Twelve Angry Men

Notes on Twelve Angry Men

Sidney Lumet (famous director)                            92 minutes B&W

Produced by Henry Fonda (famous actor) and Reginald Rose (who wrote the script)

The actors are twelve highly respected actors, many known for comedy. Pull out a video guide, or check, to see what famous movies and TV series they made.  On joy in this movie is that they really play their parts, not themselves or other famous roles.

Lee J Cobb

Robert Webber

E G Marshall

Ed Begley

Jack Warden

Jack Klugman

Edward Binns

Joseph Sweeney

George Voskovec

Martin Balsam

John Fielder

  We spent two minutes in the courtroom, hearing the judge’s half-hearted instructions to the jury, and then 90 minutes in the jury room and its adjoining washroom. Talk about a low-budget production- except the cast was all-star.

  In the courtroom we see the defendant as a Puerto Rican teenager, definitely not a tough kid, wide-eyed.  No lawyers, no courtroom drama.  It is hot in court, and the jury room is hotter.  Compare to the heat in Inherit the Wind.  (It’s usually hot under theatrical lighting, so in some ways if you need a hot look, it is convenient- everyone is sweating anyway.)

   NO ONE has a name in the film until the parting scene. It is part of the drama, and also part of the depiction of American juries.  This film came out just as researcher in law school started studying juries to see if the worked as expected,  and at the same time psychologists started publishing research on the fallibility of eye-witness reports.  Actually these issues had been studied fifty years earlier in work by Munsterberg,  our first notable forensic psychologist.

  Director Lumet refrains from the obvious device of showing us a clock on the wall.

  Henry Fonda is wearing a white suit instead of a white hat. It works for his character, and also as a white background for action, like the knives in the table. The old white-haired man, McCartle we learn on the steps at the end, played by Joseph Sweeney, is also portrayed a “white” when we is the first juror to switch his vote.  The film is replete with old Hollywood tricks and symbolism.  Close-ups of a man’s face to show him “thinking” and reconsidering.

   Yes, there is a lot of smoke.  You can experience the same amount of smokiness in other parts of the world. But it also add to the atmosphere and heat. How much smoke has “cleared” by the end?  Or are they just out of cigarettes?

   This script was remade, to no great critical acclaim.  Be sure you watch(ed) the Lumet/Fonda version.

  I would love to see a remake with an all-female cast.  I wonder how much the script would need reworking.  I can see some current top actresses, Judi Dench, Meryl Streep, Sissy Spacek, Gynweth Paltrow, Charlise Theron, Linda Hunt, Whoopi Goldberg, Cate Blanchett, Lynn Collins, and Emma Thompson duking it out verbally in a jury room strewn with Starbucks cups.

  Rhetoric.  The speechmaking by lawyers, journalists, and citizens in Inherit the Wind is pretty straightforward. Pretty much everybody has a point of view, and its all gets presented.  The inevitable outcome- Guilty of violating the Law- is not shifted except by the political exigency of a small fine.  The law is upheld, even a bad law, but the greater ethic of humanity somehow affirmed by the small fine, even if its motivation is political. After all, the political is responding to the great opinions of an increasing educated public.

   In Twelve Angry Men, at least eleven of the twelve change their firmly held belief.  The rhetoric is not posturing and presentation,  it is personal and effective.  Effective in the sense that is changes the opinions of the people in the film.  I ask students all the time- “What would it take to change your mind?”  How much evidence? What kind of argument?   In this film we go from “irrefutable facts” about a crime committed by one of “them”, to complete reversals of opinion.  The evidence and arguments are not brought in by a deus ex machina- something new added to a plot to change its course- an ancient Greek term still used in stagecraft.  It means an action from a God into human affairs- literally “a god from the machinery”.  In Twelve Angry Men the evidence is pretty much right below the surface and needs only minor scratching to be revealed.

  You can make a list of the irrefutable facts, and see how each one is refuted.  This film clearly shows rhetoric in two sense though.  First is the use of the particular evidence in this particular case.  The stupid phrase, “that’s just rhetoric” is stupid because rhetoric is about meaning, communicating facts and observations. It is the essence of communication. The fact that the knife is NOT unique. The fact that most people cannot recall all the facts about a movie the next day.  The fact that the train makes a racket.  The fact that the boy would have heard the women’s scream after the train passed, and known not to return home later.  The fact that the old man downstairs could not have got to his front door in 15 seconds.   Some of the facts have counterarguments. Evidence is not crystal clear, but as our hero/producer/star Henry Fonda says repeatedly,  he just isn’t sure.  His mind is open, and he continues to use human dialog to sort out a closer understanding of the truth and the level of doubt.

  I saw the film last night but missed the opening scene with the wide-eyed innocent-looking defendant staring at the camera.  It played just as well for me, even though the comments of the jurors made me think the kid was a tough-looking black gang member who was never seen. Our observation of the defendant, our prejudices even watching the film, are some of the facts of the case.

  The second sense of rhetoric is the MEANS by which we present the evidence so that is more likely to have the desired effect of communicating its significance.  The defense attorney evidently did a bad job with both the evidence and presenting it. So we have the pleasure of watching twelve fine actors portray not just a script of how the evidence piles up until everyone’s mind is changed. NO. We see them portray the human emotion of being convinced of something we did not believe, recognizing our own error in using the previous evidence to draw a wrong conclusion.  We see juror after juror struggle with his  tragic flaw that almost sends an innocent kid to death. In the ancient Greek world, the hero’s tragic flaw was almost always a form of pride.  Self-certainty,  being sure instead of being open to dialog and argument and the interplay of ideas.  Becoming rigid and inflexible.  Mistaking strength for wisdom, power for right.  The tools by which these men are presented the evidence are presented by Henry Fonda or stumbled on by the jurors themselves.  Here are a few of the tools:

   Asking someone to say that their opinion depends on something and then producing it. It is a rhetorical contract.  You agree to change your mind if I do something which your opinion says is impossible.  The knife.

  The knife also explains why Fonda is so quiet at the outset.  He has not waiting for the group to deliberate, or the lawyers to present the whole case,  he has gone looking for evidence for himself. Hands on experiential evidence.  He was soaking up the neighborhood, the loudness of the el, the mix of people, the open windows, and bingo- the knife in a pawn shop.  Another rhetoric tool- have the experience yourself.

  Why did the boy return to the scene of the crime?  Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and think about their emotional state, their motives.  This tool was used repeatedly to produce evidence.  The oldest juror talking about the psychology of a witness who wants his 15 minutes of fame by fabricating what he is sure is the truth.

  So there are three tools- not the evidence itself- but ways of presenting the evidence. 


Your writing assignment on this film is to present two additional rhetorical tools displayed in the film.  I’ll hint at an easy one and you find another.  How does the jury cope with the evidence of the man downstairs getting to his door to see the fleeing murderer?    You can skip this one if you like.

  But tell me in one-page paper about two ways of getting other people to attend to, absorb, and be swayed by your evidence.

  If you need help,  Aristotle’s essay  On Rhetoric may give you some hints.

  The value of having a quiver of rhetoric tools is two fold.  When you need to convince, you have these tools to use.  And when you are being convinced or not, you can be aware of the tools being used to persuade you.  Evidence does not stand on its own- the presentation, like good food, can be as important as the substance.

   Twelve Angry Men is a fiction in the sense that truth does not usually emerge so easily, nor common people display the ability to use rhetoric tools so effectively.  It’s improbable, but it’s possible.