DVD Review: 12 Angry Men (Criterion Collection)

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On the face of it, a movie which takes place almost entirely in one room, consists of 12 men who do nothing but talk—and don’t even have names—should be anything but a searing experience. 1957’s 12 Angry Men an undisputed classic, is an inspiring and well crafted masterpiece. The story is a simple one: 12 ordinary men are given the task of deciding the fate of a young man accused of killing his father. If found guilty, he will face the electric chair.  The evidence appears to be stacked against him: Two eyewitnesses, a murder weapon known to be bought by the killer, and an alibi that he couldn’t remember during questioning. An open and shut case, really. However, one juror stands alone against the other 11, who’d all just like to get on with their lives. With that single ‘not guilty’ vote, Henry Fonda’s Juror #8 sets off an emotional firestorm.

Based on a television play by Reginald Rose, 12 Angry Men was director Sidney Lumet’s first feature.  Rose and Fonda acted as co-producers and put up their own money to finance it. The cinematography was done by the veteran Boris Kaufman, whose credits (On the Waterfront, Long Day’s Journey into Night) who show a talent for ratcheting up the tension during dialogue exchanges and close-ups, does the same thing here. The defendant is seen only in a single brief shot; the tension of the jurors is conveyed through dialogue and body language.

The twelve men are revealed to us one by one. We don’t learn their names, only their numbers—from their sitting order—and professions. What we learn about them is their prejudices, and their ability to show concern for another human being.  “Nice bunch of guys, huh?”, says #6 (Edward Binns) to #8 in the lavatory. “They’re about the same as anyone else”, the latter responds, emphasizing the non-personified account of these 12 Angry Men; Angry for a lot of reasons, but not one of them having anything to do with the accused and their job in that room.

Rose´s script does a wonderful job of creating a character sketch that provides insight into each man. The foreman, Juror No.1 (Martin Balsam), is an accommodating football coach who merely wishes to maintain some sort of order. Juror No. 2 (John Fiedler) is a quiet but curious bank clerk. Juror No.3 (Lee J. Cobb) is a stubborn businessman fighting personal demons. Juror No. 4 (E.G. Marshall) is a respected and critical broker. Juror No. 5 (Jack Klugman) is a young man who grew up in the slums. Juror No. 6 (Edward Binns) is a tough house painter. Juror No.7 (Jack Warden) is a loud and fast-talking salesman who wants to be done in time to get to the Yankee game. Juror No.8 (Fonda) is a quiet, reflective architect. Juror No. 9 (Joseph Sweeney) is an intelligent and observant old man. Juror No. 10 (Ed Begley) is a loud, bigoted garage owner. Juror No. 11 (George Voskovec) is a methodical East European watchmaker. And Juror No. 12 (Robert Webber) is an energetic advertising agent who loves to crack jokes.

Gradually, each man is forced to confront personal prejudices as they reconsider the evidence. Is the knife really so unique? Could that old man with a limp really have gotten to his front door in 15 seconds? One by one, the other 11 join #8. But with each new ‘not guilty’ vote, the anger in the room grows as sides are chosen and lines are drawn in the sand.

Presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, Criterion’s release is as good as you’ll ever see for a standard DVD. The transfer is incredibly clean and contrast is solid. Detail quality is superb for SD, and grain is handled well. There are some elements of age that creep in, but they seem inconsequential when the rest of this presentation is so accomplished.

The original mono soundtrack is a very solid one. The film’s age imposes certain limitations, but dialogue is audible throughout, and the movie’s musical score has an appropriate heft to it.

English subtitles are included.

The following special features are included:

  • Trailer (3 min.)  Original theatrical trailer for 12 Angry Men. In English, not subtitled.
  • 12 Angry Men: From TV to the Big Screen (26 min.) Film scholar Vance Kepley discusses the history of 12 Angry Men, and specifically its evolution from teleplay to feature film. The interview was recorded exclusively for Criterion in 2011 at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison.
  • Sidney Lumet | Sidney Lumet (23 min) / Reflections on Sidney (10 min)  A gallery of interviews with Sidney Lumet conducted throughout his career. Also included is a new interview with the director’s close friend and collaborator Walter Bernstein.
  •  On Reginald Rose (15 min.)  Ron Simon, curator at the Paley Center for Media, takes a look at the legacy of Reginald Rose, the writer of 12 Angry Men. Also included is Sidney Lumet’s “Tragedy in a Temporary Town”, which was written by Reginald Rose and first aired as part of The Alcoa Hour on NBC on February 19, 1956.
  • “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” (56 min).
  • On Boris Kaufman (39 min) Cinematographer John Bailey discusses the visual style of cinematographer Boris Kaufman (12 Angry Men, On the Waterfront), filmmaker Dziga Vertov’s younger brother.
  • 12 Angry Men (51 min) This is the television version of 12 Angry Men written for the series Westinghouse Presents Studio One by Reginald Rose and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, which first aired on September 26, 1954.
  • Introduction by Ron Simon (15 min) recorded exclusively for Criterion in August 2011.
  • Booklet: an illustrated booklet featuring Thane Rosenbaum’s essay “Lumet’s Faces” (the author is a novelist, essayist, and law professor.