From the moment Henry Fonda opens his mouth in the jury room, the audience knows how “12 Angry Men” will turn out.
Getting there, in this case, is more than half the fun.
The 1957 courtroom drama will be shown in Hoquiam on Saturday and Sunday as part of the 7th Street Theatre’s Silver Screen Classics film series.
Adapted by screenwriter Reginald Rose from the live television play he also wrote, “12 Angry Men” follows jury deliberations in a New York murder case.
A young inner-city man (presumably Hispanic, although his ethnicity is never specified) is accused of first-degree murder in the killing of his father — a crime that, in those days, carried a mandatory death penalty.
The case appears open and shut, but a soft-spoken architect (played by Fonda) seated on the jury isn’t so certain. Pointing out inconsistencies in the testimony and evidence presented by the prosecution, he becomes the lone holdout for acquittal. The trick is trying to persuade the other 11 jurists allied against him to follow suit.
His strongest adversaries are an unabashed bigot (Ed Begley Sr.), a coldly logical stockbroker (E.G. Marshall) and a bellicose business owner (Lee J. Cobb) whose view of justice is colored by his own fractured relationship with his son.
Rose was criticized for creating stereotypes within the jury, perhaps a necessary evil in a 95-minute production that leaves little time for intricate character development. His characters seem authentic, however, particularly an ad executive (Robert Webber) who can’t make up his mind and a salesman (Jack Warden) with tickets to a baseball game who keeps switching sides to the majority to speed along the process.
Director Sidney Lumet, who launched an acclaimed 50-year big-screen career with this film, does a masterful job of maintaining dramatic tension in a set-bound film that contains a lot of talk and very little action.
Fonda (who co-produced the movie with Rose) hand-picked the cast, providing early career boosts to such little-known character actors at the time as Warden, Martin Balsam and Jack Klugman.
Casting himself as the lead was far from an act of vanity. His character must be both principled and stubborn. Few actors portrayed those qualities better than Fonda.
For Fonda, however, the experience proved to be something of a labor of love. Although critically acclaimed, the film was a box-office flop and received no Academy Awards in a year in which “The Bridge on the River Kwai” nearly ran the table in major honors. Fonda’s and Cobb’s Oscar-worthy performances weren’t even nominated.
With its all-male, all-white jury and mandatory death penalty, “12 Angry Men” is dated in some areas. In other respects, it has never been more timely.
The film champions the legal concept of reasonable doubt — a much-debated topic following the acquittals of O.J. Simpson and George Zimmerman in high-profile murder cases and revelations of convicted killers being released from prison by the discovery of new evidence many years after the fact.
Had the burden of proof been on the defense instead of the prosecution, it would have been hard to argue that the defendant in “12 Angry Men” didn’t stab his father. The preponderance of evidence leans heavily in that direction. Even Fonda’s character never suggests an alternative killer.
As described in the movie, in fact, the killing seems an awful lot like second-degree murder or even manslaughter — crimes that are not capital offenses. That would eliminate Cobb’s best-remembered line, “We’re tryin’ to put a guilty man in the chair, where he belongs…”
Substituting something like “We’re tryin’ to put a guilty man in the clink for 20-25 years, with maybe some time off for good behavior,” wouldn’t have the same impact.
I served on a Grays Harbor Superior Court jury a few years ago on a case in which the defendant was clearly guilty of something.
After an initial discussion in which the majority appeared inclined toward conviction, one sharp-eyed woman noticed that the defendant’s actions didn’t match the judge’s written definition of the crime. We eventually agreed on an acquittal.
I don’t recall anyone on the jury saying, “We’re tryin’ to put a guilty man back on the street, where he probably doesn’t belong.” But I did think of “12 Angry Men” as I left the courthouse.