Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: 12 Angry Men

Director: Sidney Lumet

Writer: Reginald Rose

Cast: Henry Fonda, Lee. J Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec, Martin Balsam, John Fielder, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Robert Webber

Cert: U (extras PG)

Running time: 96 mins

Year: 1957

Film: medium_5

What’s the story: 11 men on a jury believe a young man guilty of first degree murder, for which he’ll receive the death penalty. One juror has doubts.

What’s the verdict: When weather turned bad on location for She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, an assistant to director John Ford asked what could they shoot now. Ford replied, “…the most interesting and exciting thing in the world: a human face.”

12 Angry Men boasts a gallery of interesting, exciting faces. And not just the jurors’. An opening tracking shot through the halls of justice up to court room 228 features faces shaken by the weight of Justice and elated by its mercy.

Forgive the purple prose. We’re talking all-time favourites here and only superlatives will suffice.

Sidney Lumet’s feature film debut, after six years honing his craft on live TV drama, is a powerhouse of directorial dynamism and mesmeric performances. Made more remarkable for being set almost exclusively in one drab jury room.

Only three minutes of screen time occurs outside the increasingly claustrophobic confines of that room, on a stifling New York summer’s day with a busted fan offering no relief.

Reginald Rose’s screenplay, adapted from his teleplay for a 50-minute Studio One drama broadcast live in 1954, has an irresistible hook. An Hispanic youth is accused of murdering his father with a switchblade. 11 jurors believe the case clear cut and vote guilty. But, juror no.8 (Fonda) wishes to discuss his doubts about the prosecution’s evidence…

Lumet and Rose use the story to examine how personal and racial prejudice colours viewpoints and clouds judgement. World War 2 was recent history and dialogue about the dangers of labelling entire groups of people would have resonated with audiences then (and do so still).

The McCarthy anti-communist witch hunts were also fresh in the mind, and bullying from the more rabid jurors – particularly the openly racist Juror no.10 (Begley) and the troubled Juror no.3 (Cobb) – recalls the rejection of free speech that typified the House of Un-American Activities Committee.

Not that 12 Angry Men is a dry civics lecture. This is fiery stuff, shot and performed with the drive of a beat-the-clock thriller. Lumet’s strategy for framing early scenes in wide shot before moving in for sweaty close-ups as tensions increase is legendary.

The script has been stage adapted numerous times, but the film is pure cinema. Lumet gets his camera and cast prowling about the room, as performers chew on Rose’s Oscar nominated dialogue.

And what performers they are. Everyone brings real life to their largely unnamed characters (two names are revealed in the final moments). But, standouts are Fonda, Cobb, E.G Marshall’s implacable Juror no.4, Sweeney’s wise retiree Juror no.9 (carried over from the teleplay along with Voskovec’s Juror no.11) and Jack Warden’s Juror no.7, more concerned with a baseball match that evening than the defendant’s life.

Each element of the case is dissected as reasonable doubt seeps in. To modern eyes not all the counter-questioning bears scrutiny. A Supreme Court Justice who studied law because of her love for the film also used it as an example to jurors of how speculation has no place when reaching a verdict.

Not that the film says the case is without issues. Despite Fonda’s symbolic white suit, he does admit his doubts may be ill-founded. So, the film’s true villains are the prosecution and defense for not mounting better arguments.

Memorable moments pepper the film. Juror no.8 producing a switchblade identical to the supposedly rare murder weapon. The room turning their backs on a baffled Juror no.10 during his bigoted tirade. Juror no.3’s climactic meltdown; it may be Fonda’s movie, but Cobb’s complex performance is sensational.

12 Angry Men won top prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 1957, but met only modest box office success. Ironically, it wasn’t until later television broadcasts that its significance grew.

The film would cast a long cultural shadow. Everything from Hancock’s Half Hour to The Simpsons have paid homage. Inside Amy Schumer used the film for an episode in which execs argue whether Schumer is attractive enough to appear on TV.

HBO’s five-star film Conspiracy is a diabolical inversion of the film, as one high ranking Nazi convinces influential party members to support the Final Solution.

Remakes include a 1997 TV-movie directed by William Friedkin with Jack Lemmon in the Fonda role, plus Japanese and Russian versions that worked its themes into local concerns.

The verdict is in: masterpiece.

DISC AND EXTRAS: We’re running out of ways to praise Criterion’s typically excellent Blu-ray releases.

12 Angry Men receives full bells and whistles treatment, from the crisp Blu-ray transfer to the first-class extras.

The anchors among the supplements are two teleplays made by Rose and Lumet during the 1950s. The original 1954 Twelve Angry Men, written by Rose and directed by Patton helmer Franklin Schaffner, and Tragedy in a Temporary Town scripted by Rose and directed by Lumet.

Studio One’s Twelve Angry Men, rediscovered in 2004 after being thought lost, is a fascinating comparison. 50 minutes long, Dial M for Murder’s Robert Cummings is Juror no.8 in what now resembles a dry-run for the film, but then was groundbreaking television, with a more ambiguous ending than its big screen counterpart.

Broadcast live, Schaffner’s dynamic camerawork and the compelling performances continue to impress. Camera equipment occasionally sneaks into frame, but even Lumet’s version does not escape this: a shadow of a camera rig appears bottom left at 57:55 when Fonda’s Juror no.8 is re-enacting a witness’ shuffle to his front door.

1956’s The Alcoa Hour’s Tragedy in a Temporary Town is a bleak but breathtaking account of mob justice on a construction camp. After a young girl is attacked, workmen in the camp led by 12 Angry Men player Jack Warden form a vigilante group to root out the culprit. Lloyd Bridges is the sole voice of reason, but cannot stop matters escalating when the mob target a Puerto Rican family. Riveting, with a violent climax that still jolts.

Image and sound quality on both teleplays betray their age and the limitations of video recording at the time, but are wonderful additions.

Both feature 15 minute introductions by Ron Simon, curator at the Paley Center for Media, NYC. Simon provides background history on Studio One and The Alcoa Hour, the social importance of live TV drama during the 50s, and the key writers and directors.

Lumet on Lumet is a 23-minute compilation of interviews with the director on his life and career, providing useful background on the complexities of working in 1950s TV production, and how this formed his filmmaking style.

Reflections on Sidney is a moving 10-minute featurette. Once blacklisted writer Walter Bernstein recounts how the fearless Lumet ensured his friend still got work when Bernstein was persona non-grata in Hollywood.

Groundhog Day cinematographer John Bailey discusses the life and genius of 12 Angry Men director of photography Boris Kaufman in an illuminating 38-minute documentary, while a 25-minute special discusses the various versions produced from Rose’s script.

Add in the movie’s trailer and you have another must-have Criterion Blu-ray.

Court adjourned.

Rob Daniel
Twitter: rob_a_Daniel

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