Film: 12 Angry Men
Director: Sidney Lumet
Format: Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Fiction can be serve as a mirror to look back at ourselves or it can be used to make a world dramatically different than what we experience. The closer you get to reality, the more unnerving the experience can be. A fear I have is to have my fate be decided by twelve strangers. Just like we want for our President or teachers, we want the jury to be smartest set of 12 people that ever were assembled, because it’s your life on the line.
In a very tense 90 minutes, 12 men walk into a small sweltering room to decide whether a young boy will get the electric chair after allegedly stabbing his father to death. 11 men believe the kid is guilty and don’t want to discuss any further after six grueling days in court. Only one man, Henry Fonda’s Juror #8, is willing to treat the process fairly and voting not-guilty so they can spend more time discussing the facts.
When I said that I want to see a smarter and nobler use of the justice system, that doesn’t mean these 12 men need to be Rhodes Scholars. In fact, it’s better that they aren’t. In the most insignificant spoiler I can give, Fonda’s character is revealed to be an architect. (Since all the characters are only named Juror #X, for clarity I will refer to them all by the actor’s name.) We also have a sports reporter and an ad man. They are average men who excel themselves to the extraordinary, simply by taking the time to talk, think and listen.
With the economy of time, some characters only get a couple of key character moments. The actors are able to seamlessly use those to embody a full person as everyone dances around the table and this boy’s fate. Rhetoric is not only about how to interpret how the lawyers gave their case, but how each of them view the world. E.G. Marshall seems to embody the professorial approach with an upper-class lifestyle while the man sitting next to him, Jack Klugman, is bringing into the discussion a lifestyle more similar to the accused. The greatest clash is what pushes escalates the drama is between Fonda’s quiet pragmatic approach to Lee J. Cobb’s stubborn and screaming persona.
The evolution of each character towards their final decision is due to the strength of the ensemble. There is so much information about each one of them, just by watching them react to certain lines and seeing how and why they are defending their vote. The table represents a place of civility in discourse so when people are so impassioned to stand-up and walk away, it is harder to create any type of understanding. Director Sidney Lumet uses the camera to wander around the room to see everyone’s reaction and then in the same complicated shot, he will then pause to let one person speak. The claustrophobia and felt because we are always with as many people as possible. One frame even had all 12 of them in the shot as they stand aghast at the escalated level of discourse. Even a trip to the bathroom is occupied with at least three men who are still trying to sell their perspective. There’s no escaping their responsibility. Jack Warden tries and is judged harder than the bigot by the end of the film.
Where other countries uses judges for cases like these, the United States relies on the hopeful sense of internal justice bestowed upon their peers. This film shows a complex look at what a peer means. These are 12 men with different backgrounds and none of them can really compare their lives to the accused. Yet as the film continues, it’s clear the peer relationship we all hope for is the comradery of humanity. With the final verdict, these 12 become heroes as they achieved a beautiful example of what the system was designed to do.
Introduction of the TV Version by Ron Simon – I’m really glad that I watched this before the live television version because I received so much more context about the writer, Reginald Rose. I always thought it was a play before a TV movie, but I was wrong. I loved hearing how Rose’s personal jury experience over a manslaughter case led to an eight-hour debate was the inspiration for this film. Since Simon is a curator for the Paley Center, he also provided some fantastic context for what live television was like in the 50s.
12 Angry Men (Teleplay) – The TV version is a half hour shorter than the movie. I expected that to make it feel rushed, but since this was the original script, it completely works. There’s plenty of breathing room at the beginning as they all slowly go into their assigned place. The direction is really vibrant as it moves around the room. It’s a big disorganized when compared to Sidney Lumet, which probably isn’t a fair comparison. Lumet had time to set up every shot and see what works; this version is live. This was part of a three-part series where one of the other ones was the Best Picture winner, Marnie. I liked the cast, but it was harder to distinguish them all because they all move around so much and their suits are very similar. The best indicator of their perspectives begins right at the beginning where we can watch their reactions as the judge gives them their responsibilities.
While I can compare every actor, I’ll just stick with the main role of Juror #8. This version was played by Robert Cummings who I best recognize as the lead of Hitchcock’s Saboteur. As opposed to Henry Fonda, he seems very nervous as he is going up against 11 men. He knows he has the facts and the sense of justice, but he’s more hesitant in his actions. Whereas Henry Fonda was badass and noble Henry Fonda. The guy had played Lincoln by this point, for goodness sake. I found Cummings’ approach to be really interesting and made it feel more like an uphill battle against the reluctance of the room.
12 Angry Men: From Television to Cinema – For most of this 25-minute documentary/interview with film scholar Vance Kepley, it works mostly as a nice tribute to the teleplay for people who haven’t seen the teleplay. It’s not bad, but it’s showing the differences between the two and that can also be accomplished by watching the two. I did respect the teleplay even more when I realized how much had to be done to hide the other cameras for this live production and to have 12 actors hit their marks to never hide the central character of the moment or get in the camera’s way.
When it enters the transition to the film, then it really becomes interesting. It’s great to see how the studio wanted the success of Marty but only wanted to spend $400,000 on the whole movie. This was accomplished thanks to Sidney Lumet and here we get to see the joyful photographs of him and his hat on the set.
I’m sure that Criterion didn’t have the rights to them, but they tease other versions of the movie including a Russian version and one directed by William Friedkin. I wish we could hear more about their productions and their narrative differences.
Interviews About Sidney Lumet – This was an amazingly edited complication that took interviews throughout the years with Lumet and put them in chronological order from the stories he was telling. I loved his advice when asked if a kid should go into the theatre: “It’s better than stickball.” It was almost inevitable he was going to be a talent when you hear about his insane work schedule as he transitioned from the theatre to working in television. He described movies as simple after that. What’s seen throughout all of his interviews and ages was his enthusiasm about storytelling and to have “the best job in the world.”
There was also a shorter interview with Walter Bernstein. He was a blacklisted screenwriter who was able to get work thanks to Lumet during his television days. You Are There was the major show they worked on, which was done by three blacklisted writers, and directed by Lumet. It was a secretly political show that I really wish I could watch.
Interview about Reginald Rose – This was the best breakdown of Rose’s genius. He is described as one of the most important television writers of his time alongside Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Sterling. It shows that his themes exploring injustice, mob mentality and how society shifts was used so well through his scripts but also through the changing state of television. This easily stepped out as one of the best bonus features on the disc because it’s the most informative because it’s like discovering a great talent who we thought just had one hit.
Tragedy in a Temporary Town – I am so happy that I saw this. This is another pairing of Sidney Lumet and Reginald Rose and it’s excellent. The 12 Angry Men teleplay was my first exposure to live TV from this time and that’s a story all set in one room. (Aside from the first scene.) This was a really complex set with many rooms and an impressive main space that was allowed to have really dramatic shots and confrontations.
It’s about a small construction village who investigate the assault of a young woman. Jack Warden is furious about what happens and is ready to go to every room and interrogate each man on the premises to find out who is responsible. Even just in an hour, so much happens and the film takes the time to really feel the rise in anger. There are so many interrogations and you see Warden become more intense and the victim feeling like she’s experiencing a second assault.
The one quietly questioning this role of police without the authority is Lloyd Bridges. He’s scared about what this means and what the outcome shall be. Without any spoilers—seriously, watch this—Bridges has to go into a different mindset and has to stand up against the suddenly unreasonable Warden. This is early Lumet and Rose masterwork and I’m thrilled it was included on this DVD.
Interview About Boris Kaufman – Definitive is the word that comes to mind when I look at this 40 minute documentary. This is about the cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, and that topic may seem like it would be dull to even most movie fans. Yet it’s presented as a visual tour through film history. We get to see Kaufman’s family and their influence on Russian silent films and then we get to see his triumphs with his collaborations. He worked with Sidney Lumet on this film and The Fugitive Kind. Yet the interviewee really can’t help but gush over what he does with Elia Kazan especially with On the Waterfront.
Trailer – Oh man, this was terrible. From the first few seconds, they ruin the knife reveal. Then they show every major part of the movie while giving it the wrong tone. It is repeatedly called the most explosive movie in years. The 12 jurors are like 12 sticks of dynamite. They make this seem like a crazy b-movie noir than a quiet courtroom drama. No wonder it bombed at the box office. Whenever you misrepresent a film, audiences tend to turn on it.
Booklet – First of all, the booklet is filled with page sized photos of the 12 jurors that fill the cover and they are glorious. The essay on the Criterion booklet is called “Lumet’s Faces” by Thane Rosenbaum. The prose is really engaging and it makes for a really enjoyable read. Yet it’s more of summary than Lumet’s career more than anything else and it didn’t deep-dive as much as I would have hoped.
NEXT UP….The 39 Steps