12 Angry Men Review
12 Angry Men is arguably the greatest legal drama of all time. It marked the directorial debut of Sidney Lumet, a filmmaker who has made a career out of exploring the various facets of law and order and the workings of the judicial system with such films as Serpico, Prince Of The City, The Verdict, Q & A and Night Falls On Manhattan to his credit. The film also gave Henry Fonda one of his most memorable starring roles and indeed, Fonda, in his role as the movie’s co-producer, proved instrumental in getting the film made in the first place. The story itself, written by Reginald Rose, was originally made for television, but Fonda recognised its cinematic potential and the film version was released in 1957 to become the widely acknowledged classic it is today.
The story begins at the summation of a murder trial. A young teenage boy has been accused of killing his father and the jury, ‘twelve good men and true’, is made aware of its responsibilities before retiring to the jury room. The rest of the movie takes place almost entirely inside this claustrophobic space, the increasingly hostile atmosphere exacerbated by the swelteringly hot and humid weather - “the hottest day of the year”. As the case seems pretty much open-and-shut, the members of the jury seem anxious to deliver a quick ‘guilty’ verdict. Well, all but one of them. Juror number 8 (Fonda) believes that a boy on trial for his life deserves more than just a simple show of hands and feels that a discussion of the evidence presented at the trial is called for. And so the stage is set for a battle of wills as Fonda tries to persuade his fellow jurors, led by a very temperamental Lee J. Cobb, that the case is not as cut-and-dried as they initially thought.
However, the path to justice is not an easy one. Fonda, the calm and rational voice of reason of the group, is going to have a tough time convincing hardnosed challengers like the aggressive and patriarchal Cobb, the clinically detached and cool-as-a-cucumber E. G. Marshall and an unashamed racist like Ed Begley. He has also got to contend with a character like Jack Warden’s cynical wiseass, a guy who couldn’t care less about the fate of the accused because he is being delayed from attending a ball game. Even the more fair-minded jurors initially try to dissuade Fonda from supporting what is clearly a lost cause. Nevertheless, as this lone holdout starts to poke holes in the prosecution’s case, the jurors start questioning their own assumptions and come to realise that their judgment may have been a little too hasty. The movie’s chief strength is that all the characters are remarkably well written, each with clearly defined personalities, strengths and foibles, and the performances are impeccable. Aside from those already mentioned, we have the easygoing and democratic Martin Balsam, never quite comfortable in his position as jury foreman; the whiny and eager-to-please John Fiedler, constantly fighting just to have his opinion heard in a room full of domineering personalities; the shy Jack Klugman, who grows in confidence as he comes to identify personally with the accused and his lower-class background; the blue-collar Edward Binns, an inarticulate man perhaps but possessing an innate sense of fair play that means no one in the room gets to belittle anyone else; the elderly Joseph Sweeney, not as senile as other members of the group would see him, indeed, he proves to be an astute observer of human nature; the unfailingly courteous George Voskovec, a methodical man, carefully assessing the facts of the case; and finally, indecisive young executive Robert Webber, who succumbs to herd instinct, basing his decision on the majority vote.
Although it may seem that labelling these characters in such a way makes them appear more like caricatures than believable human beings, the perfectly chosen ensemble cast easily accomplishes the task of bringing this quarrelsome bunch to life, each actor delivering a vivid, subtly observed and focused performance, occasionally histrionic in some cases but always recognisably human. It is fascinating to watch the various personality clashes brought about by the differences in class, work environment, social background and education; indeed, the film often seems to play as a sociological experiment, with this diverse cross-section of society placed in a situation where members must learn to deal with one another in an often adversarial environment. Witness Marshall’s condescending behaviour towards the other members of the jury, the upper class intellectual having assumed an air of utter superiority right from the start that is only deflated by Fonda’s sweat-inducing interrogation of him in the final stages of the movie. Or Cobb’s apparent refusal to feel any sense of sympathy or understanding for the boy on trial, describing Fonda’s character as a “bleeding heart” for attempting to do so. Indeed, the increasingly antagonistic relationship between Fonda and Cobb is memorably highlighted by a tense moment when Cobb, with the aid of the murder weapon, demonstrates how the stab wound was made using Fonda as the victim! In fact, Cobb’s reasons for believing in the guilt of the accused turn out to be more a reflection of his own views on father/son relationships, a fact which illustrates one of the film’s central concerns, that of the difficulty in maintaining an open mind, an objective point of view, when confronted with a situation that demands absolute neutrality.
One of the most pertinent questions the film asks then is: is it possible for a jury to remain truly impartial? Can they carry out their duty without bringing their own prejudices and preconceptions into the jury room with them? One need only look at the ugly scene where Begley is cruelly but nonetheless justifiably boycotted by the rest of the group for his blatantly racist tirade against the accused to see that a man of his character should never have been put on a jury in the first place. In order for justice to prevail, human prejudice, hard though it might be to avoid, must be kept out of the equation, as one character observes: “we should not make it a personal thing.” The concept of reasonable doubt is another contentious issue tackled by the movie. As the film progresses, we observe that Fonda does not conclusively prove that the accused has not committed the crime; indeed, even though he brilliantly undermines some of the stronger evidence indicating the guilt of the young boy (a great moment when he dramatically impales a switchblade in the table, for example), there is just as much evidence to suggest that the boy is in fact guilty. What he achieves is to place just enough doubt in the minds of the other jurors as to force them to re-consider their position. Hence, the movie can be read on two levels: on one hand, it can be interpreted as an endorsement of the legal system, of sticking to the letter of the law. On the other, it can be seen as an indictment of it, illustrating just how easily a jury can be swayed by clouding the issue with broad assumptions and conjecture. I think the best thing that can be said about 12 Angry Men is that no matter how one chooses to read the film, the result never seems unbelievable or artificial.
Director Lumet does a stupendous job maintaining the sweaty, claustrophobic tension (he allegedly moved the walls of the set in tighter as the film progressed, cranking up the tense, hothouse dramatics to ever more intense levels) but never allows the inherent staginess of the setting to become tedious for the audience. He achieves this difficult balancing act by keeping the camera in motion, making use of numerous tracking and panning shots to follow his demonstrative actors around the room, utilising slow zooms to emphasise key moments, and essentially using as many different angles and as much compositional imagination as possible to make the audience sweat at least as much as his ensemble cast does. It has to be said that there have been so many legal dramas made over the years that the entire genre has become tired and clichéd but 12 Angry Men is an exception, remaining as fresh and as thought-provoking as when it was first released, thanks to the perfectly realised characterisations achieved by its actors and the confident, inventive filmmaking exhibited by its director. A genuine classic.
The DVD is presented in a non-anamorphic 1.66:1 transfer and the overall picture quality is acceptable. The disc offers a decent B&W picture with good contrast levels and plenty of detail, although a little edge enhancement is evident at times. Unfortunately, the source print used exhibits occasional white flecks, scratches and those annoying reel change burn marks but generally, this is about as good as can be expected of a film this old.
Presented in mono, the soundtrack has been cleaned up by MGM and it is more than adequate. The film is after all almost completely dialogue-based and the sound is perfectly clear and distinct. What more do you need?
The only extra on the disc is the very old-fashioned original theatrical trailer. Pathetic.
12 Angry Men is one of the best films of its kind, a tense and immaculately performed melodrama, and it really deserves better treatment on DVD than this. However, considering that this is one of MGM's cheaper discs (RRP £12.99), it is a worthwhile purchase.
Last updated: 11/08/2018 16:11:02