Sidney Lumet directed more than 40 films in his half-century career, many of them dealing with issues of social justice and fairness. That includes the movie where it all began, concerning a dozen guys in a humid jury room. 12 Angry Men earned positive reviews and a few Oscar nominations when it was released in 1957, but only later did it become the gold standard of courtroom dramas, a powerful and instructive film that's been shown in law classes ever since. To celebrate the film's 60th anniversary, here are some on-the-record facts to illuminate your next viewing.
1. It was inspired by a real jury duty experience.
Reginald Rose, one of the most respected writers during the early days of television, served as a juror in a manslaughter case in early 1954. Naturally, as a dramatist, he noticed the drama inherent in the situation. He also realized that while there were many courtroom dramas, there were few (if any) set after the trial, in the jury room. He wrote 12 Angry Men as a one-hour teleplay for CBS' Studio One anthology series. It aired—live—on September 20, 1954.
2. It's the only film Henry Fonda ever produced.
The actor saw the TV production and felt strongly that it would make a great movie. Unable to find any producers willing to take a risk on it (a serious, single-room drama in a time when colorful widescreen epics were in fashion), Fonda teamed up with the writer, Reginald Rose, to produce it themselves. Fonda wound up hating the experience—not the acting side, which he loved (and he was always very proud of the film), but the business side. He hated having to worry about financial and logistical details, and couldn't stand watching himself in the daily rushes (which producers, but not necessarily actors, are expected to do).
3. Marty helped it get made.
While Fonda and Rose were trying to get a movie version of 12 Angry Men off the ground, audiences were falling in love with Marty, a romantic drama starring Ernest Borgnine that would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The reason it's significant is that Marty had also begun life as a teleplay for a TV anthology series, and was the first successful TV-to-movie adaptation. (TV was new, remember. Nobody was sure how it and movies were going to coexist.) Executives at United Artists, which had distributed the picture, were now very open to the idea of strip-mining TV dramas for movie scripts, and snatched up 12 Angry Men when Fonda and Rose came calling.
4. The rehearsal process took almost as long as the actual filming.
Sidney Lumet had been trained in the theater (first as an actor, then as a director), and he brought those skills to bear in his work as a director of live television dramas. When he was tapped to direct 12 Angry Men—his first feature film—he naturally wanted to follow as many of his usual habits and techniques as possible. That included an intense rehearsal process: He kept the entire cast cooped up in a rehearsal space all day every day for two weeks, both to help them learn the script backward and forward, and to give them a sense of what jury duty was like. When it came time to shoot, all the acting preparation had been done, leaving Lumet and the crew to focus solely on the technical side. The shoot was scheduled to last 20 days, but Lumet finished in 19. He would be known for his efficiency almost as much as for his talent for the rest of his career.
5. It uses camera tricks to increase the tension.
The problem with making a film set entirely in one room is that it's bound to get boring, visually speaking (unless it's a very interesting room, which a jury room is not). Lumet also realized he couldn't have his characters moving around very much, meaning most of the "action" would involve sitting around a table. So he had the camera move a lot instead. He and his cinematographer, Boris Kaufman (who won an Oscar in 1955 for On the Waterfront), also devised some photographic methods of amplifying the movie's tone. Lumet wrote: "I shot the first third of the movie above eye level, shot the second third at eye level, and the last third from below eye level. In that way, toward the end, the ceiling began to appear. Not only were the walls closing in, the ceiling was as well. The sense of increasing claustrophobia did a lot to raise the tension of the last part of the movie."
6. About half of all the edits in the film are in the last 20 minutes.
Along those same lines, Lumet and editor Carl Lerner used editing techniques to increase the tension. The movie begins with a lot of long, unbroken takes, often lasting a minute or more without cutting away. As the conversation heats up, the cuts start coming faster, and the average shot length gets shorter. (Here's a graph visualizing it.) Whether we consciously realize it or not, the quick editing increases our sense of tension and anxiety, until at last things settle down again and we can breathe again.
7. MOVIEGOERS’ VERDICT? "MEH."
Lumet and Fonda (in his producer's hat) wanted 12 Angry Men to follow the pattern set by Marty, the other TV-to-movie adaptation: start in a small theater in New York, and expand as reviews and word-of-mouth dictated. But United Artists, thrilled with the quality of the film, got overzealous. The film opened at the 4000-seat Capitol Theatre and only filled the first few rows, causing United Artists to panic and pull it. Variety reported the following year that 12 Angry Men had grossed $1 million (about $16 million at 2015 ticket prices). That was enough to recoup the production budget (a little under $400,000) and advertising costs, but not much else. The film didn't gain a following until several years later, when it started airing on television ... where it all began. The circle of life!
8. Lumet was only the third person to get a Best Director nomination for his debut film.
9. It inspired Sonia Sotomayor to go into law.
The Supreme Court justice selected the film for a screening at Fordham University in 2010, and told the audience it had really spoken to her when she first saw it as a college student, when she was considering going into law. The scene where a juror speaks reverently of the American jury system particularly grabbed her. "It sold me that I was on the right path," she said. "This movie continued to ring the chords within me."
10. It's been remade many times in many languages.
William Friedkin (The Exorcist) directed an updated version in 1997 for Showtime, with Jack Lemmon in the Henry Fonda role and George C. Scott as the hothead hold-out played by Lee J. Cobb in the original. But it's been remade more frequently in other countries, including Germany (1963), Norway (1982), India (1986), Japan (1991), Russia (2007), France (2010), and China (2014). The Japanese version even reverses the scenario: everyone starts out voting not guilty, until one by one they are persuaded to convict.
Making Movies, by Sidney Lumet
American Film Institute
DVD special features