I had already written about 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957) on this blog when I wrote about Lee J. Cobb’s paternal roles in this film and in Golden Boy (Rouben Mamoulian, 1939). But there’s another 12 Angry Men’s actor that obviously deserves to be discussed: Henry Fonda, juror #8, the hero of the story. I’ll be writing about this film for The Fondaton, a blogathon honouring the illustrious Fonda family. This one is being hosted by Michael from Sat in Your Lap. I must admit, I discover this blog with the blogathon announcement, but I’m sure eager to explore more of his writing! I think that blogathons honouring a family of actors are such a great idea as they allow many possibilities.
12 Angry Men is, in my opinion, the definition of a real tour de force. First, let’s not forget that this was Sidney Lumet’s first feature film, which is pretty impressive (if you’ve seen the film, I think you’ll agree). And then, he marked cinema more than once with masterpieces like Murder On the Orient Express (1974), Network (1976) or Dog Day Afternoon (1975). I yet have to see the latest, but I’ve heard it was great.
Second, the entire film takes place in one room, in real time. It’s like a theatre play. Well, it was based on a teleplay directed by Reginald Rose. The story is pretty simple: A jury has to determine if a boy is guilty of having killed his father or not. They do one first vote just to see where everyone stands at. They all vote guilty, except for one, juror #8 (Fonda), an architect. He has a reasonable doubt and, being a good person, he doesn’t believe in sending someone to the chair in a five-minute decision. His objective will be to convince the other jurors to change their minds.
Honestly, when I initially read what the film was about, it sounded boring to me. I mean, a whole 1h30 film about jurors debating? A 1h30 filmed conversation? Oh, but that’s the third tour de force: it’s far from being boring. As a matter of fact, it’s more thrilling than many movies I’ve seen that tempt to be. There an incredible tension that keeps you at the edge of your seat from beginning to end. And, not only a good script help for that but also the developement of the characters. They are 12 jurors, 12 angry men, but each one has their own distinct personality, each one has his word to say. Yes, Fonda is the star, but he doesn’t selfishly overshadow his pals. He interacts with them just as it should be and this is one more reason why 12 Angry Men is one of the best films that has ever been made.
If memory serves right, 12 Angry Men wasn’t my first Fonda film, but I think it’s the one that really made me notice him and confirmed the definitive talent he had. And I think that’s one of the films people will remember him most for. I have not seen all his films (far from it) but, in my opinion, this was probably his ultimate moment of glory. His performance is proof that to be great, acting doesn’t need to be eccentric or over the top. As we say in French, “la moderation a bien meilleur goût” (moderation tastes better). Fonda himself believe it was one of the best films he had made, even if the non-success at the box office resulted in him not receiving much money from it. Box-office failure? Yes, that’s pretty hard to believe for such a great film. The critical success, however, was a good one.
Interestingly, Henry Fonda was approached by United Artists to play in the film and produce it (with Reginal Rose). He hated the producing job, but this is important to mention as he actually is the one who hired Sidney Lumet to direct. He had seen his work on television and believed in his talent. He was right. So, a young 33 years old Lumet found himself directing his first feature film and working with actors who were probably much more used to Hollywood business than he was. This, obviously, was a huge step.
As soon as Henry Fonda’s character is presented to us, we know he’s ought to be interesting and creates a contrast with the rest of the jurors. We first notice him for his good temperament and his posed attitude. The jurors arrive in the room, discuss between themselves. But jurors #8 watches the street from the window, probably thinking about the case instead of discussing anodyne things. He’s a very thoughtful character and this is strongly supported by the calculation of Fonda’s acting. What I especially like about his character and performance is the contrast opposition created with the main antagonist, juror #3 played by Lee J. Cobb. His performance is as good but obviously very different for the sake of the character he was playing. While this one is very high tempered and takes the case very personally, Juror #8 remains rational and never loses his temper. That’s what allows him to be taken seriously and respected by most of the other jurors, even if most of them initially think the accused is guilty.
On the other hand, Fonda’s character also easily finds beautiful complicity with some of the characters, first with the old man, juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney). But eventually with more and more of them. One of my very favourite characters of the film is juror #11 (George Voskovec), a European watchmaker. He’s very intelligent and knows how to stand for himself. He’s respectful but firm and seriously has some of the best punchlines in the film. [spoiler alert] I love the moment where he decides to change his vote and Henry Fonda smiles at him with approval. [end of spoiler]
Henry Fonda’s performance in 12 Angry Men is a clever one. It’s one of the many pillars of this brilliant film, but it’s one of the strongest.
I want to thank Michael for hosting this nice blogathon! I invite you to check to other entries here.