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Blu-ray Review: 12 Angry Men – The Criterion Collection (1957)

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It is, with the wrong writing and the wrong direction, a potentially terrible film.  Think about it – you’re throwing 12 guys into a single room and having them talk for 90 minutes about someone and something never shown.  The set doesn’t change, the costumes don’t change, the characters aren’t even given names.  It could be a major disaster of a film.   It isn’t. Instead, it’s a brilliant and completely riveting film.

The entire 96 minutes of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (from Reginald Rose’s script) is wholly engaging.  Produced by and starring Henry Fonda, the film is the tale of one juror (Juror 8) who isn’t quite ready to send a young man to his death by convicting him of murder.  Fonda’s juror is the lone holdout in the initial vote for conviction and, over the course of the film, slowly convinces everyone around him that the young man in question didn’t do it.

The entire film (save the opening and closing scenes) take place in the jury room and adjacent restroom on a sweltering summer day.  As the film continues the men are, not only heated by the weather but also by the discussions.   Using the heat to ratchet up tensions may not be the greatest of devices ever created, but it works well enough and does add some atmosphere to the film as Juror 8 and company slowly build, rebuild, and destroy the defense and prosecution statements and eyewitness testimony.

The vast majority of the characters in the film are stereotypes, but that is an intentional choice – the point of the movie is to show how our jury system can go incredibly right and incredibly wrong simply by who winds up sitting on a jury.  The fact that the jurors aren’t given names only further supports this idea of purposefully creating the stereotypes.

And yet, for all the characters being stereotypes, there are some absolutely fantastic performances given.  Henry Fonda is truly amazing as this quite, mild-mannered, soft-spoken guy who just wants to make sure that people take their duty seriously.  Then, on the other side, is Lee J. Cobb as Juror 3, who has a short fuse and his own personal axe to grind.

While those two men may represent the poles (potentially an easier role to play than someone in the middle), there are still a whole lot of great performances from those who are swayed by Juror 8 more easily than Juror 3.  There is Joseph Sweeney as Juror 9, the man who first supports 8 in his bid to at least discuss the case before conviction.  There is Jack Warden as Juror 7, the man more interested in a baseball game than the deliberations.  Jack Klugman is Juror 5, a man who managed to make his way up from the same sort of slums as the defendant and consequently has an entirely different point of view.  Martin Balsam is Juror 1 (the foreman) who tries unsuccessfully to steer the ship, and Ed Begley is Juror 10, who has his own personal prejudices which don’t let him see the truth.  The other performers (George Voskovec, Robert Webber, Edward Binns, John Fiedler, and E.G. Marshall) are also equally good in their roles, delivering readily identifiable characters who still appear more three dimensional than in many a film.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Fonda’s performance and Lumet’s direction (as well as Rose’s script) is that it manages to instill a sense of civic duty in the audience.  Were people shown 12 Angry Men prior to being called for jury duty there would be fewer individuals who would delay their summons or try to wriggle out of being empanelled once there.  The system, the movies shows, only works as well as the people who participate in it and if we choose not to participate—to believe a ballgame or one’s own prejudices are more important—the system fails completely. 

The new Criterion Collection Blu-ray release of 12 Angry Men is an absolutely stunning presentation of an already great movie.  There is not much required of the monaural soundtrack—the film is mainly talking with some weather effects thrown in—but it is still a perfectly clean track with every syllable of every word clear and distinct.  According to the included booklet, the soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a restored 35mm magnetic print.  It is, quite simply, and like the direction of the film itself, beautifully clean and simple.  The visuals too (the transfer was taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive) are stunning.  There is not a hint of dirt nor of a scratch to be seen.  It is a perfectly clean print which provides incredible amounts of detail to the picture.  On more than one occasion, Lumet will give close-ups of jurors’ faces, and on each one you can see the sweat beading or the smallest crease.  It is a fantastic transfer.

As is usually the case with Criterion releases, there is a goldmine of bonus features here.  First up is the complete 1955 television version of 12 Angry Men, which was also written by Rose.  This features an introduction by Ron Simon who is a curator at the Paley Center for Media.  Simon is also interviewed for a piece about Rose.  Lumet’s 1956 teleplay Tragedy in a Temporary Town (again written by Rose) is included here as well.  Then, there are archival interviews with Lumet as well as a new one with Walter Bernstein (screenwriter) about the director as well as cinematographer John Bailey talking about Boris Kauman’s (DP) work on 12 Angry Men.  A discussion of what went into making the TV program a film is also included.  All of the extras are, as one would expect, interview heavy, but the interviews aren’t dry and, along with the included booklet, give a good sense of where Rose and Lumet were coming from with the film.

It is impossible to not recommend 12 Angry Men.  It is a stellar courtroom drama which doesn’t take place in a courtroom.  It is a film which shows the power of speech and the importance of even the smallest person’s role in the judicial system.  And, this is an outstanding presentation of the film.  

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.