12 Angry Men

Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Reginald Rose
Stars: Martin Balsam (Juror #1), John Fiedler (Juror #2), Lee J. Cobb (Juror #3), E.G. Marshall (Juror #4), Jack Klugman (Juror #5), Edward Binns (Juror #6), Jack Warden (Juror #7), Henry Fonda (Juror #8), Joseph Sweeney (Juror #9), Ed Begley (Juror #10), George Voskovec (Juror #11), Robert Webber (Juror #12)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1957
Country: U.S.
12 Angry Men Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
12 Angry MenBetween 1955 and 1962, more than half a dozen episodes of various television anthology dramas were adapted to the big screen, which represented one of the American film industry’s first concerted efforts in the postwar period to create “art” films in the European mold. The first of these films, Marty, which was adapted from Paddy Chayefsky’s television drama and directed on both the small and big screen by Delbert Mann, was only the second American film to win the highest honor at the Cannes Film Festival and went on to become a significant commercial and critical hit in the U.S., winning four Oscars. Marty was followed by adaptations of two other Chayefsky dramas, The Bachelor Party (1957) and Middle of the Night (1959), as well as adaptations of TV dramas by Rod Serling (1956’s Patterns and 1962’s Requiem for a Heavyweight) and J. P. Miller (1959’s The Rabbit Trap and 1962’s Days of Wine and Roses).

Also among those anthology writers whose works provided source material for the big screen was Reginald Rose. Rose’s dramas typically stood out because, rather than following the loose plotting and focus on individual psychology typical of European art cinema, he wrote tense, structured dramas usually organized around the legal system and its crucial role in supporting social justice and curbing the worst human tendencies. Like his fellow anthology writers, Rose was an East Coast liberal intellectual living and working in a mostly conservative era, and while Serling and Chayefsky were constantly chomping at the bit to both upend the restraints of commercial television and promote their own star personas, Rose was more content to work in the background and tell stories as best he could within the existing system. It helped that his mode of storytelling was more conventional and recognizable, but that doesn’t mean it was any less powerful in conveying his fervent critique of American society’s flaws, particularly social injustices emerging from racism and class bias.

In this regard 12 Angry Men, an incisive and gripping film directed by Sidney Lumet in his feature directorial debut, is a perfect example of Rose’s artistry. Taking place almost entirely within the confines of a small, un-air-conditioned jury room on a hot summer day and told in real time, 12 Angry Men uses the deliberation of the titular jurors in a murder case as a means of both exploring with a critical eye how indoctrinated prejudices taint our quest for the truth and the important social role the legal system plays when properly used. As Jon Kraszewski points out in his excellent book The New Entrepreneurs: An Institutional History of Television Anthology Writers, Rose was part of a postwar movement that sought to affirm legal institutions as “transcendent guardians of civil liberties,” a stark rebuke to the 1920s and 1930s strain of “legal realism” in which legal scholars and advocates argued that inequality in private property made it functionally impossible for the system to treat everyone fairly. In 12 Angry Men, Rose shows that the system works when the individuals involved take their roles earnestly and humanely, using the system to ferret out capital-T Truth.

In adapting his own television drama, Rose took advantage of the increased running time from 60 minutes to more than 90 minutes in order to better flesh out his 12 characters, giving each of them more nuance, characterization, and background detail. In the television drama, about half of the jurors do little more than fill up space, but in the film version they all come across as fully realized human beings, which is, in and of itself, a genuine dramatic feat given that the film is only 96 minutes long. Part of this is due to the excellent work by Lumet and cinematographer Boris Kaufman (who regularly worked with both Lumet and Elia Kazan), who together orchestrate a sense of mounting tension via lengthy tracking shots and long takes that gradually give way to increasing close-ups that demand quicker and tighter editing.

Another crucial change that Rose made for the film was actually showing the defendant, an 18-year-old boy from a ghetto neighborhood accused of stabbing his father to death, thus making it visually clear that he is a racial minority, a topic that was verboten on the television program (there were allusions to his class status, but never his race). Thus, in the film race becomes a compelling subtext that is finally brought to the surface when one of the jurors (all of whom are, of course, white males) explodes in a racist diatribe that turns everyone against him.

With two exceptions at the very end of the film, the names of the jurors are not revealed, which emphasizes the overwhelming importance of the role they play in the legal system (numerous times throughout the film dialogue emphasizes that someone’s life is in their hands). The plot hinges largely on Juror #8 (Henry Fonda, who also co-produced the film with Rose), who is at first the only holdout on the jury: All the other members are sure that the defendant is guilty and are ready to vote within minutes of assembling in the jury room. Fonda’s character doesn’t think the defendant is not guilty, but he isn’t sure that he is guilty either; regardless, he is adamant that the case merits additional discussion. Of everyone in the room, he seems to be the most acutely aware of the gravity of their task, while the others are either comfortable with their assurance of guilt or are simply anxious to finish the job and go home to their lives.

This is especially true of Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb), a burly working-class type who is the most vocal and recalcitrant advocate of the defendant’s guilt, although it is gradually revealed that his insistence on a guilty verdict is really a displaced means of punishing his own son with whom he has not spoken in years (“Kids these days!” he complains, as if they are all the same). Juror #4 (E.G. Marshall), a button-down stockbroker, is similarly reluctant to recognize reasonable doubt in the case largely due to his fervent faith in eyewitness testimony. Others on the jury, particularly Juror #6 (Edward Binns), a baseball fanatic, and Juror #12 (Robert Webber), an ad executive, don’t take their roles very seriously, which is perhaps the most toxic contribution to potential injustice.

The resistance of the other jurors to discussing the seemingly open-and-shut case is a compelling means of depicting how the system works only when those involved accept the moral weight of their roles, which is embodied first in Fonda’s juror, but steadily inflects the others as they begin to reassess what they thought they knew and come to the realization that the evidence is not nearly as convincing as they thought. The obviousness of the dereliction of duty on the part of the defendant’s court-appointed lawyer would seem to underscore the inherent injustice of the system for the economically disadvantaged, but again Rose counters the flaws in the system with balance via the jury’s deliberations: When one part of the system fails, another part fills in. This is not, of course, always the case, but 12 Angry Men stills impresses as a compellingly realized depiction of how idealism and dedication can ultimately trump narrow-mindedness and prejudice.

12 Angry Men Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
12 Angry Men is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioEnglish PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1955 television version, with an introduction by Ron Simon
  • Tragedy in a Temporary Town (1956) teleplay
  • 12 Angry Men: From TV to the Big Screen” interview with Vance Kepley
  • “Lumet on Lumet” compliation of archival interviews with director Sidney Lumet
  • “On Sidney Lumet” video interview with screenwriter Walter Bernstein
  • “On Reginal Rose” video interview with Ron Simon
  • “On Boris Kaufman” interview with cinematographer John Bailey
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by writer and law professor Thane Rosenbaum
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateNovember 22, 2011

    Criterion’s new high-definition transfer of 12 Angry Men, which is presented in its proper 1.66:1 aspect ratio, was taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and digitally restored to bring it back to near pristine condition. The image is superb throughout in terms of detail and contrast; you can see every bead of sweating on the juror’s brows while also appreciating the natural play of film grain. Boris Kaufman’s finely tuned black-and-white cinematography is beautifully presented in all its chiaroscuro glory, with deep, dark blacks and good shadow detail. I also have no complaints about the monaural soundtrack, which was transferred at 24-bit from a restored 35mm magnetic print. It sounds generally clean and clear, with virtually no ambient hiss or other distortions to distract from the dialogue.
    The care and attention that Criterion put into the film’s transfer is also apparent in their assemblage of supplements to contextualize the film. The disc includes not one, but two complete Reginald Rose-penned live anthology dramas: Franklin Schaffner’s original 1955 television version of 12 Angry Men, which begins with an introduction by Ron Simon, curator at the Paley Center for Media, and Tragedy in a Temporary Town (1956), which stars Lloyd Bridges and was the first time Lumet and Rose worked together. Those interested in the history of 12 Angry Men will enjoy “12 Angry Men: From TV to the Big Screen,” a 25-minute interview with Vance Kepley, who works at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison (which houses the Reginal Rose collection). Kepley gives a great deal of background information about the production of the original television drama and its multiple adaptations to stage and screen. Because most of the men who worked on the film are now deceased, Criterion has pulled together both archival interviews and interviews with current experts who can speak at length about the artists. “Lumet on Lumet” is a 22-minute collection of archival interviews with director Sidney Lumet, while “On Sidney Lumet” features an interview with screenwriter Walter Bernstein, who was one of Lumet’s friends and collaborators. Reginald Rose is given his due in a 15-minute interview with Ron Simon, while cinematographer John Bailey speaks for more than 40 minutes about cinematographer Boris Kaufman, particularly his work with Jean Vigo and with Lumet on both 12 Angry Men and The Fugitive Kind. Lastly, the disc contains the film’s original theatrical trailer, and the insert booklet features an illuminating essay by writer and law professor Thane Rosenbaum.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection / 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment / MGM Studios Inc.

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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