12 Angry Men beats you into submission – not unlike the whooping of righteous indignation that Henry Fonda gives to his fellow jurors in the movie. I know, I know, we’re supposed to cheer his one-man crusade for justice within the American court system. I just wanted to be let out of the jury room.
Would I feel the same way if I had seen the movie upon its 1957 release? Hard to say. Already a respected teleplay and stage production about a lone dissenting juror who methodically convinces his fellow citizens to acquit, 12 Angry Men was an immediate prestige picture that was nominated for three Academy Awards. But even then it must have felt, to some, like a harangue. Perhaps in 1957 it would have been even harder to admit to such a reaction. Perhaps the then-radical social message – which shouldn’t be dismissed – was valued over all else.
No matter the era, didacticism can often be the enemy of art.
No matter the era, though, didacticism can often be the enemy of art. When a movie insists on hammering a single point home, creativity falls by the wayside. Only volume matters. Everything in 12 Angry Men is loud. Fonda’s white suit, brightly marking him as the picture’s angel. Lee J. Cobb’s frothing racist, barking to the bitter end. The speech that the immigrant watchmaker (George Voskovec) gives about the meaning of democracy. In fact, 12 Angry Men has little dialogue or conversation. It’s mostly made up of exhortation.
Perhaps the stage is this story’s natural home (I haven’t seen it there myself). At least in live theater the drama could have some space, whereas director Sidney Lumet emphasizes the claustrophobia (notice the focus on the broken jury-room fan). Even an eye-rolling moment – like the one in which each juror slowly turns his back as a racist runs at the mouth – would likely work better on the stage, where such choreography is a more common part of the art form.
Mind you, I’m not calling for 12 Angry Men to be “opened up.” That’s hardly a guaranteed path to adaptation success. In fact, one senses that even if it became more cinematic, the movie would likely have been even more overbearing. 12 Angry Men opens with a portentous pan up the grand, exterior columns of the courthouse, and what follows is no less momentous. Watching the movie is like having one of those columns dropped on your head.