In 2007, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The film was selected as the second-best courtroom drama ever by the American Film Institute during their AFI's 10 Top 10 list and is the highest courtroom drama on Rotten Tomatoes' Top 100 Movies of All Time.
In a New York City courthouse a jury commences, deliberating the case of an 18-year-old boy from a slum, on trial for allegedly stabbing his father to death. If there is any reasonable doubt they are to return a verdict of not guilty. If found guilty, the boy will receive a death sentence.
In a preliminary vote, all jurors vote "guilty" except Juror 8, who argues that the boy deserves some deliberation. This irritates some of the other jurors, who are impatient for a quick deliberation, especially Juror 7, who has tickets to the evening's Yankee game, and Juror 10, who demonstrates blatant prejudice against people from slums. Juror 8 questions the accuracy and reliability of the only two witnesses and the prosecution's claim that the murder weapon, a common switchblade (of which he possesses an identical copy), was "rare." Juror 8 argues that reasonable doubt exists and that he therefore cannot in conscience vote "guilty," but concedes that he has merely hung the jury.
Juror 8 suggests a secret ballot, from which he will abstain and agrees to change his vote if the others unanimously vote "guilty". The ballot is held and a new "not guilty" vote appears. An angry Juror 3 accuses Juror 5, who grew up in a slum, of changing his vote out of sympathy towards slum children. However, Juror 9 reveals it was he who changed his vote, agreeing there should be some discussion. Juror 8 argues that the noise of a passing train would have obscured the verbal threat that one witness claimed to have heard the boy tell his father: "I'm going to kill you". Then, Juror 5 changes his vote. Juror 11 also changes his vote, believing the boy would not likely have tried to retrieve the murder weapon from the scene if it had been cleaned of fingerprints.
Jurors 5, 6, and 8 question the witness's claim to have seen the defendant fleeing 15 seconds after hearing the father's body hit the floor, since he was physically incapable of reaching an appropriate vantage point in time due to a stroke. An angry Juror 3 shouts that they are losing their chance to "burn" the boy. Juror 8 accuses him of being a sadist, Juror 3 lunges at him and yells "I'll kill him, I'll kill him" and Juror 8 points out that he doesn't really mean it, securing his earlier argument that the statement "I'm going to kill you" might not have been meant literally. Jurors 2 and 6 change their votes, tying the vote at 6–6.
Then, a rainstorm strikes the city, threatening to cancel the game for which Juror 7 has tickets. Juror 4 doubts the boy's alibi of being at the movies, because he could not recall it in much detail. Juror 8 tests how well Juror 4 remembers previous days, which he does, with difficulty. Juror 2 questions the likelihood that the boy, who was more than half a foot shorter than his father, could have inflicted the downward stab wound found in the body. Next, Jurors 3 and 8 conduct an experiment to see whether a shorter person could stab downwards on a taller person. The experiment proves the possibility, but Juror 5 steps up and demonstrates the correct way to hold and use a switchblade; revealing that anyone skilled with a switchblade, as the boy would be, would always stab underhanded at an upwards angle against an opponent who was taller than them, as the grip of stabbing downwards would be too awkward and the act of changing hands too time-consuming.
Increasingly impatient, Juror 7 changes his vote to hasten the deliberation, which earns him the ire of Jurors 3 and 11, both on opposite sides of the debate until Juror 7 admits that he truly believes the boy is not guilty. Then, Jurors 12 and 1 change their votes, leaving only three dissenters: Jurors 3, 4, and 10. Juror 10 vents a torrent of condemnation of slum-born people, claiming they are no better than animals who kill for fun. Most of the others turn their backs to him, except for Juror 4, who says to him, "Sit down and don't open your mouth again." Juror 10 then humiliatingly sits down in a corner by himself.
When the remaining "guilty" voters are pressed to explain themselves, Juror 4 states that, despite all the previous evidence, the woman from across the street who saw the killing still stands as solid evidence. Juror 12 then reverts his vote, making the vote 8–4.
Juror 9, seeing Juror 4 rub his nose (which is being irritated by his glasses), realizes that the woman who allegedly saw the murder had impressions in the sides of her nose, indicating that she wore glasses, but did not wear them in court out of vanity. Other jurors, including Juror 4, confirm that they saw the same thing. Juror 8 adds that she would not have been wearing them while trying to sleep and points out that on her own evidence, the attack happened so swiftly that she wouldn't have had time to put them on. Jurors 12, 10, and 4 change their vote to "not guilty", leaving only Juror 3. Juror 3 gives a long and increasingly tortured string of arguments, building on earlier remarks that his relationship with his own son is deeply strained, which is ultimately why he wants the boy to be guilty. He finally loses his temper and tears up a photo of him and his son, but suddenly breaks down crying and changes his vote to "not guilty", making the vote unanimous. The jurors then leave the room to reveal their verdict to the court.
Outside, Jurors 8 (Davis) and 9 (McCardle) exchange names and all of the jurors descend the courthouse steps to return to their individual lives.
The twelve jurors in the order in which they are referred to. They are seated in this order in the movie.
- Martin Balsam as an assistant high school American football coach. As the jury foreman, he is somewhat preoccupied with his duties, although helpful to accommodate others. He is the ninth to ultimately vote "not guilty", never giving the reason for changing his vote.
- John Fiedler as a meek and unpretentious bank worker who is at first dominated by others, but as the climax builds up, so does his courage. He is the fifth to ultimately vote "not guilty".
- Lee J. Cobb as a businessman and distraught father, opinionated, disrespectful and stubborn with a temper. The main antagonist and most passionate advocate of a guilty verdict throughout the film, he is the last to vote "not guilty".
- E. G. Marshall as a rational, unflappable, self-assured and analytical stock broker who is concerned only with the facts. He is the eleventh to ultimately vote "not guilty".
- Jack Klugman as a man who grew up in a violent slum, does not take kindly to insults about his upbringing. A Baltimore Orioles fan. He is the third to ultimately vote "not guilty". When Klugman died in 2012, he was the last surviving juror.
- Edward Binns as a house painter, tough but principled and respectful. He is the sixth to ultimately vote "not guilty".
- Jack Warden as a salesman and New York Yankees fan, who is so eager to leave in order to attend a baseball game that he becomes impatient with the deliberations, despite the fact that the defendant's life is at stake. He is the seventh to ultimately vote "not guilty".
- Henry Fonda as an architect and the first to vote "not guilty". At the end of the film he reveals to Juror #9 that his name is Davis, one of only two jurors to reveal his name.
- Joseph Sweeney as a wise and observant retiree. He is the second to vote "not guilty". At the end of the film, he reveals to Juror #8 that his name is McCardle, one of only two jurors to reveal his name.
- Ed Begley as a garage owner; a pushy and loud-mouthed bigot. He is the tenth to ultimately vote "not guilty".
- George Voskovec as a European watchmaker and naturalized American citizen. He is polite and makes a point of speaking with proper English grammar. He is the fourth to ultimately vote "not guilty".
- Robert Webber as a wisecracking, indecisive advertising executive. He is the only Juror to change his vote more than once during deliberations, initially voting "guilty", changing three times until he is the eighth to ultimately vote "not guilty".
UncreditedRudy Bond as the judge
James Kelly as the guard
Billy Nelson as the court clerk
John Savoca as the accused
Reginald Rose's screenplay for 12 Angry Men was initially produced for television (starring Robert Cummings as Juror 8), and was broadcast live on the CBS program Studio One in September 1954. A complete kinescope of that performance, which had been missing for years and was feared lost, was discovered in 2003. It was staged at Chelsea Studios in New York City.
The success of the television production resulted in a film adaptation. Sidney Lumet, whose prior directorial credits included dramas for television productions such as The Alcoa Hour and Studio One, was recruited by Henry Fonda and Rose to direct. 12 Angry Men was Lumet's first feature film, and for Fonda and Rose, who co-produced the film, it was their first and only role as film producers. Fonda later stated that he would never again produce a film.
The filming was completed after a short but rigorous rehearsal schedule in less than three weeks on a tight budget of $340,000 (equivalent to $2,899,000 in 2016).
At the beginning of the film, the cameras are positioned above eye level and mounted with wide-angle lenses to give the appearance of greater depth between subjects, but as the film progresses the focal length of the lenses is gradually increased. By the end of the film, nearly everyone is shown in closeup using telephoto lenses from a lower angle, which decreases or "shortens" depth of field. Lumet stated that his intention in using these techniques with cinematographer Boris Kaufman was to create a nearly palpable claustrophobia.
On its first release, 12 Angry Men received critical acclaim. A. H. Weiler of The New York Times wrote "It makes for taut, absorbing, and compelling drama that reaches far beyond the close confines of its jury room setting." His observation of the twelve men was that "their dramas are powerful and provocative enough to keep a viewer spellbound." However, the film was a box office disappointment. The advent of color and widescreen productions may have contributed to its disappointing box office performance. It was not until its first airing on television that the movie finally found its audience.
The film is today viewed as a classic, highly regarded from both a critical and popular viewpoint: Roger Ebert listed it as one of his "Great Movies". The American Film Institute named Juror 8, played by Henry Fonda, 28th in a list of the 50 greatest movie heroes of the 20th century. AFI also named 12 Angry Men the 42nd most inspiring film, the 88th most heart-pounding film and the 87th best film of the past hundred years. The film was also nominated for the 100 movies list in 1998. As of March 2017, the film holds a 100% approval rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. In 2011, the film was the second most screened film in secondary schools in the United Kingdom.
American Film Institute lists:AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies – Nominated
AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills – No. 88
AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains: Juror No. 8 – No. 28 Hero
AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – No. 42
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – No. 87
AFI's 10 Top 10 – No. 2 Courtroom Drama
The film was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Writing of Adapted Screenplay. It lost to the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai in all three categories. At the 7th Berlin International Film Festival, the film won the Golden Bear Award.
Speaking at a screening of the film during the 2010 Fordham University Law School Film festival, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor stated that seeing 12 Angry Men while she was in college influenced her decision to pursue a career in law. She was particularly inspired by immigrant Juror 11's monologue on his reverence for the American justice system. She also told the audience of law students that, as a lower-court judge, she would sometimes instruct juries to not follow the film's example, because most of the jurors' conclusions are based on speculation, not fact. Sotomayor noted that events such as Juror 8 entering a similar knife into the proceeding, doing outside research into the case matter in the first place, and ultimately the jury as a whole making broad, wide-ranging assumptions far beyond the scope of reasonable doubt (such as the inferences regarding the "Old Woman" wearing glasses) would never be allowed to occur in a real life jury situation, and would in fact have yielded a mistrial (assuming, of course, that applicable law permitted the content of jury deliberations to be revealed).
The movie has had a number of adaptations. A 1963 German TV production ("Die Zwölf Geschworenen") was directed by Günter Gräwert. A 1991 homage by Kōki Mitani, Juninin no Yasashii Nihonjin ("12 gentle Japanese"), posits a Japan with a jury system and features a group of normal Japanese people grappling with their responsibility in the face of Japanese cultural norms. The 1987 Indian film Ek Ruka Hua Faisla ("a pending decision") is a remake of the film, with an almost identical storyline. Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov also made a 2007 adaptation, 12. A 2015 Chinese adaptation, 12 Citizens, follows the plot of the original 1957 American movie while including characters reflecting contemporary Beijing society, including a cab driver, guard, businessman, policeman, a retiree persecuted in a 1950s' political movement, and others. The detective drama television show Veronica Mars, which like the film includes a theme of class issues, featured an episode "One Angry Veronica" in which the title character is selected for jury duty. The episode flips the film's format and depicts one holdout convincing the jury to convict the privileged defendants of assault against a less well-off victim, despite their lawyers initially convincing 11 jury members of a not guilty verdict. In 1997, a television remake of the film under the same title was released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
The film has also been subject to parody. In 2015, the Comedy Central TV series Inside Amy Schumer aired a half-hour parody of the film titled "12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer". BBC Radio comedy Hancock's Half Hour, starring Tony Hancock and Sid James, written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, broadcast a half-hour parody on October 16, 1959, also known as Twelve Angry Men. The Flintstones story "Disorder in the Court" and The Simpsons story "The Boy Who Knew Too Much" similarly feature the respective patriarchs of both families playing holdout jurors. Family Guy paid tribute to the film with its Season 11 episode titled "12 and a Half Angry Men". King Of The Hill acknowledged the film with their parody "Nine Pretty Darn Angry Men" in season 3. The American sitcom Happy Days also features a similar story when Howard Cunningham and Fonzie get picked for a jury, with Fonzie being the lone hold-out for innocence and swaying the rest of the jury in the season 5 episode "Fonzie for the Defense". Saturday Night Live parodied the film in 1984 in a sketch called First Draft Theater.