12 Angry Men, by Sidney Lumet (Network), may be the most radical big-screen courtroom drama in cinema history. A behind-closed-doors look at the American legal system as riveting as it is spare, the iconic adaptation of Reginald Rose’s teleplay stars Henry Fonda (Young Mr. Lincoln) as the initially dissenting foreman on a jury of white men ready to pass judgment on a Puerto Rican teenager charged with murdering his father. What results is a saga of epic proportions that plays out in real time over ninety minutes in one sweltering room. Lumet’s electrifying snapshot of 1950s America on the verge of change is one of the great feature-film debuts.
Back in the mid-1950s, when television began to captivate the American public and erode box office returns, movie studios scrambled to find ways to entice audiences back into theaters. "Bigger is better" was the prevailing philosophy, sparking the production of sprawling epics and splashy musicals that could give viewers a brand of entertainment TV couldn't. So it was quite a risky venture for United Artists to go (way) against the grain and bank on a small yet intense drama that took place not just in a single location, but almost entirely in a single room! '12 Angry Men,' like the Oscar-winning 'Marty' before it, was first an acclaimed one-hour television program, but whereas 'Marty' was relatively easy to "open up" for the screen, the premise of '12 Angry Men,' which chronicles the heated deliberations of a fractured jury on a capital murder case, required it to remain anchored in the confines of a stark, utilitarian meeting room. Director Sidney Lumet, in his freshman effort, sunk his teeth into the project, creating a riveting atmosphere of entrapment, claustrophobia, and moral conflict, and with a first-rate cast headlined by Henry Fonda and a taut script by Reginald Rose, the finished film was a critical triumph. Yet despite the fine reviews, the public dismissed '12 Angry Men.' Today, however, it's a bona fide classic and a shining example of how any situation can be thrillingly filmed when approached with creativity and a steadfast commitment.
'12 Angry Men' is a fascinating study of men under pressure who stubbornly cling to deep-seeded prejudices and a smug closed-mindedness, even as a man's future rests in their hands. It's also an indictment of mob mentality and a call to all of us to stand up against the establishment and express our views, however unpopular and derided they may be. It takes guts to set ourselves apart, question the status quo, and examine facts from a multitude of viewpoints before taking a stance and making a judgment, and '12 Angry Men' champions such fortitude and perseverance.
As an all-male jury retires to determine the fate of an Hispanic teen accused of killing his father, 11 of the 12 members, some of whom bring a lifetime's worth of preconceived notions to the table, stand convinced of the defendant's guilt. The lone holdout, Juror #8 (Fonda), doesn't necessarily disagree, but believes the jury owes the accused a thorough examination of the evidence before handing down a death sentence. His "not guilty" vote halts the rush to judgment, and his willingness to debate inspires ridicule and disdain from his fellow jurors, who are eager to flee the stuffy confines of the courthouse, return to their daily lives, and revel in the freedoms they take for granted and enjoy.
Once the discussion commences, the hidden agendas and buried demons of many of the jurors rise to the surface, and we see how outside forces, such as bigotry, background, and conceit, influence decision-making and cloud one's powers of deduction. The ensuing resentment and belligerence protracts the examination of the case, which begins to buckle under the scrutiny. Suddenly, what seemed like a slam-dunk guilty verdict becomes a quagmire, as reasonable doubt begins to slowly permeate the panel.
Lumet was already an accomplished television director when Fonda, also the film's co-producer, approached him to helm '12 Angry Men,' and his small screen tenure stood him in good stead for his first big screen feature. Television forced Lumet to work in tight spaces with limited equipment and thus devise innovative ways to heighten both dramatic impact and visual interest, and he employs those tricks to terrific advantage here. His use of extreme close-ups and varied lenses to enhance the pressurized atmosphere and in-your-face bickering that characterize the tale is intentionally jarring and unsettling. And as truth - about the case and their own biases and shortcomings - closes in on the jurors, so does the camera.
Ironically, these dozen disparate citizens, who've been randomly thrown together to determine whether a man should be released from jail or forever incarcerated, are locked in their own unique prison, and must come to a unanimous accord to be released. Lumet tosses the audience into this cage of rage, providing a rare perspective. It's a stunning debut and a harbinger of a stellar career that would include such socially-conscious classics as 'Fail-Safe,' 'Serpico,' 'Dog Day Afternoon,' and 'Network,' to name but a few.
Fonda, along with James Stewart and Gary Cooper, specialized in portraying the common man often embroiled in extraordinary circumstances, and his performance in '12 Angry Men' is one of his best. Controlled yet passionate, with quiet courage and a forthright demeanor that's never self-righteous, Fonda disappears inside the role and seamlessly blends into the film's fabric. Though all of us may not possess the gumption to step apart from the favored viewpoint and fight for our convictions, Fonda embodies the man we'd like to be, and if we can't exactly identify with him, then at the very least we admire his stand-up manner, thoughtful comments, and ability to calmly deal with adversity.
Credit Rose for his searing script, which earned an Oscar nomination, and credit the impeccable supporting cast - without which '12 Angry Men' would have been a very different film - for its essential contributions. Only a couple of the actors were well known at the time, but almost all went on to achieve great success. Lee J. Cobb is a standout as Fonda's most intimidating and stubborn adversary; Ed Begley shines as a blustery closet bigot; and Martin Balsam as the beleagured foreman, E.G. Marshall as a tightly wound businessman, Jack Warden as an apathetic blue-collar worker, Jack Klugman as a mild-mannered clerk, Robert Webber as a slick ad man, and John Fiedler (perhaps best known as the voice of Piglet in Disney's 'Winnie the Pooh' movies) all contribute finely etched portraits and form a tight ensemble that carries this movie to massive heights.
'12 Angry Men' also received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, and stands as one of the most iconic legal dramas in film history. The jury system may not be perfect (the O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony trials certainly proved that), but Lumet's blistering snapshot of one panel in action is a blueprint for how it should work. Anyone who watches this brilliant film can't help but come away with renewed respect for the process and the truth it's capable of unearthing, as well as a deep appreciation for fine writing, acting, and direction.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'12 Angry Men' comes packaged in Criterion's standard clear plastic case that's a little thicker than most Blu-ray cases. The 50-GB dual-layer disc lies inside, along with a 24-page booklet (described in the supplements section below). Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is LPCM monaural. After the disc is inserted in the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
'12 Angry Men' was shot in a gritty, naturalistic style, and old circulating prints of the film often showed plenty of wear and tear. Criterion, however, has completely restored the movie using a 35mm fine grain master positive, and the results are indeed impressive. Grain is quite evident most of the time, but that's to be expected from a low-budget, black-and-white film of this vintage, and adds to the authentic feel. Contrast is excellent, with the resulting wide gray scale adding marvelous depth and texture. Black levels are rich and sturdy, and whites hold up against the harsh lighting.
Lumet uses close-ups often for emphasis, intensity, and to heighten the feeling of claustrophobia, and these are beautifully rendered here. Crisp and bold, they expose all the marvelous facial details of the gallery of character actors appearing in the movie. Details also are nicely delineated, from the grain on the wood table and cigarette butts in the ashtrays to the weave of Jack Warden's straw hat and design on Martin Balsam's tie. The sweat glistening on the mens' foreheads is also distinct, and fabrics, such as Jack Klugman's wool jacket, sport a fine degree of texture.
No dirt, scratches, or specks are visible, and the transfer is free of any artifacts, noise, and edge sharpening. This is another top-flight effort from Criterion that presents this classic film in the best possible form.
Criterion has also noticeably cleaned up the monaural soundtrack, presented here in lossless LPCM form. Any surface noise, hiss, pops, or crackles have been painstakingly erased, leaving a natural-sounding track that keeps the focus solidly on the dialogue. All the heated exchanges, bickering, and spirited banter are easy to understand, with even Lee J. Cobb's bellowing outbursts resisting distortion. Accents, such as fist-pounding, enjoy good presence, and the heavy rain that pours down outside the jury room windows is nicely integrated into the sound scheme. The music score by Kenyon Hopkins is sparsely employed and marked by the subtle use of percussion, but all the instruments can be identified, and the warm tones fill the room well.
Audio is not this movie's strong suit, but this transfer presents the nuts-and-bolts track in a no-nonsense manner, keeping us involved in the story's drama. And you can't ask for more than that.
Criterion, as usual, provides a solid supplemental package that caters to the serious film fan.
One of the all-time great legal dramas, '12 Angry Men' provides a fascinating look inside the jury room and remains a probing portrait of interpersonal dynamics and the destructive powers of prejudice and apathy. A fine ensemble cast led by Henry Fonda and expert direction from the young Sidney Lumet enhance this riveting tale that hasn't lost its bite more than 50 years after its initial release. Criterion's Blu-ray does the film proud with an excellent black-and-white transfer, solid audio, and a bountiful array of substantive supplements. Beyond any doubt, reasonable or otherwise, this one comes very highly recommended.