12 Angry Men: 50th Anniversary Edition Review

12 Angry Men is film which marks the ascendancy of Hollywood liberalism at a time when the industry was only just beginning to recover from its association with McCarthyism. In the leading role of Juror No.8, Henry Fonda established for all time his persona as the embodiment of the decent, honest American everyman, a guise which he assiduously cultivated and, subsequently, played upon to devastating effect in Once Upon A Time In The West. It’s a film calculated to appeal to the free-thinking, tolerant side of every viewer, celebrating the system which allows every person to get a fair hearing from a jury who can only convict if they do not have a reasonable doubt. As such, it’s immensely typical of director Sidney Lumet’s work. Making his debut in cinema, Lumet concentrates on the issues of justice, democracy and fairness which have obsessed him ever since in movies such as The Offence, Serpico, Prince Of The City and Q&A.

The entire film, barring a short prologue and epilogue, takes place in a jury room and the adjacent washroom. Following the trial of a young Puerto-Rican boy for the murder of his father, twelve men come together to debate their verdict. An initial vote indicates that eleven of them think that the boy is guilty. The only dissenter is Juror No.8 (Fonda) who claims not to know about the boy’s guilt and therefore feels that he has a reasonable doubt. Throughout the next few hours, No.8 explains his point of view and gradually convinces his fellow jurors to change their votes. It’s no easy task since the other men are all strong-minded individuals; No.1, the foreman (Balsam), is trying to keep order and doesn’t want to cause trouble; No.2 (Fiedler) is a little man, determined not to be cowed by the strong personalities; No.3 (Cobb) is violent and aggressive but haunted by his disastrous relationship with his son; No.4 (Marshall) is a buttoned-up stockbroker who sees everything is strictly logical terms; No.5 (Klugman) is a slum-dweller who hates the prejudice against his kind; No.6 (Binns) is a decent tough-guy who is insistent on everyone getting their due say; No.7 (Warden) is a loud-mouthed slob more concerned about getting to his baseball game than finding the truth; No.9 (Sweeney) is a cranky old man who is the first to crack; No.10 (Begley) is a racist thug; No.11 (Voskovec) is an immigrant who is in love with the idea of democracy; finally, No. 12 (Webber) is a slick advertising man.

The way that No.8 goes about his task of persuasion is through reasonable argument and it’s this which makes him contrast with the most vociferous of his “opponents”. The word is well chosen because this is essentially a restaging of the trial itself with Fonda as the defence and Cobb, Begley and Marshall as the prosecution. Certainly, the rest of the characters are significant in their own way, particularly Joseph Sweeney’s ornery old man, and are vividly characterised, but it is these four figures who provide much of the drama and, perhaps, melodrama. In the case of Cobb and Henry Fonda, it’s also a riveting clash of acting style; Cobb’s method sweatiness is a perfect contrast with Fonda’s calm naturalism. As so often, Lee J. Cobb is marvellous value, grounding his character with totally convincing body language and disposing of pithy dialogue with the delight of an actor who has found a great script. Henry Fonda, on the other hand, simply has to sit there and repeat his mantra “I don’t know” to look like the most reasonable man in the world. That’s the nub of his argument – he doesn’t claim that the boy is innocent, he simply doesn’t know and therefore cannot bring himself to vote guilty.

The argument of those opposing him is clouded by personal prejudice of one kind or another. Juror No.4 is moneyed and comfortable, living a world away from the slums where the Puerto Rican kid grew up. His class prejudice is masked by mathematical precision which gradually crumbles away when his belief in the logic of his argument is challenged. E.G. Marshall’s performance is perfectly judged, never making his character a villain but unnerving the viewer with his cold rationalism. If No.4 isn’t villainous however, No.10 most certainly is – and that’s one of the weak spots of Reginald Rose’s otherwise perfectly judged script. Ed Begley’s broad performance puts us in no doubt that his character is a repulsive racist, and possibly even a Fascist but a more subtle characterisation might have made the drama more complex and compelling. Lee J. Cobb’s No.3 is a more fitting opponent for Fonda since his unreasonable prejudice comes from his own personal failure and makes him a somewhat tragic figure.

The other jurors are given less importance but the script takes great care to give them bits of business to mark them out as individuals. Jack Warden is particularly memorable as No.7, beginning a distinguished career as a supporting actor, and Martin Balsam, no less distinguished himself, makes a strong impression as the weak foreman. All the performances are impressive though and this film was a launching pad for most of the cast, which also includes the TV favourite Jack Klugman and the eternally smooth Robert Webber. One of Henry Fonda’s strengths as an actor is his generosity and he gets better when he is forced to raise his game to match the supporting cast. He dominates the film with ease, although one has to admit to a slight unease with the way in which his point of view is allowed to predominate. While most of us would accept his argument, the film is schematically devised to force us into agreement and we know right from the word go that he will win the day – not least because he is Henry Fonda and must therefore triumph. A more complex film would perhaps acknowledge the sentimental simplicity of his appeals for understanding of the boy’s background and the idea that it’s his violent upbringing which might have caused him to kill his father. But on the other hand, the whole point of the film is that it takes courage for one man to stand up against a majority and this single-minded didactic aim is adhered to throughout.

This is perhaps the very definition of an actor’s film and that’s something which frequently recurred in Sidney Lumet’s subsequent career. But what makes this one of his most interesting works is the level of technical invention in the framing and cinematography. Right from the start, camera angles are used to a narrative purpose, establishing the hegemony of the American justice system and throughout, the camera is always in the right place at the right time. There are lengthy one-take shots inside the jury room whose fluidity belie the fact that most of the film takes place on one set. Boris Kaufman’s crisp monochrome cinematography suits the serious tone of the film perfectly, using light and shade to accent the characterisations. The elegance of the film is something that Lumet only occasionally captured again – his later excursions in the world of justice required a far grittier streetwise style.

Clearly, for many viewers, 12 Angry Men simply panders to their prejudices and, as such, it’s the kind of film which quickly becomes a favourite. But it’s earned its reputation, surviving the initial poor reception it received at the hands of audiences through sheer quality and intelligence. Whatever one’s reservations, the film is a riveting and beautifully made thriller which grips through argument and character rather than elaborate set-pieces. As such, it deserves all the plaudits it has received.

The Disc

We’ve waited a long time for a special edition of 12 Angry Men and MGM’s new release is quite good from a transfer point of view. Sadly, the extras could have been a lot better.

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio and the progressive transfer is anamorphically enhanced. It’s a nice image throughout in many ways, always crisp and atmospheric. The level of detail is wonderful and the blacks are suitably rich and full. I was a bit disappointed by the amount of grain but this may possibly be characteristic of the film itself. The mono soundtrack is excellent however with eminently clear dialogue.

The extras are a little disappointing. We get two featurettes, running about 40 minutes in total, which look at the making of the film and the ideas it presents in a rather superficial manner and contain a lot of interviews. However, only the contributions from Lumet and Jack Klugman are particularly interesting. Rather better is a commentary track from Drew Casper. He’s an acquired taste and a little of his slightly whiny voice goes a long way but he has a lot to say and his comments are always well informed and relevant.

The film has optional subtitles but there are none for the special features.

A great film receives a special edition release which is adequate but far from comprehensive. If you haven’t got a copy of the film or you particularly admire it, then it’s worth purchasing. But if you have a copy already, it’s not really an essential upgrade.

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