Twelve Angry Men (1954 live television broadcast)

by Finchley Atticus

snip 12 angry men 3

12 Angry Men (1954) Live Television Broadcast)
Finchley Atticus’s rating: 4/5
Director: Franklin Schaffner
Lead Actors: Robert Cummings, Franchot Tone, Edward Arnold
Genre: Drama

Sixty years ago Twelve Angry Men was broadcast on US television. Not the famous motion picture we saw during our high school legal studies class, where we willed Henry Fonda on as lone holdout Juror 8 standing up for due process in a jury’s deliberations. I’m referring to the 1954 television broadcast, the original incarnation of the famous story written by Reginald Rose. The one that spawned not only the famous 1957 film starring Henry Fonda, but also celebrated film adaptations in Germany, India and Russia, as well as countless theatrical performances worldwide – including a 2013 theatrical presentation at the Victorian Supreme Court, performed by members of the Victorian Bar (see Ffyona Livingstone Clark’s review).

Thanks to YouTube, we are able to watch this 50 minute television classic, which debuted during the era of American TV’s “Golden Age of Television”. One of the most remarkable aspects of Twelve Angry Men’s 1954 broadcast is that it was, believe it or not, televised live to an audience of millions. What’s more remarkable is that it was common for television dramas to be broadcast live during the Golden Age. No second takes, but no doubt numerous rehearsals. The margin for error in a live broadcast is virtually nil, with actors having to not only know the lines by heart, but also sustain drama and ensure they are at the right spot at the right time, working with the fellow actors and technical crew like precise clockwork. With several cameras rolling at once, every actor had to choreograph their movements with their fellow 11 actors, all in one room in front of an audience of millions (halfway through the telecast you actually see a television camera for a fleeting moment). No pressure here! Incidentally, live television drama has seen a mini-revival recently with the US medical drama ER broadcasting a live episode in 1997, the Australian police drama Blue Heelers broadcasting live in 2004, The West Wing televising a live debate between its two presidential candidates in 2005, and gritty British soap opera Eastenders giving its’ audience a live episode in 2010.

The performances in Twelve Angry Men are masterful, with the 12 actors – led by Robert Cummings as the famous Juror 8 – giving strong yet sensitive and dramatic performances. The fact the performances were live adds an extra edge to the production. One can only imagine how conscious the actors were of the fact that millions of people watched them live that one evening in 1954. Maybe the nervous emotion of performing live contributed to the passionate performances, with each juror staking out their position in deciding whether to declare guilty or not guilty, and at the same time being conscious not to block the camera’s view of a fellow actor and spoiling the show for millions of viewers. The fact that Cummings won an Emmy Award for his performance as Juror 8 is indicative of the high quality of the performances in Twelve Angry Men.

Watching Twelve Angry Men starkly reminds us of the famous issues grappled by the jurors and which resonate with lawyers and the public generally. “If the kid didn’t kill the father, who did?” to which a juror responds “That’s not the question.” From a jurisprudential perspective, it’s a fascinating question, as I’m sure deep down most criminal defence lawyers and the public at large really want to know if the person in the dock being prosecuted really committed the crime, as well as wanting to know the motive. Of course though, law students are taught ad nauseum that it’s the question of beyond reasonable doubt that is the true issue for jurors, and it’s for us to be the lone juror at dinner parties of civilians that attempt to sift through the truth in heated discussions of headline grabbing murder trials, even if the general public are misinformed by ranking reasonable doubt below the search for the “real perpetrator” (Exhibit A: the Lindy Chamberlain trial).

The story of Twelve Angry Men will always fascinate and resonate with lawyers, especially criminal lawyers, possibly because in Australia at least, lawyers are by law barred from jury service. Lawyers are eligible to become judges (although I can’t imagine a movie called “Seven Grumpy Judges” about the High Court), and mingle professionally with them at law functions and even social and charity functions. I’m sure some lawyers have judges as friends. Yet a lawyer will never know first-hand what it’s like to be a juror, one of 12 to decide the fate of the accused. Sure, lawyers know of friends or colleagues who did jury service, and they will read a juror’s account of convicting the accused. But a lawyer can never be a juror. Even though lawyers can socialise with judges (to a respectable point), to socialise with jurors is off-limits and would risk a trial miscarriage. Of course one reason for this is that judges are perceived to be less susceptible to undue influence from lawyers and other external forces (although history shows that some judges have been accused of being subject to political influence). Yet jurors are the primary decision makers in a criminal trial, the ones who decides guilt or not, the ones whose roles will leave lawyers in wonderment or despair.

Twelve Angry Men will not leave you in despair, but rather will leave you wondering how many juries really do have the benefit of a Juror Number 8 to ensure due process occurs in the jury room.