ON DVD & BLU-RAY
12 Angry Men (1957) Blu Ray (The Criterion Collection)
Adapted from a 1954 teleplay written by Reginald Rose, this film version of 12 Angry Men looks at a 12-man jury deliberating in a back room at the courthouse on a sweltering summer’s day, over the seemingly open-and-shut case of an 18 year old Latino boy from the slums who has been accused of murdering his father - an offence that would get him sentenced to the chair if he is found guilty. While 11 of the men are convinced by the evidence - including two separate witness testimonies - Juror #8 (played by Henry Fonda) has a number of doubts in his mind. When an initial vote is placed before their discussion he is the only one to judge him to be not guilty.
As he probes the other jurors to look more deeply into the case we start to see them, one by one, changing their verdicts. However, some of the others in the group, in particular Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb) and Juror #10 (Ed Begley), have clear prejudices that are harder to shift.
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12 Angry Men was the big screen debut of director Sidney Lumet, and is still rightly regarded by many as his all-time greatest work as well as being one of the finest films ever made. While everything bar a minute or two of bookend scenes takes place focussing on a bunch of talking heads in one room, Lumet manages the incredible feat of turning what could have been a staid and stagy affair into a powerful piece of undiluted cinema. He brings out all of the sweaty atmosphere of the jurors’ debating room as day eventually turns to night, and the dramatic intensity is later underscored by a noisy thunderstorm. He makes effective use of framing and blocking, closing in on faces during the most intense dramatic exchanges, and grouping people together onscreen according to their shifting affiliations. One interim vote count is represented with disarming simplicity via a montage of raised hands. A flick-knife presented as evidence is jabbed into tabletop in a jolting closeup. Credit is also due to Carl Lerner’s tight editing in these scenes. The use of sound is also highly effective, with periods of pin-drop silence and an almost overwhelmingly loud thunderstorm amping up the tension to maximum.
That’s not to say that writing and performances are unimportant parts of 12 Angry Men - far from it. The script is highly intelligent, as each of the 12 jurors gradually reveals more about their characters, lives and attitudes. As more and more onion layers peel away, they begin to see parts of both the accused and the witnesses in themselves and each other, and in doing so gradually come to the understanding that the case might not be as cut-and-dried as things originally seem. There’s a sense of irony and nuance developing throughout that’s alternately funny, disturbing and sad; such as one classic moment when Juror #10 proclaims “Bright? He's a common ignorant slob. He don't even speak good English.” Juror #11 responds by pointing out his glaring hypocrisy via correcting “don’t” to “doesn’t”. The drama never flags as the disparate personalities clash, bicker and stick stubbornly to their respective viewpoints. Since there’s a potentially innocent life at stake, the whole thing plays out like a detective thriller - albeit one where the real danger is talked about rather than depicted.
Although Henry Fonda was by far the biggest star at the time the film was made (and he also co-produced with Reginald Rose), he resists the temptation to hog the limelight and allows it to be treated as an ensemble piece. He’s still excellent as a thoughtful but persuasive architect - and has plenty of dramatic highlights of his own while he demonstrates his theories to a skeptical audience - but the rest of the cast aren’t overshadowed by him. For me, the standouts are Lee J. Cobb as a sanctimonious, angry bully of a man, and Joseph Sweeney as the oldest - and one of the wisest - of the bunch.
12 Angry Men is an inspirational and insightful look at the nature of judgement and justice, and an absolute must-see for any film fan.
Runtime: 96 mins
Dir: Sidney Lumet
Script: Reginald Rose
Starring: Martin Balsam, John Fielder, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Henry Fonda, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec, Robert Webber
Contrast levels and the many shades of grey (I’m talking in the image, not just the characters’ varying attitudes) come out really well in the picture. The beads of sweat on the actors’ faces can be picked out even at a middle distance.
Some voices are a little faint, but for the most part the uncompressed monaural soundtrack sounds incredibly crisp. The rain heard outside the building sounds unnervingly like it’s really going on outside the viewer’s own window.
The essay “Lumet’s Faces” by writer and law professor Thane Rosenbaum. He explores 12 Angry Men’s commentary on the human-rooted flaws of the American legal system, its influence on subsequent cinema and TV, and Lumet’s Jewish upbringing that informed his ideas about humanity’s propensity to deal with others through a prism of bias and group loyalties. It’s an intelligent and worthy essay.
On the disc itself are the following:
The Television Version
The original 50-minute Emmy award-winning teleplay, written by Reginald Rose, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and televised live in 1954, is included here. It features an optional Ron Simon introduction filmed by The Criterion Collection in 2011. Simon talks about the production’s significance as part of the TV revolution of the 1950s, and how the script was based on Rose’s own experiences.
In comparison to the film, the teleplay isn’t as polished or artfully directed (unsurprising, considering its format) and some of the characters feel relatively colourless and cipher-like. Even so, the drama is still gripping, and the conclusion somewhat more ambiguous than that of the big screen version.
12 Angry Men: From TV to the Big Screen
A Criterion Collection interview featuring film scholar Vance Kepley. He looks behind the scenes at the complexities of making both versions: the difficulties of synching camerawork to actors in the teleplay, and of maintaining continuity when shooting out-of-sequence on the film. He also discusses the differences in content between the two versions. He mentions that Henry Fonda agreed to defer his salary to keep the budget low (it was under $400,000) and that, despite considerable critical acclaim, the film didn’t get a wide U.S. release as its initial screening in New York was poorly attended.
Excerpts from a series of interviews conducted with the director through the years. During the selection of snippets we hear him talk about his life, starting out as a child theatre actor. In adulthood he formed his own actors’ group, and in doing so got his hands dirty directing. He was then talked into directing for TV by Yul Brynner. He explains the complexities of coordinating two weekly live shows, and how cinema directing is a piece of cake by comparison. The later interview segments cover 12 Angry Men itself.
Reflections on Sidney
A new interview with Lumet’s friend and collaborator Walter Bernstein. It’s particularly interesting as he discusses his blacklisting, and how his friendship with Lumet allowed him to work on TV shows under a pseudonym. He talks of his now-departed friend with undeniable respect, describing him as having a “bottom line” - refusing to take certain projects he was offered if they didn’t fit in with his principles.
On Reginald Rose
A 15-minute piece by Ron Simon on Rose’s career as a TV writer. He talks about his recurring themes of prejudice and mob opinion, as well as the compromises he needed to make for the format during the era. His teleplay Thunder on Sycamore Street, for instance, had to change the originally proposed black family onto an ex-convict’s family, while Tragedy in a Temporary Town changed the workers’ homes from aluminium to wood due to demands from the sponsors - Alcoa Aluminium. A fascinating featurette.
Tragedy in a Temporary Town
The original 1956 version of Reginald Rose’s teleplay, directed by Sidney Lumet, is set in a construction workers’ camp. When a 15 year old girl is indecently assaulted in the woods nearby, some of the workers decide to bond together to form a vigilante mob, despite one of their number named Alec (played by Lloyd Bridges) pleading with them to leave the matter to the police. As the mob goes from house-to-house attempting to find the killer, Alec’s own son admits to being the culprit. He faces a moral dilemma over whether to protect his son, or to allow the mob’s suspicion to prevail on an innocent - an adolescent Puerto Rican named Julio. Unfortunately, the version presented here suffers from poor sound that makes it almost impossible to make out some of the dialogue. Nonetheless, it’s a powerful drama with a grandstanding performance by Lloyd Bridges (who reportedly improvised some of his dialogue), and some memorable direction by Lumet that successfully captures the suffocating group dynamics of an isolated community.
On Boris Kaufman
John Bailey discusses the Polish-born cinematographer who lensed 12 Angry Men. It’s a fascinating, well-observed and well-researched documentary that traces his inspirations from the old Soviet silent era films his brothers Dziga and Michael were involved in, through his period working with Jean Vigo, to his relocation to Hollywood during WWII. He then discusses the visual input he brought to two Lumet classics: 12 Angry Men and The Fugitive Kind. Great stuff, well worth the 38 minutes of your time.
The film’s a true classic, and the wealth of extras makes it one of the finest UK Blu Ray releases so far this year. Well done, Criterion.