MGM // 1957 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // March 13th, 2001
...it explodes like twelve sticks of dynamite!
12 Angry Men is a flawless, brilliant, intense portrayal of our justice system at work, as relevant and intense today as it was during its 1957 release. A stellar cast, superb acting, and Sidney Lumet (Fail Safe, Network, Dog Day Afternoon) in top form as director create an unforgettable film that simply must be seen. MGM delivers a very clean transfer with only a trailer for extra content. You can't have everything, but in this case the film itself is enough.
A young man from a disadvantaged background has been charged with murdering his father. Rather than show you the trial and the posturing of the attorneys, the film takes up just as the jurors are being released into the deliberation room, where the film will remain for almost its entire length. The jurors are a disparate group of men from differing backgrounds and dispositions, but most have one thing in common. They are willing to take the case at face value and are immediately willing to find the man guilty, which will result in the death penalty. One man wants to be sure all reasonable doubt has been erased, and give all due deliberation that the grave nature of this case demands. Henry Fonda gets that enviable role, but the rest of the jury is made up of superb actors such as Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, and Ed Begley. During the deliberations great tensions arrive, as preconceptions are tested, evidence is weighed, and they are forced to look past the performances of the opposing attorneys to get to the truth.
Originally penned by Reginald Rose as a play (and appeared on television in 1954), the script was left virtually intact in its move to film, with a change of director and cast. This minimalist approach served the film well and made for a claustrophobic intensity as the story progressed. You could almost feel the heat of the non air-conditioned room and the heightened emotions of the jurors.
But before tensions rise, we are shown the usual apathetic state of business as usual within the justice system. A bored judge reads off the litany of information for the jury, and the men file in sure of themselves and willing to sentence a young man to die in 5 minutes. They treat the trial as if it were a sporting event and rate the attorneys for who provided the better performance. When one man votes not guilty, the chorus of complaints begin, from those who carefully listened to the trial and thought the defendant guilty to those who simply want to get out in time to get back to work or a baseball game. To be fair, the evidence does seem overwhelming at first, with an eyewitness to the killing and another witness claiming he saw the defendant fleeing the scene. At first even Mr. Davis (Henry Fonda) seems to be leaning toward guilty, but at least wants to examine the evidence and really be sure before signing a man's death warrant. Only during this examination of exhibits and going back over the testimony does doubt arise, leading to an ever more heated exchange between those who are willing to listen and those who want to get the trial over with. This may be more of a rehash of the storyline, but in this case the story is so integral to the film that it demands it. The performances are absolutely stellar, as we find out why each person votes the way they do, and how their own preconceptions can color how they interpret the same evidence. E.G. Marshall is the cool head of reason for those who vote to convict, while Lee J. Cobb and Ed Begley seem to have reasons of their own for finding him guilty. Henry Fonda plays his role in a calm, understated manner that subtly tugs at our own consciences as he reminds us of the grave duty that our system of justice demands from a jury.
One of the most moving parts of the film is when the question is asked: "What if it were you that were on trial?" I know if my life were in the balance I'd hope that a juror like Henry Fonda portrays is sitting in the jury box. I found it easy to put myself into the place of both defendant and juror, which shows the strength of both story and performance.
Sidney Lumet is an underestimated director; even though he has been nominated five times for an Oscar, he has yet to win and he isn't given the status he deserves. He accomplishes a terribly difficult task here; by keeping to a format of a play and shooting almost entirely within one room, he still manages to keep things fresh and provides a quick and moving pace. His framing and camera angles alternately bring you right into the room with the jurors or puts you above them in observation, and with his carefully chosen closeups brings you ever more familiar with the characters. Twelve main characters is usually a recipe for cinematic suicide, but by the end of the film I felt I'd gotten to know each man. I simply cannot stress enough how well made this film is, or how powerfully it moved me.
One thing I think I can say is how relevant the film is even today. We still suffer from prejudice, from a system of justice where underpaid and inexperienced attorneys are often appointed to defend in capital murder cases, and a nation where almost everyone tries to get out of jury duty and few find it more than an inconvenience. It is often said that in this country it is better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent; and this still holds true. Only when people really take the time to do their duty and consider the gravity of our system of justice do we have a hope for the true ideal of justice to prevail. I think every single person should watch this film at least once; it is not only something that everyone should see and hear, but represents both the best and worst in ourselves. It is simply a cinematic masterpiece.
MGM seems to crank out catalogue titles by the dozen, but at least in some cases does a fine job in making a sharp and detailed transfer. I found the image quality excellent; with a degree of sharpness and clarity I did not expect from a film of this age. The black and white picture has a deep black level, without losing shadow detail. There is little grain or film defect, and no noticeable artifacts entering from the digital realm. Only the presence of "cigarette burns" or the marks where a reel is changed is left to distract. The film is shown in its original aspect ratio in full frame. Audio is also quite good; the two-channel mono track brought out all the dialogue clearly with only a hint of sharpness to the music.
It was a good thing that the audio was so clear, since MGM still doesn't include English subtitles with their catalog titles. I was also disappointed with the lack of extra content, which consisted of only a theatrical trailer. This is a film that is #25 out of the top 250 films on IMDb, yet it still doesn't get any significant extras. That is a shame.
For some, this material may seem quite familiar, as the premise has been mined in remakes and other films and television over the years. [Editor's Note: Yeah, this sounds suspiciously like an episode of "Matlock" I saw once.] Do not be fooled by inferior later attempts to capture this story; this one is the real deal.
I consider this a must watch film. Young people should see it to better understand how our system works, and I'd go so far as to say it should be included in our public education system. All of us need to see it periodically. While I wish there was extra features on the disc, the film really is the most important thing, and with this film it is more than enough. I recommend purchase, or at the very least a rental.
After watching this film now I'm supposed to render a verdict? Not guilty, of course! MGM gets a slap on the wrist over the lack of extra content or English subtitles, but the sentence is suspended for providing a good clean picture and such an excellent film.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1957
MPAA Rating: Not Rated