The 1950s–the decade when movies went wide and advertised casts of thousands–also saw three great films that took place at a single location and shot on a single set. Alfred Hitchcock did it brilliantly in Rear Window, Kurosawa pulled it off in The Lower Depths, and Sidney Lumet, for his very first film, triumphed in 12 Angry Men.
The 12 men of the title comprise the jury in a just-completed first-degree murder trial. With the exception of a brief prologue and an even briefer epilogue, the entire story plays out in the jury room in real time. The jurors hold the life of the 18-year-old defendant in their hands; if they deliver a guilty verdict, he will be executed. It’s an awesome responsibility.
Except they don’t all see it that way. From the outset, 11 of the 12 just want to declare him guilty and get on with their lives. But one juror (Henry Fonda–the characters have no names) votes not guilty. He doesn’t actually believe the boy is innocent; he just feels that they should talk about the case before sending the kid to his death. Over the course of the film’s 96-minute running time, the characters argue, bring up points of evidence, change their minds, reveal their deep-seated prejudices, and nearly come to blows.
Prejudice plays an important role here. All 12 jurors are white men (although one is an immigrant from an unnamed European country), and casual references to "those people" remind us that the defendant is not Caucasian. We already know that, because we see the defendant briefly in the prologue; his skin is brown, but otherwise his race isn’t clear.
In many ways, this is basic 1950’s liberalism. The system is rigged against the downtrodden (much is also made of the defendant’s slum upbringing), but a few good and determined citizens can right society’s wrongs.
Reginald Rose originally wrote 12 Angry Men as a television drama, which was broadcast live in 1955. For the movie, which Rose co-produced with Fonda, he nearly doubled the runtime, fleshing out the characters of the jurors and allowing us to know them better. Then he hired Lumet–a television director he had worked with in the past–to direct it. (Franklin Schaffner, also destined to be a major film director, helmed the TV version.)
Working closely with cinematographer Boris Kaufman, Lumet turned this theatrical conceit into a truly cinematic drama. Careful staging, extreme close-ups, and an editing style that picks up the pace as the film nears its climax all keep the story moving and the audience involved. You never forget that you, like the characters, are confined to one room. But it feels like a pressure cooker, not a limitation.
How It Looks
12 Angry Men is a low-budget, black-and-white film shot in 1957. This is not something you’re going to show to your friends to impress them with your great HDTV. The images are, for the most part, very grainy.
But it’s film grain, and Criterion was wise not to try and gloss it over. That would only have made it look worse. This is probably as good as the picture looked in its original release (if not better). And it’s absolutely the right look for 12 Angry Men.
The aspect ratio is 1.66×1–an unusual one for an American film. The very slight pillarboxing will disappear on sets on overscan issues.
One little oddity: United Artists originally released this independently-produced film, which means that it’s now property of MGM/UA. This transfer opens with the MGM lion, in full color. That’s wasn’t part of the original movie.
How It Sounds
I suspect that the majority of mono titles available on Blu-ray today are Criterion releases. Luckily, this one company that knows how a mono film should sound.
Following Criterion policy, 12 Angry Men comes with the original mono soundtrack, in uncompressed PCM. It sounded clean and clear. I have no complaints.
And the Extras
12 Angry Men lacks a commentary track, but contains many other excellent supplements–even by Criterion standards.
First, it includes the original television version. Running only about 50 minutes, it comes off in retrospect as the seed from which a great movie grew. Technically, it’s vastly inferior, but that’s to be expected–movies were a 50-year-old art form when this was made, while television was in its infancy. Live television had its problems; at a key dramatic moment, an important prop fails and the actor has to struggle with it.
But I preferred Robert Cummings performance as the nominal hero over Henry Fonda in the film version. Fonda plays it as a movie star would–he’s strong, determined, and nearly fearless. Cummings plays it as a normal guy who finds himself doing the right thing almost against his better judgment. The first time he raises his hand to vote Not Guilty–a act that he knows will angry the other eleven–he then rubs his nose with the raised hand, as if pretending that he didn’t really cast a vote.
· Introduction by Ron Simon to the television version.
· 12 Angry Men: From Television to the Big Screen: A 25-minute making-of documentary.
· Lumet on Lumet: Here’s a unique approach that works better than it should. Criterion assembled clips from various interviews with Lumet, creating a single, unified video autobiography. It runs 23 minutes, and only covers his life through 12 Angry Men.
· Reflections on Sidney: 9 minutes. Writer Walter Bernstein, who worked with Lumet on a number of projects, talks about him. He also talks a lot about the blacklist (Bernstein was blacklisted, Lumet was not).
· On Reginald Rose: 15 minutes on the author of 12 Angry Men. Ron simon narrates, again. It didn’t surprise me to learn that Rose, a major figure in the golden era of live television drama, went on to produce the ground-breaking TV series The Defenders.
· Tragedy in a Temporary Town: Another live television drama written by Rose. This one was directed by Lumet. 55 minutes (they had less commercials on those days.)
· On Boris Kaufman: Cinematographer John Bailey talks about the man who lensed 12 Angry Men. Big surprise: He was the kid brother of experimental Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov, whose work is currently screening at the PFA. 38 minutes.
· Trailer: Of course they include the trailer, but this one is especially worth watching. In fact, it’s unintentionally hilarious. You can feel the United Artists PR folks desperately to fool people into thinking this serious drama is actually a thriller. "It explodes like 12 sticks of dynamite!" "Twelve men, with the smell of violent death in their nostrils!"
The trailer misleads, but the film, and Critierion’s disc, are right on target. Once again, they’ve taken a great cinematic work and done it justice.
The 12 Angry Men Blu-ray goes on sale Tuesday, November 22. You can pre-order it now.