18th May2017

’12 Angry Men’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall, Martin Balsam, Ed Begley, Jack Warden | Written by Reginald Rose | Directed by Sidney Lumet


It’s the hottest day of the year and a dozen men – not universally perturbed at this point – are put in a room and asked to consider the guilt of a young man accused of killing his father. It’s premeditated murder in the first degree and the sentence is death. The jury takes their first vote and it’s unanimous. Almost.

Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) is the sole dissenting voice. It’s not that he believes the kid did not do it; he’s just not sure. Over the next 90 real-time minutes, #8 will test his doubts against the others, to understand whether or not those doubts are reasonable.

12 Angry Men began life as a teleplay. Written by Reginald Rose (inspired by his own experiences as a juror), it became an episode in the influential Studio One TV drama series. One of the directors to start out on Studio One was Sidney Lumet, and his 50-year cinema career would begin with an adaptation of Rose’s humanistic courtroom-backroom drama.

The first time one watches 12 Angry Men, the way Lumet, Rose, and cinematographer Boris Kaufman lay out the drama with such clarity and character, and with such efficiency, seems like some kind of witchcraft. But upon repeated viewings, it’s clear that it’s just craft. Everyone – crew and cast – is absolutely working to their A-game, and it results in a timeless work of confinement cinema, as intense and persuasive today as it was 60 years ago.

The effect is achieved through humility. The quiet lens stalks softly, often accepting silence, and music is virtually absent. It makes the outbursts of passion and prejudice all the more powerful.

Like Fonda’s doubtful juror, no one behind the camera is grandstanding. This is an actors’ piece. Lumet stifles the frame, keen to draw uncomfortably close, so every bead of sweat is glistening, and every nervous glance is noticed. Through attention to detail – a cough or a chuckle or some background slump of the shoulders – Lumet creates a believably lived-in space.

The characters are each unique, and all speak like human beings do, rather than the way film characters tend to. By this I mean that we infer their backstories through their behaviours – their allegiances and their prejudices – without necessarily being specifically told. And what very human variety they bring to the table. Anger is only one facet of the human experience, and it’s the anger in jurors #3 (Lee J. Cobb) and #10 (Ed Begley) that is the final barrier through which reason and humanity must pass.

As much as it is an idealistic (and in some ways unhelpful) portrayal of the jury system, 12 Angry Men is an utterly convincing depiction of group politics. It’s spoiler-proof insofar as to know the outcome isn’t to ruin the film, because it is about how a group of people so together in their collective belief can shatter and reform through the power of logical persuasion. It’s not a question of absolutes; there are no good guys and bad, just good arguments and bad arguments. When we see #3 weep we feel no triumph, only pity.

12 Angry Men is an eminently watchable and rewatchable masterpiece. For all its period trappings – the clothes and the cigarettes; the fact that there aren’t half a dozen women in the room – it speaks to something universal in us. Something human. It is a celebration of logic, nuance and constructive argument, and it is a damning critique of the creeping complacency and hypocrisy that are the products of, as well as the greatest threats to, the freedoms our societies value. As such, it seems more relevant now than ever.

The disc is bursting with extras, including the original 1954 TV version of Rose’s teleplay. In a piece from 2011, film scholar Vance Kepley takes us through the transition from the small to the silver screen. Ron Simon of the Paley Center for Media examines the writer, Reginald Rose, and we also get to see an earlier Rose-Lumet collaboration, in the form of “Tragedy in Temporary Town”. Further interviews include a compilation of meetings with Lumet down the years, and a face-to-face with his friend and collaborator Walter Bernstein. Finally, there is a 40-minute piece about 12 Angry Men’s cinematographer, Boris Kaufman. And the obligatory trailer, of course.

12 Angry Men is out on Blu-ray now from Criterion.


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