Twelve Angry Men Analysis

Historical Context

E. G. Marshall, Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Edward Binns, George Voskovec, Jack Klugman, and Joseph Sweeney in the 1957 film version of Twelve Angry Men Published by Gale Cengage

Live Television Drama in the 1950s

The decade of the 1950s is sometimes known as the golden era of television, largely because thousands of live dramas were broadcast during that time. These dramas supplemented the standard television fare of variety shows, westerns, and soap operas. It was during this period that television replaced radio and film as the chief medium of entertainment for the American family.

The live programs were in the form of drama anthologies, such as NBC's Kraft Television Theater and Goodyear Television Playhouse and CBS's Studio One. It was Studio One, which ran from 1948 to 1958, that aired Twelve Angry Men and other plays by Rose. Rose recalled in an interview the challenging but rewarding nature of television drama in the 1950s: "It was a terrifying experience, but very exhilarating. But there were always mistakes…. I don't recall a show I ever did when something didn't go wrong" (quoted in "Reginald Rose: A Biography," in Readings on "Twelve Angry Men," edited by Russ Munyan). Rose recalls cameras breaking down and shows that ran either too long or too short to fill the exact time slot allocated.

There was great variety in the content of these dramas. Some were adaptations of stage plays by such playwrights as Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller as well as Shakespeare. Most, however, were original dramas. The constant demand for new plays provided a fruitful creative outlet for writers, directors, and actors in the new medium. Television drama offered actors who were not well known in movies their first national exposure. In 1949, Marlon Brando, then only twenty-four years old, starred in I'm No Hero, a television drama produced by the Actors Studio. Paul Newman and Steve McQueen made appearances on the...

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Twelve Angry Men Literary Style

Limited Setting, Claustrophobic Atmosphere

The play has only one setting, the jury room, though both films and later stage productions added a washroom. Props are minimal, consisting mainly of a long conference table and twelve chairs. The room is hot and humid, since there is no air-conditioning and the fan does not work. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, and the men are understandably short-tempered. This confined setting helps produce the basic rhythm of the play: a juror or several jurors will provide exposition, reviewing some of the details of the case, and this will be followed by a flare-up, in which jurors express sharp disagreements and engage in bad-tempered exchanges. These, in turn, are followed by a quieter phase as tempers calm, before more exposition sets the rhythm in motion again. In this way, the static setting, in which no one comes or goes, is overcome by the dramatic rhythm inherent in the dialogue. The static setting is also mitigated by the way the director has the actors move around the stage as the arguments ebb and flow.

In the 1957 film version, the heat of the room is conveyed by the jurors shown with their shirts visibly stained with sweat. This also contributes to characterization, since Juror Four, who remains calm and rational throughout, does not sweat. After the thunderstorm cools the room a little, the sweat dries up, except in the case of Juror Three, which conveys something about his tense,...

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Twelve Angry Men Compare and Contrast

  • 1950s: In 1953, 55 percent of American households possess a television set. In 1955, the figure jumps to 67 percent. In this year, 7,421,084 television sets are sold in the United States. NBC is the first network to have a regularly scheduled color program on the air (Bonanza, starting in 1959).

    Today: More than 98 percent of households have television sets, and many have more than one. In 1999, 68 percent of households with television have cable television. On average, Americans watch four hours of television a day.

  • 1950s: Support for the death penalty in the United States drops. In the 1940s, there were, on average, nearly 130 executions a year, but in the 1950s this figure falls to an average of 71.5 executions. The most famous cases are those of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who are put to death in New York in 1953 for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. In New York in 1954, the year Twelve Angry Men is first televised, nine people are executed. Two of the condemned are teenagers; a total of three more teenagers die in New York's Sing Sing in 1955 and 1956.

    Today: Although the United States is one of the few countries to retain the death penalty, the number of executions is falling, from 71 in 2002 to 65 in 2003 and 59 in 2004. In New York, Governor George Pataki reinstates the death penalty in 1995, but, as of 2005, New York had not executed anyone...

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Twelve Angry Men Topics for Further Study

  • Most states in the United States insist on a unanimous jury in criminal cases, but two states accept majority verdicts. Write an essay discussing the advantages and disadvantages of each method.
  • Is a jury of ordinary people the best way to reach a correct verdict in a trial? Would a panel of judges or other legal experts be a better way? Research a trial in which the jury reached a controversial verdict and write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper discussing these issues.
  • In what ways do Jurors Eight, Nine, and Eleven embody the ideal of active citizenship in a democracy? What kinds of threats to the success of democracy through active citizen participation are posed by Jurors Three, Seven, Ten, and Twelve? Team up with two other classmates and make a class presentation in which you discuss these issues.
  • In the play and the 1957 film, the jury is all-white and all-male. In the 1997 remake of the film, four jurors are African American. There are no women in any versions of the play. Should race and gender play a part in jury selection? Would female jurors or Hispanic jurors have been less willing to convict the defendant in Twelve Angry Men? Set up a classroom debate in which one person argues in favor of taking race and gender into account and the other person argues against it.
  • Watch the 1957 and the 1997 film versions of Twelve Angry Men. Give a class presentation, with clips...

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Twelve Angry Men Media Adaptations

  • In 1957, Twelve Angry Men was made into a film starring Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb and directed by Sydney Lumet, with a screenplay by Rose (produced by Orion-Nova Productions/United Artists). It is available on DVD through MGM/UA Video.
  • In 1997, the cable channel Showtime released the made-for-television movie of Twelve Angry Men, directed by William Friedkin and starring Jack Lemmon as Juror Eight, with George C. Scott, Hume Cronyn, James Gandolfini, and Tony Danza. Rose produced an updated screenplay for this production. The videotape, put out by MGM/UA Video, has limited availability.

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Twelve Angry Men What Do I Read Next?

  • Arthur Miller's play The Crucible (1955) is about the Salem witch trials in the seventeenth century and the hysteria that resulted in the persecution of innocent people. The play was written during the McCarthy era, in which fears about Communism led to witch hunts and many people were condemned as Communists or Communist sympathizers without evidence.
  • In The Run of His Life: The People Versus O. J. Simpson (reprint edition, 1997), Jeffrey Toobin analyzes one of the most sensational trials of the twentieth century. Toobin argues that O. J. Simpson was guilty of the murder of his wife, Nicole, and her friend Ron Goldman, and much of the book is devoted to analysis of why Simpson was acquitted at the...

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Twelve Angry Men Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), "Inadequate Representation," http://www.aclu.org/DeathPenalty/DeathPenalty.cfm?ID=9313&c=62 (posted October 8, 2003).

Cutler, Brian L., and Stephen D. Penrod, Mistaken Identification: The Eyewitness, Psychology, and the Law, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 12.

Ellsworth, Phoebe C., Review of Twelve Angry Men, in Michigan Law Review, Vol. 101, No. 6, May 2003, pp. 1387-1407.

"Inside the Jury Room," in Newsweek, April 15, 1957, p. 113.

Loftus, Elizabeth F.,...

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