I N 1954 A young screenwriter received a summons for jury service in New York. For the rest of his life he would describe how he sat with his peers in a homicide case, helping argue the conviction down from manslaughter to assault. The accused had punched a loudmouth who had pulled a knife in a bar and, after being struck, fell and banged his head. Reginald Rose recalled that he left the court, sat down at his typewriter and wrote the screenplay for the landmark film “12 Angry Men”.
But a bit of sleuthing reveals that he may not have served on the jury. Phil Rosenzweig, the author of this fascinating book about Rose’s masterpiece, searched in court records and found the most similar case. The names of all 12 jurors and both alternates are listed; Rose’s 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 up but dismissed, perhaps staying on to watch the trial.
At any rate, something inspired him. Alongside “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Death of a Salesman”, two other mid-century dramas, “12 Angry Men” became a staple of American civic entertainment. Like them it appeared in several forms: first as a live teleplay, later as a film starring Henry Fonda and in a long afterlife on stage. The film, made in 1957, depicts a roomful of jurors—all white men from various walks of life—struggling to reach a consensus in a murder case. Fonda’s lone holdout eventually persuades the others to join him in a verdict of not guilty. Along the way they confront prejudice, conformity, class and the sharp edges of the legal system.