New book explores curious origins of “12 Angry Men”

Reginald Rose and the Journey of 12 Angry Men. By Phil Rosenzweig. Fordham University Press; 314 pages; $ 27.95 and £ 22.99

IN 1954 A young screenwriter received a summons for a jury service in New York. For the rest of his life, he will describe how he sat down with his peers in a homicide case, helping to plead a conviction from manslaughter to assault. The accused punched a loudmouth who pulled out a knife in a bar and, after being hit, fell and hit his head. Reginald Rose recalled that he left court, sat down at his typewriter and wrote the screenplay for the flagship film “12 Angry Men”.

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But a little detective reveals that he may not have been on the jury. Phil Rosenzweig, the author of this fascinating book on Rose’s masterpiece, searched the court records and found the most similar case. The names of the 12 jurors and the two substitutes are listed; Rose is not among them. Yet the crime was too obscure to be known beyond the courtroom. The best explanation, Mr Rosenzweig writes, is that Rose was called in but fired, possibly staying to attend the trial.

In any case, something inspired him. Alongside “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Death of a Salesman,” two other mid-century dramas, “12 Angry Men” has become a staple of American civic entertainment. Like them, he appeared in many forms: first as a live-action TV movie, later as a film starring Henry Fonda, and in a long afterlife on stage. The film, made in 1957, depicts a room full of jurors – all white men from various backgrounds – struggling to reach consensus in a murder case. Fonda’s lonely resistance eventually persuades the others to join him in a not guilty verdict. Along the way, they confront prejudice, conformity, class and the sharp edges of the legal system.

Mr. Rosenzweig devotes a lot of space to the life and works of Rose, but the book is the strongest on directing the classic film. The challenge of writing the script was to “craft a case against the accused strong enough that almost all jurors would vote guilty and then eliminate the evidence” so they could plausibly change their minds. Two weeks of rehearsal preceded the shooting. As the actors walked through their lines, director Sidney Lumet “moved around the room to imagine each shot.” At first, he raised the camera, gradually bringing it lower and closer to the action to create claustrophobic tension.

Most of the 12 actors had theater backgrounds and the shoot had a repertoire feel. “You didn’t mess around on a Hank Fonda set,” the assistant director said; but the atmosphere was much more convivial than that represented on the screen, the praise of Lumet raising the morale of all. The days “were filled with wild kisses and hugs and exclamations of joy,” said Rose, a low-key writer among the enthusiastic types of show business. “Actors have never been so loved as when they were loved by Sidney Lumet.”

Critical success and crush in Europe, the film bombed as soon as it was released in America, not having resisted the greatest hits such as “Funny Face”, “The Ten Commandments” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai”. Yet over the years its stature has grown and it has been remade several times. The American Film Institute now recognizes it as one of the best films of the 20th century. There is not much sacred in American public life anymore. The jury itself is one of the holdouts. â– 

This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of Print Publishing under the title “Assuming They’re Wrong?” “

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