Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—typically “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important in some aspect.
I’ve been watching the third season of Inside Amy Schumer, and there’s an episode that really stood out for me this year. She does a sketch-comedy version of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, but instead of a minority boy being put on trial for murder, it has Amy on trial to determine whether or not she is hot enough for TV. It’s a very canny and well-crafted take on celebrity culture and our idealized standards of women, but what really drew me in was that it was so lovingly done as a twisted homage of the original 1957 film. (Jump to the bottom of this review for a clip.) It made me want to revisit the Henry Fonda–led production, which I hadn’t seen in about 15 years.
As a preamble, I was first introduced to this film via the stage play. I was a senior in college, traveling abroad for a month (for school credit), and seeing a lot of theater. While staying in London, I saw that one of the shows on the West End—the British equivalent of Broadway—was 12 Angry Men. I was roughly familiar with the show, knowing that it focused on an American jury room where men argued about the guilt or innocence of someone on trial, but that’s all. I was curious as to how a foreign country would tackle something that seemed, to me, uniquely American. By the end of the play, I was convinced that the desire for justice and reasonable doubt were not quintessential simply to America, but to all of us. We all want a fair trial no matter what level of prosecution, from a jaywalking ticket all the way up to murder. Those Brits did an amazing job with the play, and it made me seek out the original for the very first time.
Set on a hot summer day in New York City, the film opens on the final instructions of a judge to 12 jurors before they go into deliberation. We find out that an 18-year-old boy is on trial for killing his father and that these individuals comprising the jury of his peers really aren’t the young man’s peers. They come into the trial with preconceptions, prejudgments, and a focus on their own lives. Most of the men think this is an open-and-shut case, but they need a unanimous vote, and there is one holdout: Juror Number 8. He explains that there is reasonable doubt for him and that he wants to spend the time to dig into it, against the exasperation of the others, who want to get out of the jury room and on with their own lives.
When I saw the play, I thought it was perfect for the stage because it had one room and lots of conflict. I was concerned that film wouldn’t be as good a medium since you don’t have as many opportunities to pan out or show a full widescreen image, as you would in a movie with wide-open landscapes. The camera only has so many places it can go in a one-room setting, and over the course of a movie you don’t want to repeat the same shots ad nauseum; that would get boring. However, Sidney Lumet’s approach—which works so well—is that at the start of the film, the the camera is as wide as possible, and as the film goes on, it comes in more and more to give the film a strong sense of claustrophobia. By the end of the film, Lumet is focusing so closely on each mans face it’s hard to get away from them.
The original staging for 12 Angry Men was produced for television, and due to its success the story was greenlit into a film that Henry Fonda decided to produce and star in. Lumet had spent years toiling in TV, directing hundreds of episodes of various shows for CBS, and fortunately Fonda gave him the directing nod. After this film, Lumet had quite the long and distinguished career in American cinema that involved constantly being drawn to the theme of justice, from Serpico to Network, and Dog Day Afternoon to The Verdict (to name just a few standouts). Luckily for us, we have a tremendous oeuvre to choose from.
The acting is top notch, and every man inhabits his character wonderfully. I could just list out all 12 actors—they’re that good—but standing out for me are Henry Fonda’s questioning Juror Number 8 and E. G. Marshall’s “just the facts” juror who never sweats. There’s not a weak part in the bunch. It’s wonderful to watch these three-dimensional characters bounce off one another, and the script flows naturally when they decide to change their minds or question something. Also amazing is that you never get to know any of their names; in effect, they don’t have any, just their juror numbers. It’s not until the end of the movie that you learn two of their names, after the verdict has been delivered, and this is the only part of the movie that I question as a misstep. I think the final scene is unneeded, and it could have ended on the jurors leaving the jury room. Out of a fast-moving 96 minutes, the scene is only 1 out of 3 total minutes that don’t take place in the jury room. But really that is minor quibbling on a deservedly classic movie.
It should be noted that there was also a 1997 made-for-TV film directed by William Friedkin (yes, of the Exorcist), which updated the story a bit and brought in some welcome diversity, seeing as the original is all white men. There is some strong acting in the remake (including Ossie Davis, Jack Lemmon, and Edward James Olmos), but if you watch it back-to-back with the original, it feels watered down. I do think it would be interesting to constantly revise this story, adding different voices in to see how they react to one another. Ah, well . . . a challenge for a gifted writer out there. All I can think is that 12 Angry People just sounds silly.
This film can be found on a heavily cleaned-up Criterion DVD and Blu-ray release and a bare-bones release. It is currently available via Netflix DVD rental, but not streaming. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.