12 Angry Men has long been a favourite of mine, so you must forgive my review if it gets too gushing. It’s a popular classic, so much has already been written about it and I can’t compete with the more intellectual or eloquent writers out there. As such, I’ll try to keep this write-up brief. I imagine most people interested in classic cinema will have already seen the film, so you should probably just skip to the section in bold at the end to see how Criterion’s Blu-Ray release stacks up. Suffice to say, it’s excellent and easily replaces my bare-bones DVD copy.
For those of you not aware of the film, the setup of 12 Angry Men is a rather simple one. 12 jurors are assigned to a seemingly cut and dry murder case, where an eighteen year old hispanic boy is thought to have murdered his father. The film starts after the case has been put forward and the jurors are asked to deliberate over the evidence and decide whether or not the boy is guilty. It’s clearly iterated that if there is any reasonable doubt that he didn’t do it, the boy must be deemed not guilty. If he is found guilty, he will be sentenced to death.
The 12 men enter the jury room on a hot summer’s day and soon take a vote. 11 of them are quick to declare the boy guilty, but one man (Henry Fonda) isn’t so sure. He isn’t confident of the boy’s innocence necessarily, but wants the reluctant men to at least discuss it and not rush into sending the boy to die. The decision must be unanimous, so the 12 men break down all the facts of the case and argue the ins and outs, which slowly begins to turn the decision around.
Other than a few shots bookending it and a short courtroom scene at the beginning, the film is set in one room (and its bathroom briefly). It’s based on a TV teleplay made a couple of years prior (included in this Blu-Ray package) and was since turned into a stage play and remade for TV once again. These facts suggest a stagey flat production that doesn’t have a place on the big screen (and its budget and small original rollout in theatres shows the producers felt the same), but director Sidney Lumet (making his feature film debut after working in TV for several years) and cinematographer Boris Kaufman (L’Atalante, On the Waterfront) manage to craft an incredibly cinematic masterpiece.
Every conceivable angle is eked out of the small space to prevent things getting stale and there’s quite a bit of graceful camera movement too. What impresses most though is how the technical aspects are used to better tell the story and convey the appropriate emotions. The opening shots are long and largely wide as the men enter the room and slowly sit down and get as comfortable as they can in the heat. As tensions rise though, shots get tighter and the editing gets pacier, slowing down when necessary to build to a boil later. The lighting dims as it goes on too, highlighting the darker aspects in play as anger grows and the seriousness of what is happening becomes clearer. Sound is used to increase pressure too, as rain eventually beats down on the window in the latter half of the film and a ceiling fan is turned on at one point, adding to the intense background thrum.
It’s a real masterpiece of tension, which is clearly evident when you consider how thrilling the film feels, despite its constrictions and dialogue-heavy nature. The film races along and is utterly gripping from start to finish.
The content remains as relevant as ever too. The mob mentality and prejudice in play which guides the 11 jurors to an initial guilty verdict reminded me of the issues troubling politics at the moment in the UK, USA and beyond. I don’t want to bring my own personal political opinions into my review, so I won’t delve into this too much, but there was a line in the film that felt very much like something you might here nowadays from riled up voters fed up of listening to experts; “you’re just like everybody else. You think too much, you get mixed up”.
It’s Reginald Rose’s sharp script you have to thank for this insightfulness. Lumet gets a lot of credit and deservedly so as he he did a great job and has since proved himself a great director over his long and illustrious career, but Rose’s script is absolutely vital to the success of the film. The concept could easily have made for a dull and preachy parable, but there’s genuine intelligence at play and nothing’s all that black and white here. We never know whether or not the boy committed the murder, so who’s to know whether Fonda is right to fight for a not guilty verdict. What we do know is that the jurors shouldn’t be making decisions based on their own prejudices or without carefully considering the facts in greater detail. The film also acts as a metaphor for the McCarthy witch hunts, of which Rose was a victim.
It’s an exceptional film, through and through. Lumet turns an excellent, but potentially stagey script into something thrilling and cinematic. The performances are all top notch, the subject matter is deeply thought provoking and in simple terms the film is hugely engrossing. It’s an undisputed masterpiece and is as relevant now as it was 60 years ago. If you haven’t seen it before, remedy that as soon as possible.
Twelve Angry Men is out on 15th May on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture and sound quality is fantastic.
You get plenty of special features too. Here’s the full list:
– Frank Schaffner’s 1955 teleplay of 12 Angry Men, from the series Studio One, featuring an introduction by Ron Simon, curator at the Paley Center for Media
– Production history of 12 Angry Men, from teleplay to big-screen classic
– Archival interviews with director Sidney Lumet
– New interview with screenwriter Walter Bernstein about Lumet
– New interview with Simon about writer Reginald Rose
– Tragedy in a Temporary Town (1956), a teleplay directed by Lumet and written by Rose
– New interview with cinematographer John Bailey about director of photography Boris Kaufman
– Original theatrical trailer
– PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by writer and law professor Thane Rosenbaum
It’s a fantastic set of extras. There may be no commentary, but the collection of interviews are all lengthy and rich with history and insight. Not one item feels like a back-slapping fluff piece or tacked on to bump up the number of features listed. The two teleplays are a wonderful addition too, to see the original version of 12 Angry Men as well as to some of Lumet and Rose’s early TV work. Tragedy in a Temporary Town is a fantastic film in its own right. I’d love to see more of these TV dramas make an appearance on DVD and Blu-Ray.