12 Angry Men
Released April 13, 1957
Screenplay: Reginald Rose, based on his teleplay
Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: Henry Fonda, Ed Begley, Sr., Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall
Adding Character: Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Joseph Sweeney, George Voskovec, Robert Webber
If you’ve ever seen 12 Angry Men, you know it’s Henry Fonda’s movie. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you know from lore and the DVD cover that it’s Fonda’s domain, One Angry Man against 11 others, some angry, some just getting their serious people-watching on, at least at first, in a jury room.
The obvious stakes at the center of the story are the probable death penalty for an 18-year-old on trial for murder. The more hidden ones include everything from the glib hope of getting on with life as unbothered as possible by putting a teenager in the electric chair to the definition of one’s entire existence based on winning the game played to reach the verdict. (Seriously. One juror’s whole identity is caught up in what the verdict will be.)
In Reginald Rose’s script, the characters are referred to not by their names but by their juror numbers. Fonda is Juror No. 8, but Rose finds a way to so distinctly draw all 12 men, that we actually sometimes forget that a teenager’s life is at stake, so engrossed do we become in the men who are deliberating his destiny. The deftness with which Rose infuses each numbered man with a spate of characteristics so unique that you begin to anticipate what Juror No. 6 will say to Juror No. 9 is worthy of its own microscopic examination into the craft behind the effectiveness.
But we’re not here for that or for Fonda’s Juror No. 8, the man drawing the Xs and Os of that aforementioned verdict game. We’re here to focus on an in-film bench player, portrayed by an excellent acting bench player whose time on the field of any film he’s in results in a positive when running the plus-minus analytics on his game.
I’m talking about Juror No. 10, played by Ed Begley, Sr., a Tony Award®–winner (Inherit the Wind; 1956) and Academy Award®–winner (Sweet Bird of Youth; 1962), who “rains threes” from the backcourt every time he opens his mouth in 12 Angry Men. To be sure, as the guy playing the most overtly disagreeable man on the jury—even Juror No. 3, played by big and brusque Lee J. Cobb, starts out with a calm recitation of the facts of the case taken from a tiny notebook he had the temperament to use throughout the trial—he has more of a character and acting platform from which to display breadth, than, say, poor Juror No. 2, who almost behaves like an alternate juror who’s not allowed to vote, so little do we hear from him. But Juror No. 10 is far more than what his crankiness would allow in a lesser screenplay with a lesser actor in the imaginary parallel lesser role.
Juror No. 10 starts out amiably enough, offering jokes to pass that perfunctory space of time he has to live through until the men all take a seat and he can vote for the electric chair. He is suffering from a cold, and his hide—and tissue-raw nose—are chapped because of it. He’s a man in charge in his own world who doesn’t have quite what he needs to take charge of the jury room. That’s Fonda’s Juror No. 8.
And yet, where Rose and Begley could let No. 10 pipe up and down at well-placed intervals, like a stick figure controlled by a predictable hand that moves it up and waves it around when the script calls for grouchy and pulls it back down when it’s somebody else’s turn to talk, they instead draw on those caricature-like moments to form the deep, thorough arc of No. 10’s character.
Reginald Rose once said, “Facts may be colored by the personalities of the people who present them.” I believe that in 12 Angry Men, he uses that edict to his best advantage with Juror No. 10, with Fonda’s No. 8, calmly presenting a position against the grain and, by that calmness, lending it credence, running a close second. For a long time, we don’t see just how onerous Juror No. 10 will become, even when he telegraphs it with early invective because, from the beginning, No. 10 displays the temperament of a child. It colors the fact of who he is and somewhat disguises that he’s on a dangerous mission. As children do, he interrupts what he doesn’t like or understand. He calls people names, taking extra care to spell out for the jury foreman that he’s acting like a K-I-D kid. He paces the room when it’s his turn to talk and when it’s not his turn to talk and is the only juror unable to wait his turn when the group decides to deliberate in order of juror number. He makes a point and asks, “Whaddya think o’ that?!” When he believes he’s caught Fonda’s No. 8, among a few others, getting something wrong, he asks No. 8, his biggest rival and the room’s parent figure, with unmistakable petulance, “I thought you remembered everything. Don’t you remember that?” When his bad manners are attributed to the way he was brought up, he appears scolded and sulks, despite a clearly demonstrated ability to speak his mind. Somehow, when his childhood is challenged, it’s as though the child, too, is challenged. Like most children who are called out on misbehavior, he remains silent.
Begley not only convinces us these dichotomous versions of his character are nevertheless realistic, but he deftly draws on this trait that puts No. 10 just on the fringe of the adult circle formed by the other 11 men to add a kind of bewilderment and befuddlement to the character, rapidly looking back and forth at the men on either side of him, trying to keep up with what’s being said, all the while grasping at a tissue and wiping his nose, a bit of business that cements his childlike air (and steals the scene). It’s not quite endearing, though, from a character standpoint, because No. 10’s outlook is too mean and narrow not to mitigate what charm there might be in a fusty old guy blowing his nose and looking around to see what’s going on. But it does serve a keen purpose: For all of his bluster, we know No. 10 is a little unsure of himself and capable of being at the mercy of others to gain understanding, which becomes crucial to the authenticity of the film’s final act. (More critical, without an actor as talented as Begley in the role of Juror No. 10, Rose and Lumet would have a much harder time conveying these layers. As the film crescendos, we see that of the 12, including Fonda’s Juror No. 8, Begley, as Juror No. 10, is the least negotiable casting.)
Running alongside Juror No. 10’s lack of sophistication are an unabashed hatred for certain racial groups and the ability to stare daggers into any man in the room who disagrees with him or shows him up. At the beginning of the film, No. 10’s two sides—one childlike, one dangerously mean—hide one another, aided by Begley’s skill, but as Fonda’s side of the ball gains yards in the deliberation, and No. 10 is forced to play defense, we see his seeming straightforward outlook for what it is: a determined drive for one outcome. At first, he expects it, firing off the occasional pop-gun insult (the child). As he realizes he may not get it, he brings out the flame-thrower, and we remember, even as the childish demeanor erupts into a juvenile tantrum, that it is a man who’s aiming fire all over the room.
But it’s Juror No. 10 who gets burned. As he capitulates, it is his more grown-up self who not only sees reason, but who comes to understand that he wasn’t just incorrect in his facts earlier. He was wrong, in spirit and in motive. About many things. And the same childlike but dangerous bewilderment we see throughout is what allows him to give in when overwhelmed by just how wrong he is and let the adult admit it. At his lowest point, he is too chagrined to speak, taken down by his own bluster, and, yet, he’s somehow smart enough to know it. With embarrassed but mature reluctance, he does the right thing. In effect, he grows up.
The takedown is plausible not only because it’s delivered by an actor who skillfully takes us through each of No. 10’s nuances (Have I mentioned I believe Begley steals this movie?), but because it mimics No. 10’s whole way of being: He runs down the street like a child who’s old enough to be out after dark but who lacks the savvy to know he’s headed for trouble. It is also so absolute, that we know in that moment, the film has turned a permanent corner. The other 11 men, even Fonda’s compelling No. 8 and Cobb’s bullying No. 3 and E.G. Marshall’s erudite Juror No. 4, basically are who they are throughout the film. Their attitudes change, but their characters follow interesting but flat lines.
Juror No. 10, on the other hand, follows an arc, thus the casting of an actor of Begley’s caliber, and is the only one of the 12 in the jury room to do so. (Interestingly, the mostly off-screen defendant is the only other character to travel along an arc—neighborhood punk, domestic violence sufferer, family member of a murder victim, orphan—shaped by the men who deliberate his fate.) Juror No. 10 begins as a grumpy child, transitions into a desperate adult, and comes down on the other side having been hit upside the head by some harsh epiphanies about his nature. His journey is so acutely depicted and his arc so much a metaphor for the entire film, that when he falls—and matures—you can almost hear the squeaky sound of the curtain coming down. If the rest of the film (just four more minutes of deliberation plus a few minutes of polite wrap-up) didn’t include a stunning moment by Cobb, to stay with my sports analogy, we’d be in garbage time. Even with Fonda and Cobb on the field, Rose winds up the figurative final two minutes of the fourth quarter pretty quickly. The reference-arc in the film—No. 10’s—has come to a close, and it’s time to shake off the peanut shells and head for the parking lot. ♠EL