“I was on a jury for a manslaughter case, and we got into this terrific, furious, eight-hour argument in the jury room.”
— Reginald Rose, author
‘12 Angry Men’
“This is a remarkable thing about democracy. That we are notified by mail to come down to this place and decide the guilt or innocence of a man.”
— Juror #11
This week marks both the 60th anniversary of the release of the original film version of ‘12 Angry Men’ and the 15th anniversary of the death of the play’s author, Reginald Rose. Inspired by actual jury service, the movie has been leading young men and women to go into law for six decades.
While many lawyers point to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (a truly spectacular book, stage play and movie) as their inspiration to become lawyers, for me, it was a viewing of ‘12 Angry Men’ that convinced me that the law was my calling.
Rose had been called to jury duty at what was then the Foley Square Courthouse (now the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse) in New York. In an interview later, he said, “It knocked me out, I was overwhelmed. It was such an impressive solemn setting in a great big wood-paneled courtroom with an old silver-haired judge.”
Rose was already well known for his dramatic writing for the still new medium of television and he said that he thought, “Wow, what a setting for a drama.”At the time there were a lot of courtroom dramas, but they all took place inside the courtroom and focused on flashy lawyers and clever tactics.
Rose wanted something completely different. He wanted a production that took place entirely after the trial had concluded and featured the everyday people who decide the fate of those accused of crimes.
In my view, that’s what makes this movie so meaningful. It’s not about the practice of law or glorifying the courtroom, it’s about what really makes the trial system work in America- the people who give up their time to serve on a jury. As Juror #11, himself an immigrant, says of the jury system, ‘We have nothing to gain or lose by our verdict. This is one of the reasons we are strong.’
The film almost didn’t happen. The first staging of the play was a live television broadcast of ‘Studio One’ in 1954. Henry Fonda saw the 1954 TV version and immediately decided that he wanted to bring it to the silver screen. But film studios at that time were making big, sweeping epics like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments.
They weren’t interested in a wordy drama set almost entirely in one room. Fonda agreed to serve as Executive Producer, put up his own money to fund the film and deferred his salary for the project- a salary that he never collected.
Although prejudice is central to the plot and the drama, the race and ethnicity of the boy on trial are never explicitly stated. Foreign version of the film have exploited this, with an Indian version Ek Ruka Hua Faisla in 1986 making the accused of a lower caste, and a Russian version, 12, in 2007 making him Chechen. German, Chinese, Lebanese and Tamil language version have also been made. A second U.S. television production, starring Jack Lemmon, was made in 1997.
The original film has an incredible cast — Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Jack Klugman, John Fiedler, etc. But it’s Sidney Lumet’s directing that builds the tension. In later interviews, Lumet said he shot the first third of the film from above to make the space appear airy, the middle section from eye level to give an impending sense of claustrophobia and the final third in close-ups from below to make the room appear to have grown tiny and tense.
It’s at the beginning of that third act, that Juror number 8, played by Fonda, lays out the role of American juries. Following a tense and hate-filled monologue by Juror #10, Fonda says, “I don’t really know what the truth is. I don’t suppose anybody will ever really know. Nine of us now seem to feel that the defendant is innocent. But we’re just gambling on probabilities. We may be wrong. We may be trying to let a guilty man go free. I don’t know. Nobody really can. But we have reasonable doubt. And that’s something that’s very valuable in our system. No jury can declare a man guilty unless it’s sure.”
David Hejmanowski is Judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.