Re-Watchterpiece Theater: 12 Angry Men (1957)

Re-Watchterpiece Theater is a series that explores the organic way that attitudes about films change after you watch them a second time, a third time, or more, further down the line than the original viewing.

Often, the movies we choose are reflections of events in our lives, much like that time I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey a week after I went to outer space and defeated a nefarious super computer hell-bent on my evolution. Last week, I was called for jury duty, and was ultimately selected for the jury out of a panel of approximately 70 people. The trial itself- about a 3 month old child who had been shaken to the point of brain damage- was very difficult. But the process was completely fascinating. Listening to and evaluating evidence, determining the credibility of witnesses, and watching twelve unique individuals interpret the exact same information in their own distinct way served as a fascinating sociology experiment. And it was the impetus behind this week’s Re-Watchterpiece Theater film- 12 Angry Men.

"We, the jury, find you guilty of watching the inferior version first."

“We, the jury, find you guilty of watching the inferior version first.”

The First Viewing
I first saw 12 Angry Men in the 90s when I was in college. One of the premium cable networks aired a 1997 remake (starring Jack Lemmon, Ossie Davis, George C. Scott, and a young James Gandolfini) and the original, back to back. In some perverse twist of logic, I watched the 1997 version first, and then the 1957 version. I didn’t really think about it much at the time, though I did enjoy both versions. “Hey, that’s Oscar Madison from The Odd Couple sitcom!” may have been my deepest thought at the time, upon seeing Jack Klugman in the original. The themes spoke to my inner-guilty white liberal. And frankly, it’s a great story. Like anyone, I had no reason to dislike the film.

The Re-Watch
Needless to say, I had a wildly different perspective this time thanks to jury duty. I constantly found myself questioning exactly how I might have reacted in a similar situation. Given the evidence against the defendant, I have a hard time believing that I would’ve been Henry Fonda, swooping in to poke holes in evidence. At best, I might have been Jack Klugman, a little undecided but leaning guilty. And at worst, I would’ve been Jack Warden, just wanting it over so I could go watch some damned baseball.
(Note: This was actually a consideration in our own case. The trial took place during the World Series and the judge asked us to stay late one day. When we all deliberated on it, my answer was “As long as I’m home to watch the World Series by 7:00, I don’t mind if we stay a little longer.”)

If there was an angry white guy Hall of Fame, Lee J. Cobb would be its Babe Ruth.

If there was an angry white guy Hall of Fame, Lee J. Cobb would be its Babe Ruth.

Much is made of Henry Fonda’s powerhouse performance, and rightly so, but Lee J. Cobb’s ire is what really gives the film its starch. Fonda couldn’t have been the white knight without Cobb serving as his black knight foil and vice-versa. Beyond those two, great performances abound. Ed Begley, Jack Warden, Jack Klugman, and E.G. Marshall are all spot-on in their respective roles, varying from quiet and considerate to loud and bombastic. With all due respect to director Sidney Lumet, seeing all of the archetypes bang up against each other during deliberation made me think that Robert Altman would have been the perfect director for that scenario. Twelve people barking at each other aren’t going to speak in measured tones, and they’re rarely going to be respectful enough to stop and let everyone else speak their peace. Rather, the reality is that there’s going to be a lot of chaos and a lot of overlapping dialogue. Altman would have taken that snapshot with aplomb. Lumet simply made the film at a time where that type of thing wasn’t done.

For the record, during jury duty, I didn't wander the streets at night looking for places to buy knives.

For the record, during jury duty, I didn’t wander the streets at night looking for places to buy knives.

None of that is to say that I found any fault with Lumet. It’s quite the opposite. The scene featuring Fonda pacing out the steps from imaginary armchair to imaginary door was almost perfect, ripe with suspense. The film in general takes on a life of its own, a force of nature as a small idea is planted at the beginning of the film and grows into the massive verdict of not guilty. That force of nature is all Lumet. That it happens against all odds- an opening vote of 11 to 1 for guilty, slowly but surely swinging in the opposite direction- is uniquely American, with Fonda and the absent defendant playing the role of the underdog.

Its the distinct American flair that gives the film a great deal of its gravitas. Most other countries don’t have juries of your peers determining the facts behind your fate when you’re accused, or at least not as frequently as we do here. The underdog is as American as apple pie and Chevrolet and all of that other crap we constantly hear about. It’s also worth pointing out that Lumet’s film is one of the most liberal that Hollywood has ever put together. It’s not just the defendant that’s on trial, but notions of racism, prejudice, and general old-fashioned crotchety old guy anger, all of which receive a harsh verdict of guilt.

I suppose the lesson here- putting aside why I actually did the re-watch- is that 12 Angry Men is quite an accomplishment in the history of film. There’s no denying its revered place among the best American films ever made. I didn’t fully appreciate it in 1997 but I certainly do now.


5 Comments

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5 responses to “Re-Watchterpiece Theater: 12 Angry Men (1957)

  1. SDG

    It certainly is one of the best films made ever!! I saw it about 3-4 years ago for the first time without knowing much about it and it remains one of the few films that completely blew me away. The moment Fonda produces that knife hooked me up like none other.
    As great as Fonda is, like you, I have always been drawn towards Lee J. Cobb more than anyone else probably because I know I wouldn’t be Fonda if put in that situation. As long as I am not Cobb, I think we are dong fine.

  2. A classic, no way around it. When I saw it as a kid, I had a crush on Fonda for weeks. I watched it again last year and I’m still blown away by how powerful it is.

    Now, for fun, pop in Veronica Mars, Season 2 and watch the episode “One Angry Veronica”, an homage to the movie.

  3. Lee J. Cobb is all ye need know. Sorry about the Cardinals.

  4. I agree with you that it is a great film and it is a tightly wrapped story.

  5. Darah

    An amazing film, the atmosphere is so think you can almost reach into the screen with a spoon and scoop some out. I recently (well over a year ago actually) was asked by my wife to ‘acquire’ the film for her as she was doing a legal section of a course and it was recommended viewing. To my delight we snuggled up on the couch and I was thrilled to find out she enjoyed it (it was also her very first black & white film!).

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