What Writers Can Learn from the Film 12 ANGRY MEN
Happy Birthday, Henry Fonda
To celebrate the birthday of acting legend Henry Fonda (b. May 16, 1905), I’m posting a review I co-wrote with my wife, legal investigator/author Colleen Collins, about one of our favorite legal films: 12 Angry Men, a story about the deliberations of a jury in a homicide trial.
The 1957 film featured actors such as Lee J. Cobb and Jack Klugman, but the pivotal role, Juror #8, was played by Henry Fonda.
An Impressive 60-Year Career
Henry Fonda’s career spanned six decades, beginning when he was 20 years old at the Omaha Community Playhouse after his mother’s friend Dodie Brando (Marlon Brando’s mother) suggested the young Fonda audition for a part in a play. By the mid-1930s, he’d broken into films, eventually earning an Academy nomination for his performance as Tom Joad in the adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel Grapes of Wrath.
Over the years he created other iconic characters in such films as The Lady Eve (1941), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), 12 Angry Men (1957), and finally won his first Academy Award for his last role in On Golden Pond (1981).
Let’s now take a deeper look at 12 Angry Men…
12 Angry Men: Lessons for Writers
Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden and others. Directed by Sidney Lumet. 12 Angry Men was originally a television play, written by Reginald Rose about his experience as a juror in a manslaughter trial.
This riveting drama takes place in the jury deliberation room; in fact, the film shows nothing of the trial itself except for the judge’s cursory charge to the jury. All you learn of the evidence presented at trial is what you hear and observe as the jurors discuss it.
Also, unlike most courtroom dramas, the viewer never learns the final verdict. But that’s not the point in this story as its focus is always on the principle of reasonable doubt: The belief that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty.
Writers: If you’re developing a courtroom criminal trial, watching this movie will steep you in the principle of reasonable doubt as you watch twelve citizens smoke, swear and argue in their life-and-death debates over the defendant.
Adding Tension via Setting
As the jurors’ prejudices and emotions rise to the surface, the room seems to grow smaller and more claustrophobic, which was part of director Lumet’s visual strategy.
“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.” ~Sidney Lumet, director
We thought Lumet’s description about his filmmaking technique might be of value to writers wanting to add tension to a trial-related scene.
Although he created this effect via a camera, a similar sense of claustrophobia could be created with the written word for the jury room, a judge’s chambers or even the hallway outside the courtroom. Perhaps the point-of-view character feels as if the walls are closing in, or characters start to sweat or complain about there not being enough room to adequately stretch or walk around. A wonderful technique in storytelling is applying a metaphor to the setting — perhaps the jurors’ growing claustrophobia represents their building — and perhaps to some, their extremely uncomfortable moral sense.
What’s in a Name?
Another interesting note about the film is that none of the jurors are named, and they don’t formally introduce themselves to each other until the final brief ending (where only two of them share introductions). Instead, each juror is identified by a number based on their jury numbers and seats at a conference table in the jury room.
The above film review is an excerpt from A Lawyer’s Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms by Shaun Kaufman and Colleen Collins
Shaun Kaufman Law: 303-309-0430
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