Sidney Lumet's Humanism: The Return to the Father in Twelve Angry Men

By Cunningham, Frank | Literature/Film Quarterly, April 1, 1986 | Go to article overview

Sidney Lumet's Humanism: The Return to the Father in Twelve Angry Men


Cunningham, Frank, Literature/Film Quarterly


Twelve Angry Men (1957), Lumet's first feature film after seven years of outstanding television production, stands to this date as one of his most thematically rich and cinematically evocative films. Treating such typical Lumet concerns as the necessity for personal responsibility if democratic processes are to survive, and the tendency for man's illusions, guilts, and prejudices to endanger his legal systems, Twelve Angry Men goes beyond the well-intentioned "message picture" to make a remarkable cinematic statement on the nature of the limitations both of the American jury system and of the American democratic process itself.

Reginald Rose's screenplay (expanded considerably from his 1954 teleplay) treats the jury deliberation in a murder trial of an 18-year-old minority youth accused of the premeditated killing of his father. We do not hear or see of the trial itself beyond the judge's direction to the jury. Nor do we witness the boy on trial except for one wordless shot of him near the beginning of the film. Lumet is uninterested in the legal attack and defense system, in the sometimes pyrotechnical emotional displays by both counsel and witness in American courtrooms. To the contrary, as is so frequent in his film, Lumet is far more interested in human character, in the nuances of the ways that people make up their minds about things (or think they do), than he is in the more obvious spectacle level of such legal melodramas as Kramer vs. Kramer or And Justice For All. Twelve Angry Men takes place in one small room for almost all its length, a jury room in which sit twelve ordinary men, chosen at random by a human institution that entrusts them with a decision that determines the future of a human life. To all but one of the jurors (all but two of whose names are never known to us), the boy seems clearly guilty as charged on the abundance of circumstantial evidence, and their responsibility seems obvious - to put a guilty man into the electric chair, despite his youth and the impoverished environment from which he has come and which may well have contributed to his alleged crime. But Juror #8 (Henry Fonda), a softspoken architect in his outside life, is not certain that the evidence is sufficiently clear or ample to establish, beyond reasonable doubt, the boy's guilt. To the surprise of almost all the other eleven jurors - and the anger of a few who feel that the case is so clear that they should be permitted to be about their business - Fonda insists that the case be discussed for awhile, that a little of their time is called for before a terminal decision is made regarding a human life.

For the approximately one and a half hours of the film (congruent with the elapsed time of the jury's deliberations), Lumet reveals the processes of thought and feeling of the twelve men as they grapple with the facts of the case, facts that seem to become less clear, more elusive the more carefully they are reflected upon. Ultimately, the young defendant's guilt or innocence is never conclusively known to them, nor to us. To Lumet the boy's eventual fate, important as it is, is less significant than the ways in which it affects the minds and sensibilities of the twelve chosen to decide that destiny. Lumet's storied skill with actors is evident even in this early film, as all the jurors - even those with smaller speaking parts - emerge as recognizable human beings with whose conflicts and weaknesses we can identify. Though a cross-section of middle-class and lower middle-class New Yorkers, they are individualized by Lumet's unobtrusive yet sharply probing camera eye, sometimes seen from behind Fonda's shoulder as the man of reason and deliberation attempts to argue some jurors out of their prejudices and to persuade others out of their unconsidered conformity or fear. Several of the jurors (John Fiedler, Edward Binns, Martin Balsam, Jack Klugman), are "average" men, some more intelligent and reflective than others, who wish justice to be done, yet whose natural tendency to follow others leads them often to defer to the ill-considered judgments of the impatient and careless (Jack Warden, Robert Webber), the intemperate (Ed Begley), or the deeply conflicted (Lee J.

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