12 Angry Men (1957)
"They don’t make films like that anymore’, how often has that simple comment come up of late? It cannot help to come to mind while watching one of the truly great experiences in American film, ’12 Angry Men’. This film demonstrates that you do not need special effects, big budgets or a variety of sets to make a great movie. The movie is simplicity personified and yet it provides a vehicle of incredible talent before and behind the camera. The plot can be summarized in a single sentence. Twelve men sitting on a jury deliberate in the capital crime of murder. The genius here is these twelve actors take this premise and explore the very core of the human experience. A teenager of unspecified ‘ethnic’ nature is accused of the cold blooded murder of his father. When the first vote is called in the jury room the vote is eleven to one, only juror number 8 (Henry Fonda) votes not guilty. Initially his reason is the gravity of the mandatory death sentence; no one should be condemned to die without at least a discussion of the case. The initial façade of civility soon breaks down as tempers flare and the jurors are pulled one by one into the heated debate. Number 8 acts as the devil’s advocate, while uncertain at first of the boy’s innocence the legal theory of ‘reasonable doubt’ becomes the focus of the discussion. Piece by piece the evidence is brought under closer scrutiny that was afforded at the trial. The switchblade that was so unique is questioned when Number 8 pulls a perfect copy of it out of his pocket, a knife that he bought in shop during an evening walk. The testimony of an elderly man is shrouded in doubt when the distance and time he testified to seems very improbable. One by one ‘reasonable doubt’ is created in the minds of the stubborn jurors. If that wasn’t enough to make a gripping drama during the proceedings the individual aspects of human nature are exhibited in the jurors. There is the ever logical Juror Number 4 (E. G. Marshall), the impatient sports fan Juror Number 7 (Jack Warden) willing to change his vote just to be in time for a baseball game and the bigoted Number 10 (Ed Begley) whose racist rants result in a memorable moment when each juror gets up from the table and turns their back on him. Then main opponent to the vote of not guilty is Number 3 (Lee J. Cobb) whose inner motives come spilling out in the climax of the film.
This cast is the dream team of drama. There is not one single actor that does not give his all. There are aspects of each performance that the audience will identify with, sometimes much to their dismay. The emotions presented are not always pretty, they are raw and from the gut. Fonda starts off his performance with a calm demeanor that gradually increases in its intensity. Such control in a performance was rare enough decades ago, now it is almost unknown. Begley plays the bigot without apology. This is the way his character thinks and feels and nothing, not even the ostracism of his fellow jurors would make any real change. Veteran character actor Joseph Sweeney as Number 9 shows just how important each role is in this type of drama. His ability to empathize with the elderly witness is a touching moment. The performance of Cobb is perhaps the best in the long career of this stellar professional. His character simmers, his inner feelings unable to be contained finally boil over. These actors do more than say their lines. They embody each of their characters to the point where you forget this is a movie and feel you are watching something real. This after all is the purpose of cinema, to transport you to another life and this film does this as no other.
Sidney Lumet is perhaps one of the most underappreciated directors around. While he is rarely mentioned with the luminaries of Coppola, Scorsese or Spielberg these directors learned much from the technical perfection of Lumet. Lumet started his career as a director of photography, the crew member that is responsible for choosing the lens the director will use in a given shot. Few people in cinema ever have the familiarity with the visual properties of lens like Lumet. Where many directors choose to use the camera as a voyeur Lumet assigns a proactive role to his. The camera participates, its visual perspective helps to form the experience of the audience and relate the story. Here in 12 Angry Men the camera and lens work is a textbook case of how a film should be shot. With each scene Lumet increased the focal length of the lens, effectively pulling in the set, making the room seem to grow smaller and more claustrophobic. He also shoots the first third of the film above eye level, moves to eye level for the second third and finally below eye level for the conclusion. This adds to the tightness of the room by pulling the ceiling into the later shots. As the emotional tensions mount the room presses in on the cast, you can almost feel the air being squeezed from the small room. Due to his beginnings in television Lumet is comfortable with a 4:3 framing. While most films of this time period relied on Technicolor and a wide aspect he chose the Academy ratio and black and white to heighten the realism of the film. The frequent tight close ups that showcase the emotional power of the actor’s flies off the screen and impacts the audience on a visceral level.
No, this is not the DVD to show off the advanced technology of your home theater. It is a disc that accurately reproduces one of the greatest films made. The full screen video is remarkably crisp considering the age of the source material. The mono audio presents the all important dialogue in a clear, undistorted fashion. Unfortunately, for a film of this stature there is really nothing in the way of extras. If any film cries out for a director’s commentary it is this one. Don’t get this disc for the technology, get it, watch it and cherish it for what it is, a great film.
This film has now reached its golden anniversary and 20th Century Fox is celebrating. The new features include a making of featurette called Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Making of 12 Angry Men. There is also 'Inside the Jury Room' that focuses on the dramatic setting of the film.
While the original DVD was plain vanilla the subsequent re-issue from the illustrious Criterion Collection returned the film to the prestige it so well deserves. Now, Criterion is revisiting some of the films previously graced with their treatment by remastering the movie for high definition. Fans of truly great American drama can rejoice that one of the films selected to be in the vanguard of this ultimate edition is ’12 Angry Men.’ Awhile back I introduced a friend who was skeptical about high definition for black and white material. For my demonstration I used something we were both exceptionally familiar with; episodes of ‘The Twilight Zone’ that had just been remastered for Blu-ray. His jaw dropped precipitously as hr realized there was a level of detail he previous never imaged. The shadows were sharper the texture of the clothing stood out providing a degree of realism that leapt off the screen. That was with a television aeries were the source material had seen better days. When this treatment is diligently applied to a film that was crafted by a man world renowned for his visual style and innovation the results are incredible.
Sidney Lumet was an undeniable master when it came to presenting a story though the movies. Every single frame is crafted to sheer perfection and this high definition edition brings every nuance into full view. The 1080p and MPEG-4 AVC encoded video is beyond reproach. Attention was paid during the restoration to preserve the precise balance of light and dark that is so crucial to the story. The use of camera angle and lens selection previously discussed is even more obvious showing the full measure of Lumet’s genius. This presentation will make you a believer that Black and white movies benefit greatly in Blu-ray. The mono audio even sounds more robust. If you set your home theater receiver to a mode that emulates a classic theater from the fifties it will transport you back in time. It wouldn’t be a Criterion collection edition without something special for the extras. The gem is the Frank Schaffner's original 1955 broadcast version first aired on Studio One. Another Lumet teleplay Tragedy in a Temporary Town is included which is in itself a great addition. If you have other releases of this film run to get this one.