There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that Judge Jim Thomas watched this movie screaming "We're not worthy! We're not worthy." Well, OK, maybe some truth...
What if your life were in their hands?
Is this how justice works?
In a word, yes.
Facts of the Case
A bored judge gives the jury its instructions following a murder trial. The defendant, a gaunt, haunted young man, watches in silence as the twelve men who will decide his fate file into the jury room. As deliberations begin, everyone is convinced that the defendant is guilty, but on the first ballot, one juror (Henry Fonda, On Golden Pond) demurs. He thinks the kid is probably guilty, but doesn't feel comfortable sentencing someone to death without due deliberation. So the jurors start discussing the evidence. As deliberations continue, the case becomes more and more complicated—tensions mount, tempers flare, and prejudices and preconceptions are dragged into the harsh light of day.
I could go on for some time about this movie—how Henry Fonda saw the TV production and put up his own money to get the film made; how Sidney Lumet, in his first major directing job, handles the Herculean demands of the film with an assurance that would do Welles or John Ford proud. I could even talk about how this film saw the feature film debut of many of the cast members, including Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Martin Balsam, Ed Begley, Jack Warden, and Robert Webber.
But here's all you really need to know: At the end of the movie, Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit) calls to Juror #8 (Fonda) outside of the courthouse:
Juror #9: Hey…what's your name?
Juror #8: Davis.
Juror #9: My name's McCardle.
And you suddenly realize that you have spent the last 90 minutes watching this staggeringly intense interplay among twelve very different people-and not only did you not have names for any for them, you had no trouble keeping the characters straight. In that moment, it dawns on you that Sidney Lumet is a genius.
The movie's greatest strength is the cast. Apart from Fonda, none of them were well-known at the time, but now you look at the cast and just shake your head in awe at the assembled talent. Most were stage actors, which stood them in good stead for such a dialogue-driven story; they were able to take a script that just barely offered any character background at all—a high school coach, a watchmaker, an ad executive, a salesman, an architect—and flesh them out into real people—neither good nor bad, just people with their own fears, hurts, hopes, and prejudices. That lack of background is deliberate, as it highlights the drama as a function of the jury system itself rather than a function of the individuals comprising that jury.
Also of note is Lumet's assured direction. A few weeks ago I commented about Kenneth Branagh's Sleuth that he tried so hard to keep camera angles fresh that the camera work started detracting from the action. Lumet faces a greater challenge here, as he's largely confines to a single room. But Lumet has a more unified and effective solution than Branagh was able to achieve. As the movie progresses, the camera angle slowly moves from above eye level to below eye level; at the same time, Lumet uses longer and longer lenses to optically bring the walls closer. The result is a growing sense of claustrophobia that enhances the tension. Lumet only has shot that seems artificial, but at the same time, it is most memorable. Juror #10 (Ed Begley) has launched into a bigoted tirade about the defendant's race. As he continues to spew venom, the other jurors—even those who agree with him regarding the verdict—turn away one by one in disgust. The blocking and camerawork leave him isolated despite the crowded quarters. It's blocking more suitable for a stage, but in this case, it works, in large part because Lumet uses such shots sparingly.
Video is something of a disappointment; while there are no major blemishes, there is a significant amount of grain. To be fair, though, Lumet probably had to use a fast stock, and the blank walls in the background make the grain stand out. The widescreen format is somewhat problematic. The film was shot in 1.66:1, an older widescreen format; on a widescreen TV, you should see narrow vertical bars on either side of the image (see the screen shot); if you have a particularly "helpful" TV, however, it might stretch the image out to 16x9. The difference is slight, though, so it might not be worth the trouble to "re-educate" your TV. The mono 2.0 track is crisp and clean; it's easy to make out dialogue, even when the characters are all talking at the same time.
MGM has finally gotten around to providing some extras, but I'm not sure how much effort they really exerted. The making-of feature includes interviews with Lumet and Klugman, along with comments from others, including Richard Thomas (The Waltons) and George Wendt (Cheers), who both starred in a touring production of the play several years ago. Overall, it's lightweight, with Lumet and Klugman providing the feature's meat. Lumet explains how he changed his camera shots as the film progressed to enhance the tension, and both offer a few backstage goodies. The jury feature is basically a number of prominent trial attorneys talking about how the authenticity of the film's depiction of jury procedure. O.J. Simpson attorney Robert Shapiro observes that the film is the best explanation of the concept of "reasonable doubt" available. The commentary track is by Drew Casper, a film professor at UCLA. He provides a lot of information, but it's more of a film school lecture than a commentary, and there are perhaps too many technical details. It might have been better to pair Casper up with TCM host Robert Osborne (who participated in the making-of featurette). In a truly perfect world, we would have gotten a commentary track with Lumet and Klugman, possibly even getting Wendt and Thomas in on the action.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The extras are a significant improvement from previous releases, but there is just so much more that they could have done; this film deserves nothing but the best.
The only negative comment thing I can say is that it is indirectly responsible for Pauly Shore's Jury Duty, but who could have predicted that in 1957?
I had a lot more evidence prepared, but I decided to refrain. Simply put, 12 Angry Men is a masterful confluence of writing, acting, and directing. Although it's in black-and-white, the film doesn't seem dated at all. In fact, last year I found myself on a jury, and even though it was a fairly simple drug case, there were still times when the deliberations eerily echoed this film. Robert Shapiro comments that he'd like every jury to watch this movie before a trial; I think everyone should see it, period.
No deliberation is needed for this case. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track with Film Historian Drew Casper
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