On paper, it's a tough sell: a black-and-white movie set in one room, with an all-male (and all-white) cast, with no action except for a heated war of words among a dozen guys. Indeed, "12 Angry Men" -- which opened 55 years ago last week (April 13, 1957) -- with its shoestring budget, was a financial flop, and while it was nominated for three Oscars (including Best Picture), it lost them all to the splashier, more colorful, wide-screen epic "The Bridge on the River Kwai." Yet today, "12 Angry Men" is considered a classic, not just for its riveting script and top-notch acting, but also for how it made a virtue of its stagy limitations.
Adapted by Reginald Rose from his own 1954 TV play (back when live drama was a TV staple), the movie expanded the hour-long story of a deliberating jury into 95 minutes, but it didn't expand the confines of the setting: a single, stifling, unventilated jury room in Manhattan on the hottest day of the summer. Even the character names were minimalist; the jurors are known only by numbers, not their given names. The dialogue, too, is stark, but then so is the life-and-death issue at hand: whether or not to send a youth accused of murder to death row based on the evidence presented before the events of the film begin. The movie seems to unfold in real time as Juror No. 8 (Henry Fonda), the lone holdout for acquittal, methodically tries to persuade the other jurors of his argument, not for the kid's innocence, but for reasonable doubt. As the discussion grows more heated, the biases and prejudices of all 12 men are aired with brutal candor.
One reason it works is the stellar acting, aided by two full weeks of rehearsals before shooting even started. Fonda (who co-produced the film) was the only big star in it, and the presence of the usually heroic and stalwart player (clad in a white suit, no less) is a giveaway as to who the hero is among the jurors. But his quiet dignity is matched in intense ferocity by 11 other players, most of them veterans of stage, screen, and TV, and many of whom would go on to even greater fame later. Lee J. Cobb (as Fonda's chief antagonist) was fairly well known (thanks to movies like "On the Waterfront"), while co-stars like Martin Balsam, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, Jack Klugman, E.G. Marshall, Robert Webber, and John Fiedler were less famous, but what director, in retrospect, wouldn't be thrilled with that cast? Actors of this caliber give as good as they get, and they help generate suspense by making the deck seem less stacked in Fonda's favor.
Director Sidney Lumet, who was a 32-year-old TV-trained director making his feature debut, gives each man his due, thanks in part to a meticulously pre-planned storyboard that was just one of the film's many technical innovations. There's also his gradual shifting of camera angles and lens focal lengths to ratchet up the tension. At the beginning of the movie, the camera shoots the men from above; during the middle, it's at eye-level; and late in the movie, it's at table-level, looking up. This allows the actors to become increasingly dominant as the film progresses, even while enhancing claustrophobia by making it look like the ceiling is pressing in on the characters. Lumet works a similar trick with the lenses, which become longer in focal length as the movie advances, making it seem like the walls are closing in.
These seem like simple tricks, but what's also remarkable is that Lumet was able to use them even while his tight, three-week shooting schedule permitted very few changes of lighting set-ups. Whenever he was shooting an actor in a particular part of the room, he would do just one lighting set-up, so all the shots from that point of view, scattered throughout the script, would be filmed before moving the lights to a new position. (That's where the storyboard came in.) That meant frequently modifying not only the camera angle and the lens length but also the amount of perspiration on each actor's face.
Fonda explained the method to author Mike Steen for the book "Hollywood Speaks": "Say, the camera would be on two actors for a scene," Fonda recalled. "After that scene was gotten, Sidney would say, 'Now take their coats off, loosen the ties and put some sweat on them, and we'll shoot scene ninety-two,' which is forty pages further, but requiring the same setup or camera and light position." Plus, not all the characters perspired the same amount, as some were more composed and less agitated than others. "So with every scene," Lumet told Life magazine in 1957, "we stood before the actor with an atomizer, trying to figure out whether or not to squirt on sweat and, if so, just how much to squirt."
Fake sweat or no, Lumet was able to encapsulate in "12 Angry Men" the themes that would preoccupy him for the rest of his celebrated career, including crime and punishment, the urban jungle, the corruptibility of the justice system, and masculine rage and self-loathing. The film contains the seeds of such later Lumet triumphs as "The Pawnbroker," "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Network," "Prince of the City," "The Verdict," "Q&A," and "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."
"12 Angry Men" also offered other movies a template for how to make a story set in a tight space not look like a stagebound play. (Watch a movie like 1992's "Glengarry Glen Ross," another theatrical drama with an all-male cast, set largely in a single room, to see the influence of "12 Angry Men.") Horror movies, in particular the locked-in-a-remote-cabin variety (from "Night of the Living Dead" to "Evil Dead" to the new film, "The Cabin in the Woods"), also owe a formal debt to "12 Angry Men." A 1997 made-for-TV remake made the cast more racially diverse and added some profanity, but despite the strong presence of such heavy-hitters as Jack Lemmon (in the Fonda role), George C. Scott (in the Cobb role), James Gandolfini, Ossie Davis, Hume Cronyn, and Edward James Olmos, the newer version wasn't about to make anyone forget the original. If it ain't broke...
More important that the film's formal rigor is its moral fervor. The issues the film raises inspired at least one future legal all-star, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, to take up law as a profession. (This, even though, as she noted, the jury's speculative deliberation stretches so far from what is permissible in a real trial that, as a lower-court judge, she would use it as a guide for jurors on what not to do.) The movie may take some dramatic license with rules of courtroom procedure, but it's hard to dismiss the force of its arguments and observations about the limits of impartiality. Given how quick many of us are to rush to judgment on celebrated legal cases on which we're not even jurors, it seems like the thorny questions "12 Angry Men" raises will remain relevant for a long time to come.