“12 Angry Men” Remembered — And Not a Moment Too Soon

By John RomanoJanuary 7, 2022

“12 Angry Men” Remembered — And Not a Moment Too Soon

Reginald Rose and the Journey of 12 Angry Men by Phil Rosenzweig

SETTLING IN TO review Phil Rosenzweig’s absorbing new book about a screenwriter and his movie, Reginald Rose and the Journey of 12 Angry Men, the first thing I did was download the film, long a favorite of mine, on Apple TV, for an umpteenth rewatch. Watching it this way had an ahistorical appropriateness, in part because Rose was first and always a television writer, and the movie was first produced in that medium in 1954 on the anthology series Studio One, but mainly because several aspects of its cinematic punch might just come off better on the small screen: the forcefulness, for instance, of director Sidney Lumet’s plentiful, crafty close-ups, and the dramatic claustrophobia of the jury room in which the whole movie, in effect, takes place.

But something else, entirely unpredictable, added irony and, in the long run, meaning to my having a fresh look: I happened to do so on the day of Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal, at once deservedly infamous, at least in my bubble. If ever there were a movie to jolt you, assuming real-life events haven’t already done so, into a critical engagement with the pros and cons of our justice system, particularly as pertains to juries, it’s this movie, released to acclaim in 1957 and an eventual Oscar nomination for Best Picture, albeit to disappointingly small audiences.

Rose’s premise was elegant and simple. At the start, the jury retires in the trial of a young man for murder. He’s a member of the underclass, ethnicity unspecified, who might not but very well might have stabbed his abusive father to death. The verdict will have to be unanimous, of course, and the judge has declared that a “Guilty” verdict will result in execution without appeal. Once in the room, an immediate canvas of the jurors comes back 11-1 for “Guilty.” The lone holdout is Juror 8, played by Henry Fonda — the only Hollywood star in the cast, who produced the movie along with Reginald Rose himself. Gradually, the 11 “Guilty” votes get meticulously and dramatically chipped away at, until at the very end a unanimous “Not Guilty” is reached. It’s a verdict that will likely please a new viewer better than the “Not Guilty” in that too-real courtroom where Rittenhouse so effectively performed his remorseful meltdown.

But what gives 12 Angry Men its enduring interest, its intellectual sharpness as well as its “twist,” is that Fonda’s character is by no means sure the accused is innocent. “Maybe he did it!” he declares, right to the end. But he stays loyal to the idea that reasonable doubt is all the law requires to acquit: an idea more complex and slippery than we tend to realize. To this demand the movie makes upon us for attentive discernment, compare and contrast such winning entertainments as A Time to Kill or A Few Good Men, where the defendants’ race comfortably assures you in advance, if not of their innocence, at least of the movie’s favorable outcome. Replacing Robert Cummings, who had played the role on television, Fonda deserved (but did not receive) an Oscar nomination for his understated performance at the least (granted he would have been up against Marlon Brando, Charles Laughton, and Alec Guinness, who understandably won for The Bridge on the River Kwai). Nonetheless, it’s the Law and not Fonda’s character that surfaces as the movie’s real hero. That is something Rose saw to in successive rewrites in what the book’s title calls the project’s “journey” from TV to the big screen. The direction of these changes is skillfully presented here, and will intrigue writers: each pass increasingly spreads Fonda’s moral heroism to the other jurors, mainly by edging up their willingness to open their minds and question first impressions. It’s Justice-as-Fairness, as the philosopher John Rawls would have put it a few years later, that is the movie’s guiding principle; Justice even more than Compassion; the mind and not the heart. Point is, this movie must be seen — and if you need further encouragement, you can get it from knowing the role it played in shaping the sensibilities of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, we’re told, back in college.

I’ll return to the script’s forcible relevance after surveying other pleasures this book serves for readers and moviegoers (or -downloaders). Rose’s second-best-known creation, a decade later, was the TV series The Defenders, starring E. G. Marshall and Robert Reed as father-son defense attorneys, a remarkable, now-streaming series that tells us that nothing diminished Rose’s skill at using TV to hone his audience’s civic virtues. In the same spirit, he had also written, for NBC in 1960, a docudrama on the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti. Running from 1961 to 1965, The Defenders was a strikingly pre-counterculture work of patriotic commitment to “the system,” promoting values we narrowly construe as “liberal” on issues from race prejudice to abortion to neo-Nazis among us, and defending us above all from the battering of our constitutional rights still lingering on past that McCarthy era which had provided Rose a target in 12 Angry Men, though Phil Rosenzweig seems oddly reluctant to say so. Soon after, there followed from other creators series like East Side/West Side (with George C. Scott and Cicely Tyson), in the same socially conscious vein; but this book gives Reginald Rose his long-delayed credit for leading the way. While working briefly on Steven Bochco’s L.A. Law, I heard Rose’s series referenced more than once — even if, in a subsequent trend, shows like David Milch’s NYPD Blue and David Kelley’s Picket Fences would shift the emphasis — eventually giving more importance to protecting us from non-convicted (and therefore innocent!) wrongdoers rather than putting on view, as Rose’s work consistently did, the dramatic, potentially perilous intricacies of our judicial system, let alone the “systemic” malfeasance that now has our attention. (Still later, it should be said, Kelley’s Boston Legal righted the balance.)

One delightful feature of this book is to recall for us the generation of great television writers who provided every week original dramas for the many anthology series that filled the air. There will be few readers indeed who, in addition to Studio One, remember Playhouse 90, The Philco Television Playhouse, or The Kaiser Aluminum Hour. But from the late ’40s on, the many such venues provided early, underpaid but welcome opportunities for the likes of Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote Marty, known later for The Hospital and Network; Abe Polonsky (Body and Soul); and Rod Serling, the writer of Requiem for a Heavyweight, whose later The Twilight Zone has proved indelible. The terms “Golden Age of Television” and even “of Television Writing” get thrown around a lot, but surely these together constituted a high point. Before 12 Angry Men premiered at New York’s Paris Theatre, opposite the Plaza, Reginald Rose had written dozens of televised dramas, now languishing irrecoverably on Kinescope, but the two unmistakable masterpieces that this book takes on show how much he benefited from that conservatory-like training. (Ironically, today’s increasingly typical route is just the opposite, with screenwriters wrangling themselves a pilot and slip-sliding into TV…)

About the filmmaking itself, it’s particularly notable, as Rosenzweig shows us, that the movie was Sidney Lumet’s first, in a career to span more than half a century, including Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, and The Verdict. As it happens, not he but Franklin Schaffner had directed the TV version of Rose’s teleplay. But Lumet, too, like Rose, had toiled in television’s drama-anthology world. Now, as a crucial first step in making the transition to movies, he enlisted the big-screen talents of Boris Kaufman, cinematographer from Elia Kazan’s stable, where he’d shot On the Waterfront with documentary-like vividness and actuality. A Russian American who had worked in France with Jean Vigo on Zéro de Conduite, Kaufman was downright gifted in the aesthetics of black and white and the use of lighting, and could assist Lumet in the latter’s revolutionary plethora of shot designs and drawings for the movie, a luxury that the time and space limitations of the TV studios Lumet had worked in around New York City would never have permitted (one, quaintly, upstairs at Grand Central Station). Although Rosenzweig eschews gossip and spends little time on personalities, there are several hints in the book of those tensions natural and inevitable among and between producers, directors, production designers, camera crew, and studio — especially where money is tight and the lead actor and the writer are also the producers in charge.

It’s a cliché of “the business” that happy sets don’t yield happy results on the screen. 12 Angry Men ran, in this respect, true to form, except in one regard: the cast, we’re told, bonded admirably — and what a cast! Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Jack Klugman, Ed Begley, and George Voskovec form an incomplete list, and most came out of the same TV-making that gave us Rose and Lumet. A few of the 12 came out of the Actors Studio, which along with Kaufman’s cinematography gives some hint as to why Elia Kazan is, to my mind, a kind of invisible presence within the film: something we might have suspected if only because of the deep authenticity of working-class male emotion, and the passionate hatred of injustice behind the depiction of Lee J. Cobb’s bullying that marks Waterfront and 12 Angry Men alike.

Rosenzweig’s book offers in its last third, after discussing a few of the many stage productions of the movie’s material, an appreciation of its relevance, first to the legal world, and then to management theory and practice. Significantly, it’s on this latter field that the previous work of Professor Rosenzweig, who teaches business administration at the Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne, Switzerland, has centered. These sections are less satisfactory, maybe just less necessary to most of us, than the history-telling. But we’re in his debt for bringing the virtues of this imperishable movie before us once again — and not a moment too soon.


John Romano is a screenwriter and Emmy-nominated writer-producer for TV. His features include The Lincoln Lawyer and an adaptation of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. In television, he’s written/produced over 20 series from Hill Street Blues to Monkand created three of his own, including Sweet Justice with Cicely Tyson.

LARB Contributor

John Romano is a screenwriter and a writer-producer for television. His features include The Lincoln Lawyer with Matthew McConaughey, the Coen Brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty, and most recently, an adaptation of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. He's been writer-producer on over 20 TV shows, from Hill Street Blues to Monk, including three of his own creation, among them Sweet Justice starring Cicely Tyson. Formerly he taught English at Columbia and wrote a book on Charles Dickens. He appeared on Charlie Rose with Salman Rushdie for Dickens’s bicentenary, and testified before Congress after 9/11 about Hollywood’s influence on America’s image abroad.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!