duty in a case involving the murder charge of a young boy against his father. Due to the overwhelming evidence against the accused, the first vote that the jurors take favours a guilty verdict 11 to 1. Henry Fonda, who just one year prior had played an innocent man wrongly accused of robbery in Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1956) plays juror 8, the only one who believes there to be any degree of reasonable doubt amongst the evidence that has been raised. Given that there must be a clear, unanimous verdict, Fonda must then try to convince the rest one by one that the accused is innocent. 

"When I began to do 12 Angry Men, everyone said: 'You're crazy, how can you do a film in one room'. I never thought of it as a problem if one simply made the camerawork a part of what the piece was about emotionally" - Sidney Lumet

In his book Making Movies, Lumet described the process of blocking actors in a film as 'critical' (1995: 112), and would rehearse the staging of 12 Angry Men for two weeks prior two shooting. The actor movement that he was so adamant on practising extensively is what keeps the film so interesting to look at throughout. Instead of just having his actors take their seat to talk to one another, he constantly move them around. In the first shot set within the jury room (lasting over 6 minutes), Lumet cleverly attempts to characterise each man in one extensive introductory sequence. Even without dialogue we know that juror 7 (Jack Warden) is a restless and inpatient extrovert as he paces around making conversation with the others and that Fonda's juror number 8 is thoughtful and pensive, ruminating on what he has just witnessed as he gazes out the window. The first cut doesn't come until juror 1 (Martin Balsam) asks Fonda to take a seat, this is our clue that juror 8 will throw a wrench into the otherwise straight forward verdict that the jury makes, as he is the one that breaks the flow of the shot. Once this shot has ended and Lumet has established the visual layout of the room and the seating positions of the actors, it allows him to break what he has established later on for dramatic effect. For example there are instances where two jurors, separated by the table that they are sat at will get up and move to one another, increasing the antagonism between the two individuals in question. 

"The oner has several functions: It preserves rhythm of performance, preserves ensemble nature of the performance and compounds the realism of the image by respecting space and time by refusing to cut." - Drew Casper, 12 Angry Men Commentary 

Cunningham also sees long, drawn out  shots like this within the picture as emblematic of the ordered, reasoned inquiry that brings about justice. Given that Fonda is one of the few jurors that is indeed calm and meditative, one of the few to not lose his temper and even fewer to not bring any prejudices into his own decision making, Lumet's decision not to cut here seem to be symbolic of the idea that democracy is indeed 'glacially slow' (2001: 112) but ultimately worthwhile. When Lumet does choose to cut more often, there is a rhythm to it which works for the moment in question and underlines this idea that the tension in the room is increasing dramatically while tempers are becoming shorter. When arguments become more heated he'll cut rapidly to each juror that's speaking, such as the reaction of the men when Fonda reveals he was able to purchase an identical knife to that of the defendant. So different are these moments to the start of the film which emphasises the mundanity of the law (when even the judge is delivering his speech to the jury with monotony and flatness) that it's easy to see the emotional development that the twelve men undergo over 90 minutes even without the dialogue. 

"I made 387 setups in 12 Angry Men. Over half of those setups were to be used in the last half hour of the movie. The cutting tempo was accelerating steadily during the movie but would break into a gallop in the last thirty-five minutes or so. This increasing tempo helped in making the story more exciting." - Sidney Lumet (1995: 161)

This visual and thematic progression of 12 Angry Men is also dependant on the focal lengths that Lumet utilises. Describing his own knowledge of lenses as "encyclopedic" thanks to his previous television experience, the director switched to gradually longer lenses as events in the film unfolded. This has the effect of flattening the space around the character, thereby reducing the depth of field which Lumet wanted to do in order to make the men feel trapped & claustrophobic, a technique he also achieved by gradually shooting from lower angles to give the appearance that the ceiling was closing in on the jurors. When combining this with a close up of an individual speaking, we see every expression and each bead of sweat on the speaker's face, which is gradually combined with the clever use of the outside weather which becomes more and more extreme. This use of geography, Raw argues is used to demonstrate how even the weather has turned against the jurors (Open Library of Humanities, 2017). Whereas in the aforementioned opening shot, Lumet used a wider lens to try and create depth within the shots and to establish the layout of the room to create a sense of detachment, by the end we now know these characters and their motivations in much more detail, with the more personal shots reflecting this.

'He [Lumet] exploits and emphasises the restricted space of the film to underline the tensions and clashes caused by the opposing viewpoints and personalities of the characters.' (Petrie, 1967:11)

Lumet saves these close ups for the moments of key narrative significance and character development. Some important examples:

  1. When, after the second vote has been cast by ballot paper, juror number 9 (Joseph Sweeney) admits to being the one that cast the 'not guilty' vote, we get one of the most striking shots of the film since Sweeney is almost looking directly into the camera. We now know that the tide is finally starting to turn in Fonda's favour, but it's also important for another reason. As an elderly man he feels somewhat useless, but as Reginald Rose writes in his screenplay, he longs to be courageous. This close up gives the old man the recognition of his existence that he seeks, until the ignorant juror 7 rudely walks off while Sweeney is justifying his change of vote. Later on, Sweeney even has a speech where he relates to the plight of one of the elderly witnesses that he heard testify; saying that the man probably leapt at the chance of being recognised and heard on a platform where he would be acknowledged, just for once. This is also accompanied by a slow push-in to another close up as he's delivering these words, only to be interrupted yet again, this time by Juror 10 (Ed Begley). Lumet makes juror 9 perhaps the most sympathetic of all the characters by using the close up to make us empathise with him, only to have his very valid opinions shot down by the uncivil manners of others. 
  2. A close up frames juror 8 as he delivers a hard-hitting fact to juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb): "You want to see this boy die because you personally want it, not because of the facts". Fonda is aware of the fact that Cobb is withholding his real reasons for voting 'guilty'. It's the first time that a character explicitly accuses another of letting their own prejudice dictate their verdict, and juror 8 therefore able to bait juror 3 into losing his temper. This all pays off in one of the most incredible moments of the film, when Cobb launches at Fonda shouting "I'll Kill You", to which Fonda retorts: "You don't really mean you'll kill me, do you?". Incredibly significant, given that earlier, Fonda was trying to convince the others that just because the suspect was heard to be shouting "I'll kill you" to his abusive father on the night of the murder, it was likely hyperbole.
  3. After juror 7 changes his original 'guilty' verdict, it soon becomes clear that he changed his mind not because he believed it to be true, but to go with the majority because he simply wanted to go home. Juror 11 (George Voskovec), a polite and patient watchmaker who has emigrated from Europe and who regularly speaks of how much he admires America's democratic rights and freedom, rebukes his behaviour: "I do not think you have the right to play like this with a man's life. If you want to vote not guilty, then do it because you are convinced the man is not guilty". As a foreigner, and therefore outsider, juror 11 appears to be Rose's avatar who is able to vocally express what he believes the flaws and benefits of the American judicial system from an impartial perspective. The close up here while he's berating juror 7 might as well be something that is being said to us as audience members directly: standing on a jury is a serious matter, and not something to be taken lightly. 
  4. Although the second to last character to change his vote, juror 4 (E.G. Marshall) is still likeable because he allows pure reason and evidence to dictate his viewpoints; he's interested only in the facts. Admittedly, at one point he does pigeonhole the defendant and his upbringing in a slum, but ultimately is one of the most logical and smart characters in the room. Extremely stubborn in allowing his verdict to be swayed, his change of opinion truly matters, much more so than ad executive juror 12 (Robert Webber) for instance, an incredibly indecisive individual who has trouble thinking for himself and simply lets others influence his stance. Juror 4 will take alot more convincing, and Lumet gives us a close up of his face as he's being presented with evidence regarding the questionable eye sight of one of the winesses (worth noting too, that juror 9 is the one delivering this particular case - and he won't be interrupted this time). His eventual conversion is, I think almost as much of a turning point as Cobb's, who is arguably the villain of the picture. 
There is a realism to the behaviour of each and every juror, they're memorable and all have their own traits to define them and make us recall them even after the film has ended. Characters will talk over each other, pace around nervously and deliberate on the logistics of their task; they're inexperienced men caught up in a situation that is unusual for all of them. This realism is helped by the aforementioned oners, which give us naturalistic, uninterrupted performances from the actors and because he went into painstaking detail in his blocking, Lumet is able to break down his long shots of characters interacting with each other into several different compositions as he follows them around, this keeps our interest peaked as we flit between each different person talking. The camera movement is always motivated by what ever the current matter at hand is, whether it be something that is important to the case or important to a character on a personal & emotional level, for example, an early case occurs when juror 4 and juror 10 are both claiming that slums are breeding grounds for criminals. Lumet keeps juror 5 (Jack Klugman) in the frame even though he has nothing to say, while initially a static shot, Klugman's performance makes it evident that he's uneasy about something, until we finally get a push in on him as he reveals he was a slum kid himself. In other cases, the camera will do the opposite, such as when bigoted juror number 10 has his tirade on the ethnicity of the defendant. Lumet slowly tracks back as one by one, the jurors display their disgust by turning away or standing up to face their backs on him. Through this camera movement and clever staging, the scene culminates in maybe the most famous shot of the film. Whilst we do see throughout  12 Angry Men, many shots of crammed ensemble frames with all the jurors present, this is one of the only ones in the whole film where we can watch it and see that for a fleeting moment, the jurors are emotionally on the same level, unified in their disgust at one man's viewpoint.

Some jurors are unable to put their prejudices aside, Juror 10 and 3 for instance have pre-conceived notions of the defendant due to racism and a frosty father-son relationship respectively. This may have been something that interested Lumet greatly, later on in his career when making The Verdict (1982), the director was rejected from jury duty after he revealed that he would find it impossible to give an impartial verdict on the defendant; due to the case involving drugs he stated the following: "I would find it very difficult in my own heart and mind to start with a presumption of innocence, simply out of my own reaction of what drugs mean in the world" (1995: 146). Lumet revealed this to the judge at the 'Voir Dire' stage of the case, when the jury are asked whether they feel they're able to carry out their duty in an objective manner. Although Lumet was forthcoming with his bias, 12 Angry Men asks us how clouded judgements become when people hide their preconceptions and carry them beyond the court and into the jury room.

'To Lumet, the boy's eventual fate, important as it is, is less significant than the ways in which it effects the minds and sensibilities of the twelve chosen to decide that destiny.' (Cunningham, 2001: 110)

Fonda's one-man pursuit may have struck a nerve at the time of release, as Drew Casper notes in his audio commentary, the picture is about individual verses conformity and consensus, and how it's difficult for people to stand up against the ridicule of others. Given the HUAC witch hunts of the era, Fonda's juror number 8 is emblematic of anyone during the time who believed freedom to be at risk, not by Communism but by the un-democratic nature of investigations that were being carried out against individuals who in reality posed no threat to the security of the United States. Gavin Smith states that the film is indeed 'a definitive rebuttal of the lynch mob hysteria of the McCarthy era' (1988: 131), wherein lives and careers were ruined by the paranoia surrounding an outside threat. Like Gary Cooper's Marshal Kane in High Noon (Zinnemann, 1952), written by blacklisted writer Carl Foreman, juror 8 is a lone hero whose own morals are opposed to everyone else. The two are forced into acting against the majority in order to stand up for their own personal moral code, and are the 'ones who would do right in the face of many who would not' (Griffith, 2017: 49).

Juror number 8 stands alone against the rest of the room. Fonda is enclosed & cut off from the others 
in his pursuit to ensure that the defendant's case is given a fair assessment. Here, Lumet uses the 
diagonal composition of the other jurors to isolate Fonda by pinning him into the corner of the frame.  

Juror 10's aforementioned bigotted rant against the defendant where he stereotypes and makes sweeping statements about the defendant's 'type' contains sound bites that could have come from many anti-red politicians at the time: "There's not one of them who is any good", says the juror. Based on the ethnicity of the defendant and the fact that he came from a broken down family in a slum, he is already guilty in the eyes of some jurors, much like how many during the 1950s witch hunts were proclaimed as guilty simply due to their associations with past offenders. The film demonstrates how unfair convictions are dangerously possible if power is misused, civic responsibility ignored and tangible evidence dismissed. If not for juror 8's perseverance, the fate of the defendant would have been left to a group of men who had already made their minds up the moment they saw the young boy. 12 Angry Men gave us one of the most memorable heroes of cinema in Henry Fonda's juror number 8, who makes one last compassionate gesture by helping juror 3 with his jacket, even after all the bad blood that has passed between the two.

'Perhaps as a protest to McCarthyism, we are reminded that the minority view can be the right view, even if the minority view is the only one, and that the only way to find out is by full discussion of every issue. Every jury should remember that it is wrong to send boy off to die without talking about it first.' (Ellsworth, 2003: 1407)

12 Angry Men is and will remain absolutely riveting to watch (and re-watch!) thanks to Lumet's direction, the performances of each actor and the themes that are raised in Reginald Rose's screenplay. It's an utterly compelling character study that doesn't have one wasted moment, which raises questions about both the judicial system and the manner in which individuals should behave towards each other, both of which are still relevant today. 


Criterion. 2013. 'Christopher Nolan’s Top 10'. Criterion Channel. [Online] Available here: https://films.criterionchannel.com/current/top-10-lists/191-christopher-nolan-s-top-10

Cunningham, F. 2001. Sidney Lumet: Film and Literary Vision. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky.

Ellsworth, P. 2003. 'One Inspiring Jury'. University of Michigan Law School Scholarship Repository. Vol. 101, No. 6 pp. 1387-407.

Griffith, J. 2017. 'Mirroring Atticus: A Text-Complexity Circle Highlights Unconventional Heroes'. Kansas English. Vol. 98, No. 1 pp. 43-53.

Lumet, S. 1995. Making Movies. London: Bloomsbury.

Petrie, G. 1967-1968. 'The Films of Sidney Lumet: Adaptation as Art'. Film Quarterly. Vol. 21, No. 2 pp. 9-18.

Raw, L. 2017. 'Twelve Angry Men on Television and Film'. Open Library of Humanities. 3(1), p.12. [Online] Available here: https://olh.openlibhums.org/articles/10.16995/olh.102/ 

Smith, G. 1988. 'Sidney Lumet: The Lion on the Left'. In J Rapf (eds.) Sidney Lumet: Interviews. 2006. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi. pp 131- 144.