“You’re faced with a grave responsibility, ladies and gentlemen…”
One of my favorite scenes of “12 Angry Men” is in fact the opening. Sidney Lumet doesn’t so much provide exposition as he lays out the basic rule of the premise. These twelve men don’t have to abide by story conventions so much as they have to abide by the law and a strict principle about judging someone during this horrible trial. The question soon becomes how far will these men stretch these laws and principals to fit their own agendas? What will keep them biased and subjective in a case that requires a clear thought and analytical mind? The opening shot features the young boy in question transposed over the establishing shot of the empty jury room where his fate lies. He’s a young, minority, juvenile delinquent, with a violent past and his life lies in the hands of twelve strangers. Worse is that these twelve strangers have their own vendettas. His cards are stacked against him immediately since the trial has drawn on for weeks in to the hottest day of the year. The jurors were, presumably, chosen for their ability to put aside their own personal preferences to judge a case, but once Sidney Lumet puts these twelve men in a room together, it soon becomes apparent everyone has arrived with their goals in mind. It’s a group of the worst and best of America.
The liberals, the conservatives, progressive men, old fashioned men, the seeping minority climate, the hard working Joe’s, the businessmen, the men looking for a voice, and one man who wants payback through this entire case. Juror number eight is a man who doesn’t know the truth and doesn’t claim to, but is convinced that this case warrants the utmost attention possible, and is unwilling to bow to majority opinion or mob rule, regardless. Sure, at the end of the day you can argue that film opts for an easy positive final scene, but though director Lumet does choose a positive note, there’s barely any resolution to the central dilemma of these characters.
Though Juror Number 3 may be filled with the notion that this boy is not guilty, he still has to face himself in the mirror when he gets home. “12 Angry Men” sheds the light on a rarely explored facet of the justice system called the jury, where Lumet along with writer Reginald Rose punctuate the importance of the jury and how they’re crucial to the American justice system. The casting is still about as pitch perfect as ever, as Sidney Lumet assembles a cast of actors who command the screen with their presence. No one feels inadequate, and no one ever blends in to the background. Henry Fonda as Juror Number Eight is assuredly a man with his own agenda, but one that is wholly unique from everyone else in the room.
Most of his back story is left ambiguous as we only know of his resolve to re-consider the guilt of this young boy and his interaction in his father’s murder. Though he never quite states it outright, he believes in the American law system and is certain this boy deserves a fair trial and consideration that someone of great status and importance would garner. Eventually the jury room becomes something of a character in and of itself, expanding and closing in based upon moments of anger and discovery, along with tight focus on facial expression and mannerisms that add so much to the suspense. Lumet is very skilled in panning in on only the crucial points of character interaction and thought, providing a stern urgency to the ultimate decision.
The small dimensions of the room forces the men to interact and stare one another in the face preventing anyone from shielding themselves from the taunts and scrutiny of their other jurors. This is where we gain and insight in to the characters more than the exposition allows, as we glimpse in to the individual train of thought and how they conduct the world around them. Jack Warden as Juror number seven is a man who sees the world through the sports filter, as Robert Webber is fascinating as the charismatic advertising agent who seems very confident and reveals his ability to fold under pressure as the tensions ensue. Lee J. Cobb is incredible as Juror Number Three, a man who clearly is viewing the case through his own lens of familial angst who is certain that this young man deserves punishment by principle alone. The dichotomy between wanting Justice and upholding Justice is the consistent plot conflict throughout “12 Angry Men,” and Fonda and Cobb work wonders as two opposing forces of opinion and morality that aim to win over the ten other men struggling to decide.
Though it’s never quite clubbed over our heads, there’s the noticeable element of racism throughout the course of this decision, and it becomes a noted plot point as George Voskovec’s Juror number eleven struggles for a voice in the midst of patronizing and undermining from men who view his outspoken habits as a means of imposing his minority status on their more settled American outlook. He’s clearly a hard working and honest man, but still has to struggle for respect until the very end thanks to his skin color and nationality. Though there’s never a revelation toward the verdict or if the young boy ever really committed murder, much of that is irrelevant to Juror eight who just wants to ensure that justice is served in the way that every American is promised and should have. As a drama and look at the inherent dilemma behind the justice system and casting aside all pre-conceived notions and biases, “12 Angry Men” is a flawless film and a brilliant display of talent coming together to create a powerful film.
Along with a new restoration that gives the film an incredible quality as well as a 1.67:1 aspect ration, Criterion provides fans of “12 Angry Men” with a slew of incredible features. Respective fans are given the original theatrical trailer, as well as a thirty minute special called “12 Angry Men: From TV to the Big Screen” which sheds light on the film’s production history with film scholar Vance Kepley providing insight in to the film’s various plot elements and the difference between the original TV play and the film itself. There’s a forty minute gallery of interviews with Sidney Lumet through his career, and a fifteen minute spotlight on Redinald Rose, the author of “12 Angry Men.” Featured is “Tragedy in a Temporary Town,” an hour long drama by Sidney Lumet.
There’s a forty minute glimpse in to the life of cinematographer Boris Kaufman by John Bailey who explores his legacy and impact on the art form. Finally, there’s the Westinghouse Presents Studio One television play of “12 Angry Men” originally aired in 1954, that sparked interest in the 1957 film of the same name by Henry Fonda. There’s the added introduction by Ron Simon. Within the case, there’s a wonderful essay by Thane Rosenmbaum about “12 Angry Men” and Sidney Lumey entitled “Lumet’s Faces” along with full color illustrations of the cast of the film. A wonderful treatment for my favorite film of all time, “12 Angry Men” strives on simplicity and in effect delivers one of the most powerful and suspenseful dramas in cinematic history. The cast is incredible, the writing superb, and the film is unparalleled in its sheer excellence.