Judge Clark Douglas is merely a mildly irritated man.
They have twelve scraps of paper…twelve chances to kill!
"It's always difficult to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth."
Facts of the Case
An 18-year-old male is on trial for first-degree murder. If convicted, he will go to the electric chair. Twelve randomly-chosen men have been appointed a members of a jury which will decide the young man's fate. Juror 1 (Martin Balsam, Psycho) is a calm, even-tempered man who serves as the moderator of the group. Juror 2 (John Fiedler, The Odd Couple) is a low-key bank clerk. Juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb, The Exorcist) is the most irritable member. Juror 4 (E.G. Marshall, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation) is a man who deals with things in a cold, clinical fashion. Juror 5 (Jack Klugman, Quincy, M.E.) is a young baseball fan who grew up in the slums. Juror 6 (Edward Binns, North by Northwest) is a gruff house painter. Juror 7 (Jack Warden, All the President's Men) is an impatient salesman who's eager to get to a baseball game. Juror 8 (Henry Fonda, The Grapes of Wrath) is a cautious rationalist who wants to be sure all the facts are carefully considered. Juror 9 (Joseph Sweeney, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit) is a good-natured elderly gentleman. Juror 10 (Ed Begley, Hang 'Em High) is a not-so-subtly racist garage owner. Juror 11 (George Voskovec, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold) is an immigrant watchmaker. Juror 12 (Robert Webber, The Dirty Dozen) is a fidgety advertising agent.
Eleven of these men quickly offer a verdict of guilty, with Juror 8 as the lone holdout. It's not because he's persuaded that the defendant is not guilty, but because he simply wants everyone to take a bit more time to consider the facts. All twelve jurors dig in for a lengthy series of impassioned debates.
Sidney Lumet's universally acclaimed classic 12 Angry Men began life as a one-hour television production written by Reginald Rose and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (who would later go on to give us such fine films as Planet of the Apes and Patton). It's a solid, engaging piece of television, but to watch the theatrical version is to recognize Lumet's subtle brilliance. The screenplay (again provided by Rose) is still fundamentally the same, as are the characters. However, the television version feels like an exceptional gimmick, while the theatrical version feels like a piece of great filmmaking. The difference is that Schaffner made a film about twelve men talking which feels like a film about twelve men talking, while Lumet made a film about twelve-men talking which feels like a riveting thriller.
The film is a master class in how to make the most of a confined space. In his directorial debut, Lumet demonstrates that there's a whole lot more to this sort of thing than simply plopping a few cameras down and cutting back and forth between characters as they speak. He uses unique editing techniques, thought-provoking lighting and a host of intriguing camera angles in exceptionally inventive ways, yet he never draws attention to himself. Lumet remains the patron saint of workmanlike filmmakers; a man who was convinced that simply devoting oneself to the nuts and bolts of storytelling was the best way to go about making a film. It was a method which served him well, and 12 Angry Men is a prime example of how effective it could be. It remains one of cinema's finest directorial debuts.
However, 12 Angry Men is about so much more than cinematic technique. In fact, the genius of Lumet's direction is that it's nearly invisible; he keeps us so wrapped up in the drama that we don't have time to concern ourselves with things like lighting and editing (at least the first time around). There are a lot of details about the facts of the case, but the movie isn't about the case so much as it's about the American legal system and human nature. The basic idea of the justice system seems sound enough on paper: if a person is accused of a crime, that person is judged by a jury of their peers. Without any hesitation at all, eleven jury members vote to send a young man to the electric chair. Then, as the film proceeds, they begin to change their minds one by one. How can a person possibly suggest sentencing a person to death before they're absolutely certain? Because evidence was overlooked. Because they're eager to just finish with jury duty and go to a baseball game. Because they don't like the way the kid looks. Because they're in a bad mood. Because they haven't really been paying attention and just want to go with the flow. The list goes on.
The film remains resonant today; perhaps even moreso than ever given that so little has changed in the decades since the film's release. The kind of bigotry we hear in the film (sneering references to "those people") is hardly a relic of the past. Despite the fact that times have changed, our legal system is still largely the same. Lumet makes it clear that the scenario presented in his film is the exception to the rule; a small hiccup in the system caused by one man's hesitance to leap to conclusions. It's cynicism via optimism; as every step of progress we see in this instance is a step which generally isn't taken in other cases.
Fonda is easily the biggest star and has what could be described as a central role, but this is very much an ensemble film. Characters are given numbers rather than names, but Lumet and Rose help us remember them by providing us with distinctive characterization and memorable faces. The character actors featured are uniformly excellent, though Lee J. Cobb stands out in particular as the sweaty, angry Juror 3 (who quickly shifts into the role of Fonda's central antagonist). I'm also quite fond of E.G. Marshall's reserved turn as Juror 4, who has a tremendous scene late in the film in which he's quizzed about his recent personal activities. By the end of the film, you feel that you know all of the characters quite well, which is no small feat for an 96-minute movie with this many players. Rose's dialogue is never forced or unnatural; too many ensemble films seem to have characters speak simply because it's their turn.
12 Angry Men (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection offers an impressive 1080p/1.66:1 transfer. The level of detail is consistently superb; you can see every bit of stubble and drop of sweat on the men's increasingly exhausted faces. Blacks are deep and inky and shadow delineation is quite impressive. There's a noticeable, consistent measure of grain present throughout, but it only adds to the film's documentary-like texture. The LPCM 1.0 Audio track gets the job done quite nicely, but the film track is almost entirely built on dialogue. Sound design is extremely minimal and there's very little music employed in the film. Still, the track's about as sturdy as one could hope for under the circumstances.
The supplemental package is both diverse and generous. Things kick off with the aforementioned television version of 12 Angry Men, and that's accompanied by a valuable 15-minute introduction courtesy of Ron Simon. In "12 Angry Men: From TV to the Big Screen" (26 minutes), scholar Vance Kepley addresses the transition the story made from one medium to another. There's a 23-minute collection of archival interviews with Sidney Lumet, plus a 10-minute recollection on the director from collaborator Walter Bernstein. Simon offers a 15-minute look at Reginald Rose, and follows it with a presentation of the Rose-penned TV drama "Tragedy in a Temporary Town" (56 minutes), which is also directed by Lumet. Finally, you get a 39-minute interview with cinematographer John Bailey discussing Boris Kaufman's work on 12 Angry Men, a theatrical trailer, and a booklet featuring an essay by Thorne Rosenbaum.
I'm sure I'm not the first person to tell you that 12 Angry Men is a great film. Criterion has done an excellent job with their Blu-ray release. Add this one to your collection without hesitation.
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