Tag Archives: 12 Angry Men

Refer Madness: A Name that Named Names

rmRefer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

A patron who calls regularly — usually looking for the value of an old book or baseball card — had a pretty direct question for me today: “Was Lee J. Cobb blacklisted?”

Nope, but just barely.

Born Leo Jacoby (get it? Lee J. Cobb[y]?), Cobb most iconically featured in 1954’s On the Waterfront and 1957’s 12 Angry Men, two highly regarded and politically aware films that comment on the Red Scare paranoia of 1950s America. According to Victor Navasky’s 1980 book Naming Names, Cobb was accused of being a Communist in a 1951 HUAC testimony by actor and actual former Communist Larry Parks. Called to testify but refusing to do so for two years, Cobb finally relented in 1953 and named twenty former Community Party members.

Cobb’s reason for doing so, as told in Naming Names, is fascinating and blunt:

When the facilities of the government of the United States are drawn on an individual it can be terrifying. The blacklist is just the opening gambit—being deprived of work. Your passport is confiscated. That’s minor. But not being able to move without being tailed is something else. After a certain point it grows to implied as well as articulated threats, and people succumb. My wife did, and she was institutionalized. The HUAC did a deal with me. I was pretty much worn down. I had no money. I couldn’t borrow. I had the expenses of taking care of the children. Why am I subjecting my loved ones to this? If it’s worth dying for, and I am just as idealistic as the next fellow. But I decided it wasn’t worth dying for, and if this gesture was the way of getting out of the penitentiary I’d do it. I had to be employable again.

And he was, the next year, in On the Waterfront, written by Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg, two other Hollywood figures who testified to HUAC.

Sources: 1

12 Angry Men

Published in the North Central Chronicle on Feb. 22, 2008, as part of a series called “Chad Picks Classic Flicks.”

I was about 7 years old when O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder. I’ve seen the highlights—the slow-speed chase, O.J. struggling with the glove—but I don’t remember the sensational media coverage or the racial debates regarding the verdict. I can only assume the jury felt tremendous pressure to get it right; a guilty verdict would have sent Simpson to death row, while ruling him not guilty would set him free.

The question of guilty versus innocent and right versus wrong has captivated rational minds for centuries. In our justice system, the final judgment of wrongdoers is laid on the conscience and common sense of their peers. But when fallible and differing human beings must unite under one clear, unanimous decision, there is bound to be conflict. And conflict is exactly what happens in Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957).

A young ruffian has been accused of premeditated murder. The judge sends the jury into deliberation of what appears to be an open-and-shut case. The twelve jurors file into a cramped back room to debate the case, but 11 of them have already assumed the defendant’s guilt. The twelfth one, however, is not so sure. He, juror number 8 (Henry Fonda) is the only one who leaves room for reasonable doubt.

So they are forced to endure the stifling heat and convince Juror Number 8 to change his vote. As the tension builds with the humidity, the jurors sweat the details of the case and each man’s faults and prejudices surface. One man sees the defendant as a stereotypical child of the slums and makes his judgments accordingly. Another cares more about making it to a baseball game that night than deciding the fate of a man.

We learn of the case piece by piece through the jury’s deliberation, and slowly we see our own perceptions of the defendant’s alleged crime, and of the jurors themselves, change. Juror Number 8 is meant to be the hero of the film, but he represents more; he is willing to stand up for an unpopular belief amidst heavy and vocal opposition, and his voice of reason and empathy starts to convince other jurors to take change their vote. But I could see a part of myself in each one of the jurors; the reasonable, the indifferent, the stubborn, and the intolerant.

12 Angry Men is similar to Rear Window in that all but about three minutes of the film takes place in one room, creating a heightened sense of claustrophobia for the viewer and for the jurors. In a pressure-filled situation like that, the worst in a person spills out, resulting in ad hominem attacks and irrational behavior. It’s like The Real World, except well-made.

This film should not have worked. Watching twelve men sit in a room and just talk for an hour and a half does not sound very fun, but the actors inhabit their characters and make us believe we’re in that stuffy room with them. We are drawn into solving the murder mystery with the jurors, and we soon start to make our own conclusions, however unsubstantiated or unfair they are.

12 Angry Men succeeds were a good dramatic film should: it entertains us, with colorful characters waging a war of words in a stress-filled environment; and it also makes us think, about the concept of right and wrong and about our own prejudices. With a one-two punch like that, 12 Angry Men deserves no less than top billing on your Netflix queue.