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Henry Fonda only produced one major motion picture in the course of his Hollywood career, with the stress of the experience leaving the venerable performer certain that he didn't want to repeat it. It's a shame, as 12 Angry Men (1957) would be one of the handful of films that he was most proud of being associated with, and remains one of the most compelling dramas about American jurisprudence ever lensed.
Fonda had been a fan of Reginald Rose's teleplay since its original broadcast in 1954, and the two raised the $350,000 shooting budget for 12 Angry Men by themselves. To direct the project, Fonda tapped a young television veteran who "had the reputation of being wonderful with actors," and with those sentiments launched the distinguished film career of Sidney Lumet. The producer and director then turned to Broadway and culled some of the finest character talent working in order to round out the cast.
12 Angry Men opens in a New York courtroom, as a ghetto teenager's trial for the murder of his father winds down, and the presiding judge charges the jury with their obligations. The panel retires to a cramped, muggy jury room, where the majority of them are prepared to deem the case open and shut, and return to their lives. The sole holdout is a thoughtful architect (Fonda), who balks less from any certainty of the boy's innocence than his perception that the prosecution failed to meet its burden of establishing the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
After the collective groan of his fellows, Fonda determinedly revisits the state's evidence, and the progressing story lays bare previously unconsidered flaws in the district attorney's case, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of character of the furiously debating veniremen. Blowing hardest are a pair of self-made entrepreneurs (Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley), each with a disturbing agenda underlying their bullheadedness. Other tough nuts include a coldly rational stockbroker (E.G. Marshall) and a blustering salesman (Jack Warden) whose overreaching concern seems to be getting to that night's Yankees game.
All deliver strong efforts, as do Martin Balsam, as the amiable if feckless jury foreman; Jack Klugman, as a man self-conscious of his own roots in the slums; facile adman Robert Webber; George Voskovec, as an immigrant watchmaker more conscious of his civic duties than some of his native peers; surprisingly cagey retiree Joseph Sweeney; meek bank teller John Fiedler; and dull-if-honorable day laborer Edward Binns.
During rehearsals, Lumet and cinematographer Boris Kaufman set up their shots in an actual NYC jury room, blueprinting 365 separate takes from every aspect of the claustrophobic set. The end result, after only 17 days of shooting, is a masterful job of spare, lean black and white filmmaking, crafted in an era when big screens, big locales and bold color were deemed an absolute necessity.
The first-time producer and first-time director had their share of tensions, as Lumet recounted for Howard Teichmann, co-author of Fonda: My Life (New American Library, 1981). Before the first day's shooting, Fonda blew up over the quality of the painted backdrop that represented the room's view onto Foley Square, and the first shot taken - an overhead through the blades of a ceiling fan - turned out to be an all-day affair. "We went to the rushes the next noon," Lumet recalled, "and he said, 'Sidney, what am I going to do? I can't stand seeing myself on the screen. I never go to rushes, and sometimes I wait two years to see a finished film I've made'...
"Hank steeled himself, walked into the projection room and sat down behind me. He watched for a while, and then he put his hand on the back of my neck and squeezed so hard I thought my eyes would pop out. He leaned forward and said quietly, 'Sidney, it's magnificent.' Then he dashed out and never came to the rushes again."
Fonda's ambition for 12 Angry Men was to open the film small, and watch it build from art-house to popular success in an arc similar to that of another acclaimed adapted TV play, Marty (1955). The front office at United Artists, pleased as they were with the quality of the finished project, opted instead for a wide release on Easter Week. Fonda grimly recalled in his autobiography how New York's now-gone Capitol Theatre "had over forty-six hundred seats. The opening day 12 Angry Men barely filled the first four or five rows. They pulled it after a week."
While 12 Angry Men didn't even recoup its modest production costs in its theatrical run, the film went on to (fittingly) see some measure of justice in its uniform critical praise, its capture of First Prize at the Berlin Film festival and other international awards, its Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay, and its enduring acknowledgment as a classic of cinema.
Producer: Reginald Rose, Henry Fonda
Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Reginald Rose
Art Direction: Robert Markel
Cinematography: Boris Kaufman
Editing: Carl Lerner
Music: Kenyon Hopkins
Cast: Henry Fonda (Juror #8), Lee J. Cobb (Juror #3), Ed Begley, Sr. (Juror No. 10), E.G. Marshall (Juror #4), Jack Klugman (Juror #5), Jack Warden (Juror #7), Martin Balsam (Juror #1), John Fiedler (Juror #2), Ed Binns (Juror #6), Robert Webber (Juror #12).
by Jay Steinberg