12 Angry Films: Sidney Lumet on Justice by Brian Brems

12 Angry Films: Sidney Lumet on Justice #1 – ’12 Angry Men’

12 Angry Men 1957 Movie - Sidney Lumet Film Essay

From the opening shot of Sidney Lumet’s 1957 classic 12 Angry Men, the filmmaker communicates his interest in the criminal justice system; his camera looks up, in awe, at the exterior of a New York City courthouse, its mighty columns stretching up towards the heavens in majestic black and white. The classical architecture recalls the history of democracy, now brought from the ancient world into the modern one, where the citizens of the United States pursue truth and justice through the system they have built, resting upon the secure foundation of their sturdiest ideals. Thus begins the debut feature film of an iconic director who contributed mightily to Hollywood cinema over his 50 years behind the camera. An upperclassman during the New Hollywood era, Lumet got his start in live television and worked steadily throughout the 1960s, working within the film industry to change American cinema as the studio system began to crumble. Throughout his long career, Lumet consistently returned to the justice system as his subject matter. His justice system films wrestle with its deep corruption and crushing effect on the flawed, wounded individuals who navigate it. Lumet began this investigation with 12 Angry Men.

The story of 12 Angry Men, which was originally performed as a live television drama for CBS, is well-known. One single juror must convince 11 others that a defendant accused of murder is not guilty; if he fails, the accused young man will face the death penalty. Over the course of 90 minutes of real-time drama, the conflict plays out in the sweltering jury room. The feature film version is a landmark American film that ranks among the best courtroom dramas ever made, and theatrical productions of the play are performed around the country by professionals and amateurs alike, including gender-mixed versions. It is a quintessential American story about the justice system, brought to the big screen by one of the subject’s most important filmmakers.

Though much of 12 Angry Men takes place inside the cramped jury room, its opening moments inside the courtroom are important for establishing Lumet’s perspective on the justice system as a whole. In the opening scene, which comes at the conclusion of the trial, the judge reads his instructions to the jury perfunctorily, expressing the regularity with which he handles his responsibilities. He rests his face on his hand when he says, “You’re faced with a grave responsibility, gentlemen. Thank you.” His boredom betrays his cynicism, worn down by the everyday demands of the job. The tracking shot that introduces the jurors in their box communicates something quite different — they hear the judge’s instructions as a reminder of their duty, not just to the defendant, but to the project of American democracy, which rests on the supremacy of the rule of law, not any individual citizen. The defendant, a young man of deliberately vague ethnicity, is also given a close-up. In it, he silently expresses both hope and fear at the uncertainty of his fate. For the judge in 12 Angry Men, this is another day at the office. For the defendant, isolated in close-up, this is a defining moment.

The shot of the young man, staring after the jurors as they exit the courtroom, lingers in a dissolve to the jury room itself, which will soon become the space where his fate will be decided.

Spaces are key to Lumet’s vision of the justice system; the ideas that bind it together must play out in physical spaces, and in them, Lumet finds the embodiment of all its flaws and virtues. The broken fan that offers no relief from the brutal summer heat is a concrete manifestation of systemic breakdown. Likewise, the windows require the strength of two men to push them open, suggesting the building, and by implication, the justice system, has seen better days. The jury room, which comes to stand in for the entire courthouse and by extension the justice system writ large, shows signs of having fallen into disrepair. In the first moments inside the jury room, which Lumet shoots in an extended long take as the men file in and mingle before taking their seats at the table, he establishes a crucial pattern for 12 Angry Men and the remainder of his work on the justice system. For Lumet, the physical space is a manifestation of ideas; how his characters move through those spaces dictates their relationships to the system they inhabit.

Lumet’s camera shows the roots of his live television experience, traveling around the room to introduce each of the jurors in first impressions. These brief character sketches, which will deepen as 12 Angry Men goes on, matter a great deal because each man will remain anonymous, referred to only by their jury number. Lumet’s well-analyzed visual strategy, beginning the film with wide shots and gradually tightening them, cluttering the frame with more of the jurors in smaller close-ups, slowly ratchets up the tension as the argument intensifies. Before Lumet moves on to study the justice system in later films, he reduces the entire subject down to microcosm, playing out with these angry men in this small room.

Despite 12 Angry Men’s cramped setting, small cast and brisk running time, it is brimming with ideas. The film’s protagonist, Number 8 (Henry Fonda), is a sensitive “bleeding heart” (in another juror’s words), willing to consider the defendant’s circumstances in the context of his relationship to society. He speaks for the rules of law and order, reminding fellow jurors of the principles of justice articulated in the U.S. Constitution; he is the ultimate good government liberal, a strong believer in the veracity of the system and weighed down by the gravity of the responsibility before them. As embodied by Fonda, he radiates integrity, but also carries the radical morality of Tom Joad from John Ford’s 1939 film The Grapes of Wrath, a man fighting against an unjust world. Number 8’s discomfort stems from a growing sense of certainty on the part of everyone involved in the process: the judge, the lawyers, the witnesses and especially the jurors. His efforts inside the deliberation room chip away at that certainty. As portrayed by Lumet, Number 8 is not executing a pre-planned strategy full of rehearsed arguments, but exploring the evidence through conversation and rationality. Lumet’s camera admires Number 8’s commitment to the process, through which he becomes a man worthy of carrying the burden the justice system places on the people who move within it. Number 8’s most theatrical gesture comes when he reveals that he purchased an identical switchblade knife by slamming it into the table alongside the recovered murder weapon. He argues that the presence of two identical knives increases the possibility of coincidence, that the defendant might be innocent and his father might have been killed by someone else with the same kind of knife. The straight-laced businessman, Number 4 (E.G. Marshall), who holds himself out as the most rational member of the jury, chastises Number 8, telling him “It’s illegal to buy or sell switchblade knives.” Number 8 defiantly says, “That’s right. I broke the law,” in which he acknowledges his own willingness to step outside the rules of the system. He is hardly an unimpeachable paragon of virtue, but in expressing his belief in the system, he aspires to something bigger than himself. He is not without doubts himself, something he feels deeply when Number 6 (Edward Binns), a working stiff, suggests that the defendant might be guilty, and if he goes free, that’ll be Number 8’s fault. Lumet dollies the camera towards Number 8, left alone to consider that possibility, a reminder of his humility before the system.

Though initially all 11 other jurors stand against Number 8 in 12 Angry Men, the most vociferous is Number 3 (Lee J. Cobb), who purports to the same level of rationality as his opponent, but constantly betrays his own emotional volatility. As played by Cobb, Number 3 is unrestrained by politeness, entering each exchange of dialogue as though it were a bloody battle to be won, enemies to be eviscerated and left for dead on the field of combat. His volcanic eruptions repeatedly lead him into rhetorical traps, including dismissing the witness testimony of an old man who could hardly “be sure about anything” moments after pinning an argument to its validity, all in the heat of violent passion. Though the script never fully betrays his motivations, Number 3’s strained relationship with an estranged son is presumably the root of his anger at the defendant, who stands accused of killing his own father. His personal feelings flood his vision, and each argument he makes reasons backwards from his certainty that the boy on trial must be guilty because his own son has treated him poorly. He has experienced a kind of emotional patricide, and bends the evidence to his preconceived will, lying when he insists “I have no personal feelings about this whatsoever,” protesting too much. Aided by Cobb’s intense performance, which stands in contrast to Fonda’s steadiness, Number 3 and Number 8 balance the system’s twin impulses: to serve the human need to express wrath but also find out the truth. After the argument is over and Number 8 has successfully converted all the jurors to voting not guilty, including Number 3, Lumet finds a grace note between the two men when Number 8 hands Number 3 his jacket on their way out of the jury room. They exchange a quick look, meeting eyes for the first time as men paddling the boat in the same direction. Lumet’s medium shot has room for both of them, privileging neither Number 8, who was right, nor Number 3, who was wrong; he does not praise Number 8 for his moral crusade to argue for a not guilty verdict, and does not blame Number 3 for almost falling prey to his thirst for displaced vengeance against his own son. It was messy, but together, they got it right. The closing credits likewise flatten the distinctions between the men, billing them in close-up in order of their jury numbers rather than the perceived impact of their star power — Henry Fonda, for instance, receives eighth billing instead of first, despite being Henry Fonda. Lumet subordinates each man to the system, suggesting that order is possible, even after the chaotic, competitive argument that takes place in the jury room.

In fact, it is Lumet’s commitment to process that guides his camera in 12 Angry Men, showing his early interest in the inner workings of justice. Though a number of Lumet’s films will take the justice system as their subject matter, and he will train his lens on a variety of characters at different points of intersection with it, the system is the constant. Though credit for this focus must be shared with Reginald Rose, the film’s screenwriter, Lumet’s jurors spend nearly as much time discussing how to conduct the deliberations as they do going over the facts of the case. Juror Number 1 (Martin Balsam), the foreman, is a high school football coach who takes charge, sitting at the head of the table, calling votes, distributing slips of paper and requesting exhibits for the jurors to see from the guard who sits outside the door. He is a leader of young men, but not the driver of the arguments, leaving that to others in favor of a more impartial role, adhering to process and moderating debate. Lumet’s ordered, precise cutting strains against the rules to which the jurors agree; initially, as they go around the table and explain their reasons for voting guilty, he gives them an individual close-up, but as the argument itself breaks down and the men begin cross-talking and speaking out of turn, the framing gets wider and the editing follows the pace of the conversation, aligning the jurors by their shared arguments. Lumet’s strategy for shooting Juror Number 9 (Joseph Sweeney) demonstrates his multiple approaches; when he reveals that he has voted to join Number 8 in casting a secret ballot for not guilty, Lumet smash cuts to the old man staring directly into the camera lens, breaking the fourth wall and directing his game-changing look at the other angry jurors; after Number 9 lends Number 8 his support, Lumet frequently finds them together in a two-shot, bonded by their common purpose and foreshadowing their final interaction on the street outside the courthouse, when they will reveal their real names to each other before drifting off into the New York City twilight. It is the process that binds them together, with their partnership cemented when Number 9 places his trust in the power of discussion. He isn’t sure the boy is innocent, but he says, “I want to hear more.” It is the same faith in the process that Lumet will exhibit when the jury room is empty at the end of the film, and his camera will track across the vacant table, taking a final look at the handwritten notes and exhibits that the men used to reach their verdict.

Against the backdrop of the murder case, 12 Angry Men explores the relationship of each man to the system he is sworn by duty to uphold and enact through participating in the jury deliberations. Some, like Number 2 (John Fiedler), who begins the film as a quiet, go-along-to-get-along pushover and eventually stands up for himself against the bullish members of the jury, find renewed purpose in undertaking their civic duty. Lumet admires men like Number 2 and Number 9, who stand up for themselves and larger principles, especially because they are not used to dominating conversation, as Number 3 surely is. On the other hand, Lumet reserves his greatest contempt for three of the jurors, each of whom represents fundamental failure to engage with the system. Juror Number 7 (Jack Warden), flippant and sarcastic, wants to move things along so he can get to the ballgame — a ticket to a marquee pitching matchup is his main focus. Juror Number 12 (Robert Webber) is a shallow advertising man who expresses how “lucky we were to get a murder case” and spends a good deal of the conversation engaged in theatre criticism about the prosecutor’s tactics — he is a salesman, detached from the consequences of the trial. Each is called to account, judged by the members of the jury room for their crimes against the system. When Number 7 hastily changes his vote to break the tie, simply because he wants the argument to end so he can head north to Yankee Stadium, the others on both sides of the debate criticize him for his callousness. Number 12 similarly flip-flops, first changing from guilty to not guilty after Number 8 confronts him directly with a new piece of evidence, then back again when Number 4 bullies him into changing his vote to guilty, and then finally back to not guilty, all in the space of a few minutes. He is fundamentally unserious, a man not up to the challenge the system sets out for him.

And then there is Number 10 (Ed Begley), a virulent racist, given to bigoted diatribes about “those kids” and “that type.” Early on, Number 5 (Jack Klugman), a self-confessed “slum kid” who identifies with the defendant, weakly stands up for himself in the face of Number 10’s racism. The third man to vote not guilty, Number 5’s change-of-heart reads as an act of defiance against the racist vitriol of Number 10, but also of the benign excuse-making of several of the others, who insist that Number 10 “didn’t mean you.” Number 10’s racism finally earns the dismissal of every other man in the room after a particularly outrageous string of epithets. In one of Lumet’s most powerful visual moments, he slowly draws the camera back from Number 10, who is standing and screaming about the way “they” lie; in a staging masterstroke, each of the other men stand and walk away from the table as the camera pulls back into a wide shot that covers the entirety of the room. The film, and 11 of its jurors, reject the vile racism of Number 10, but the larger ramifications for the justice system suggest that the rule of law itself must follow suit. In this 12 Angry Men moment, Lumet’s idealism shines through, even though the intervening years have shown that the justice system, as we have built it, more often upholds racial bias rather than purges it. His camera works first to isolate Number 10, who stands alone at the table, and then withdraws to the corner of the room after being sent there by Number 4. He does not speak for the remainder of the film, finally agreeing to vote not guilty with a mere shake of the head. In Lumet’s view, for the system to function, racism must be purged entirely from the discussion. Though a number of his later films will likewise engage in depictions of the role of racism in the justice system, this moment from 12 Angry Men, at a time when the United States Supreme Court is only three years removed from outlawing legal segregation in its Brown v. Board of Education decision, stridently takes a side.

An argument among a few of the jurors about the viability of a court-appointed attorney anticipates a problem with our contemporary justice system, which is the overworking of public defenders. As journalists and sociologists examine the mass incarceration state built over the past 50 years in the United States, one of the most problematic choke points they have identified is the increased likelihood that defendants plead guilty to lesser charges in exchange for shorter sentences rather than risk a trial, which they are encouraged to do by zealous prosecutors and public defense attorneys stretched too thin. It is not hard to imagine a future version of the trial that takes place before 12 Angry Men begins having not reached a trial at all, the defendant already corralled into the prison system on a plea. In the film, the jurors serve as proxies for these larger debates about the (dys)function of the criminal justice system, navigating their way through the complex minefield that is deciding the guilt or innocence of another human being when working with a set of limited, contradictory facts. Lumet’s film places spectators in the same position, having denied them the ability to make their own judgment by sitting through the trial. They have no preconceived notions about the defendant, and have only the arguments among the jurors to guide their thinking. The verdict itself is almost unimportant, preordained as it is by the fact that Fonda is arguing for not guilty; instead, Lumet is interested in the process of justice — not whether it will be done, but if so, how.

The not guilty verdict eventually arrives in 12 Angry Men, of course, as Number 3, the last holdout, finally collapses under the weight of his own personal feelings about the case and tearfully relents. Number 8 states the obvious: “You’re alone.” When Number 3 defiantly shouts, “That’s my right,” Number 8 knows it all too well, having himself stood alone against the other 11 at the film’s outset. In this mirroring, Lumet undermines the film’s optimism by recalling the difficult journey to not guilty, implicitly referring to all that Number 8 has had to do in order to sway the others, and all the things that had to go right for the argument to continue at each stage. Though the film’s conclusion expresses its enthusiastic idealism and reaffirmed belief in the system by exonerating the defendant through this hard-won fight, it is not hard to think back on the argument that took place in the jury room and imagine how it could have gone the other way. It would have been so easy for the wheels of justice to get jammed up with prejudice or personal feelings or indifference or misinterpretation. If some other collection of 12 people had been in that room, the outcome might have been different and a young man would have been sentenced to die undeservedly. The film’s confining structure dictates that it will never reveal whether the defendant was guilty, but that mirrors the situation in which the jurors find themselves. They won’t ever know, not for sure.

Though Number 8 is 12 Angry Men’s ostensible hero and Number 3 is its villain, the system is really the main character, as each of the men is subordinated to it. Some want to use it to exact retribution against the defendant, and some wish to use it to exonerate him. The jury room is the space where this tug-of-war takes place, the ground on which ideas become concrete. Number 11 (George Voskovec), a European immigrant, stands above the crowd and takes a moment to address his belief in the system. Though it is never spelled out in dialogue, it stands to reason he may be a refugee of World War II, and possibly the Holocaust, anticipating Lumet’s own 1964 film The Pawnbroker, which stars Rod Steiger as the title shop-owner struggling with his trauma. His European origins offer an implicit contrast between the repressive governments of the defeated Third Reich and the ascendant Soviet Union and the more egalitarian American system that values human rights. He says, “This fighting — that’s not why we are here, to fight. We have a responsibility. This I have always thought is a remarkable thing about democracy. That we are, what is the word? Ah, notified! That we are notified by mail to come down to this place and decide on the guilt or innocence of a man we have not known before. We have nothing to gain or lose by our verdict. This is one of the reasons why we are strong. We should not make it a personal thing. Thank you.” As the first of Lumet’s interrogations of the justice system, this passage of dialogue serves as a kind of mission statement against which all his subsequent films can be judged. Through his work, he shows that he wants to believe in the rightness of the system. He acknowledges the flaws of the people who work within it, either professionally or in an amateur basis. As the films progress, and Lumet gets older, his faith in the system begins to shake, and their outlook becomes more cynical. The Sidney Lumet who stood behind the camera by the time of his final films might not recognize the man who made 12 Angry Men, but it remains a powerful endorsement of an idealized vision of a system greater than the individual, bound together by common principles of fairness and truth. As Number 8 slowly chips away at the arguments advanced by his fellow jurors, Lumet’s subsequent justice-system films respond to 12 Angry Men by interrogating the validity of the film’s optimism. In doing so, Lumet returns to the same territory: racism, institutional failure, selfishness, communication breakdown and the struggle of the lone individual to enact the ideals the system purports to represent.

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.