What an odd masterpiece “12 Angry Men” (1957) is. Few films have ever telegraphed their endings so clearly and incessantly; from the early moment when Henry Fonda persuades his first fellow juror to vote note guilty there isn’t a doubt in the world about the eventual verdict. Few films have ever hamstrung themselves with such an “uncinematic” setting; 95% of the film takes place in the confines of a single room in which twelve men sit, occasionally stand, and frequently perspire. And handing over these potentially crippling challenges to a first-time feature film director seemed like a recipe for certain disaster.
Yet despite the certainty of its resolution, “12 Angry Men” is a tripwire-taut, and despite the claustrophobia of its location it is a surprisingly dynamic and visually compelling film from start to finish. Of course it did have one distinct advantage in a crackling script by Reginald Rose, adapting his own script from one of the landmark programs in the history of early television. Rose, motivated by his experiences on a jury case in 1954, crafts a precise study in the vagaries of opinion-making and an indictment of the subtle and unsubtle prejudices that sway them. Though the jury eventually reaches what we think may be the right decision, it’s hard to come out of the film with much faith in the jury system. In the course of an hour and a half, eleven men who were planning to send a man to his death change their minds with each impassioned speech, swinging their votes based on the ebb and flow of arguments that neither lawyer could be bothered to present in court.
Until now I’ve assumed you already know the story but to double back to a plot summary, a teenage boy is on trial for the stabbing death of his father. After the judge instructs the jury on the gravity of the charges (a guilty verdict means a death sentence, no options) the twelve nameless men, identified in the film only by number, retire to the jury room to deliberate. An early vote shows that eleven of them are ready to vote guilty with Juror No. 8 the only holdout. Fortunately for the young man on trial, the juror is played by Henry Fonda who brings to bear the persuasive rhetoric he previously displayed in the courtroom setting of “Young Mr. Lincoln” and a host of other social activist roles that defined his great career.
Fonda doesn’t knuckle under to the considerable peer pressure of a group of impatient, sweaty men locked into a poorly ventilated room on a New York summer night. The case seems like a slam dunk (two witnesses placed the defendant at the scene), but Fonda has a few niggling doubts and as he enumerates each one, he eventually gains allies who, in turn, poke more holes in the case.
The suspense comes in waiting for each juror to turn, and Rose’s script does an efficient job of painting a bare-bones portrait of each man that gives us an insight into their motivations. He is aided and abetted by an impressive cast. Jack Warden’s main concern is a pair of tickets to the Yankees game that starts at eight. Foreman Martin Balsam merely wants to maintain a sense of order and decorum, no small challenge once the arguments (and nostrils) flare up. Jack Klugman is a study in hesitation; the prosecutor sure was convincing but his upbringing in the slums provides a point of identification with the defendant. A few jurors are simply convinced that “those people” (the defendant is poor and, from the close-up we see, appears to be Hispanic) just don’t value life the way “we” do. Among them is Lee J. Cobb who is given yetanother motivation. Bitter and self-loathing about his estranged son, he wants to take out his rage against the youth of today by “pulling the switch” on this hooligan. If I have any qualms with the script, it is this extra back story given to Cobb’s character, the most detailed of any in the group, which provides a too-convenient hook for his long holdout and his eventual conversion. The great character actor John Fiedler deserves a mention as well as the meek soul who stands up to the bullies when he needs to.
The freshman feature director was Sidney Lumet who was not a greenhorn, but had quite a task with an unusual project as well as an unusually low budget. He also had to live up to the reputation of the television broadcast of “12 Angry Men” which played on Westinghouse’s Studio One in 1954 and garnered heaps of praise, seen both then and now as one the major events that legitimized television as a dramatic medium, a development that would send film studio honchos into a panic as the decade progressed.
Lumet met every challenge, bringing a precise eye to the set. He would not settle for a series of static reverse shots. After a long tilt showing the exterior of the courthouse, the camera executes an elaborate pan through the pulsing, living corridors of the building before settling into the confines of the jury room. There the lens methodically moves closer to the action (the actors’ faces, that is) as the drama unfolds, and the editing pace picks up noticeably in the final act. Lumet was, of course, ably assisted by the great cinematographer Boris Kaufman, already a veteran (“L’atalante,” an Oscar for “On the Waterfront”) who still had some of his best days ahead of him, including several collaborations with Lumet.
Rose isn’t shy about writing extended and somewhat sanctimonious monologues, and some of the arguments are not only unconvincing but could surely be grounds for a mistrial (Jack Klugman’s “expert” testimony on the proper use of a switchblade is, at least, something that would be useful to him in the coroner’s office a few decades later), and there is far too clear a line drawn between the racists/classists and the more liberal minded folks. But the script moves so crisply and the actors are so confident and committed that it hardly matters.
The rivulets of sweat, the verbal fireworks, and the rigorously explored space of this featureless, decaying room are the images that linger most from “12 Angry Men.” As well as the chilling reminder that our fates could one day be in the hands of people whose decisions have precisely nothing to do with us.
The film is presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. I think that most people who have seen “12 Angry Men” have accepted a somewhat dingy image, but this 1080p transfer “created on a Spirit 2K from a 35 mm fine-grain master positive” is quite a revelation. The B&W contrast is very sharp, and the image resolution is top-notch bringing out every bead of sweat in sharp relief. The thick grain structure enhances the sense of depth. I spotted just a few artifacts, very mild blotchy moments here and there, but we’re talking very minor. This is a great transfer.
The LPCM mono track is crisp throughout with clearly mixed dialogue. There’s not too much to say about this dialogue-thick soundtrack except that it presents no noticeable problems. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
What a superb collection Criterion has compiled.
For starters, the disc includes the original television broadcast of “12 Angry Men” (51 min.) which originally aired on Sep 26, 1954 on the Westinghouse Presents Studio One hour. Written by Reginald Rose and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. Robert Cummins stars in the role Henry Fonda played on screen. Live television was filming without a net and it’s always amazing to see how they could pull off elaborately staged long takes. In theater, actors can adjust if someone else’s timing is a bit off but here the camera was going to be at a certain mark at a certain time so you’d better make it. A young handsome devil named Norman Fell (then Norman Feld) is also in the cast. Ron Simon, curator of the Paley Center for Media in New York City provides an in-depth 14-minute introduction.
“‘12 Angry Men’ from TV to the Big Screen” (2011, 25 min.) is a new interview with Vance Kepley of the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison. This is a meticulous and informative discussion of the adaptation process from the small screen to the big screen, a process spearheaded by co-producer Henry Fonda whose star power was essential in getting the film made at all. He also took a deferred salary to do so.
The disc also includes 23-minutes of compiled interviews with Sidney Lumet, brief clips snatched from different interviews and edited together. The same section also includes an interview with screenwriter Walter Bernstein (9 min.), a friend of Lumet’s.
Cinematographer John Bailey provides a fascinating overview (39 min.) of the career of cinematographer Boris Kaufman, starting from his early days with Jean Vigo. Tons of information here, and Bailey’s admiration for the legendary Kaufman is infectious.
Ron Simon returns for a 15-minute feature on the career of Reginald Rose. Rose is the least known of the Big Three of early television writers, a group also including Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling. Simon provides a persuasive argument as to why Rose deserves more attention. A 2-minute Trailer rounds out the collection.
The 20-page insert booklet has a lot of illustrations and an essay writer Thane Rosenbaum.
“12 Angry Men” largely missed with audiences despite Henry Fonda’s star power, but it was a hit with critics at the time and has more than held up to the test of time. It may not “explode like 12 sticks of dynamite!” like the ads promised, but it’s one of the greatest American chamber dramas. Having both the television version and theatrical release on the same disc is a real treat. Criterion has really gone to town on this release from the transfer to the extras and this is certainly a must-see.