12 Angry Men is one of those rare films that appears to defy all the
Enter the 1970’s. There was a rush of independent television stations that were looking for anything and everything to fill up air time. This constant need for programming meant pretty much any film that could be had cheaply was bought and aired, often for an almost nauseating number of showings. 12 Angry Men was one such film, but something amazing happened. People began to notice just how brilliant the film actually was. By then that first time director, Sidney Lumet, had gone on to rather remarkable success. Films like Fail-Safe, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Murder On The Orient Express, and Network had exposed just how much talent the young man actually had. Suddenly the kid from Philly was hot, and the public became interested in his earliest work. Everyone discovered what Fonda already knew back in 1957: Lumet was a genius. These television airings led to revival screenings at local movie houses, and before the first year of the 1980’s this one time failed film was an admired classic.
To what can we attribute the genius behind the film? The story is actually a remarkably simple one. You already know how it goes. It’s been redone a thousand times since. While deliberating at a murder trial a lone juror voting not guilty to 11 guilty votes stands his ground and eventually turns the entire verdict over to not guilty. Staged more like a play than the traditional
The characters, that’s were the beauty truly lies. 12 very compelling characters played perfectly by 12 skillful actors. We don’t even know their names, but we come to know each one of them intimately.
Juror #1 is played by Martin Balsam. This guy has the unenviable task of becoming the jury foreman. He begins quite tentatively, almost mousy in his awkwardness, but gains confidence to a point where he begins to stand up for himself, we are led to believe possibly for the first time in his life.
Juror #2 is played by John Fiedler. There’s no mistaking the charming voice of Piglet in Fiedler’s delivery. Like Piglet he seems a bit easy to intimidate and not very outwardly bright. He’s obviously uncomfortable speaking his mind, and he’s obviously not used to being taken seriously at all.
Juror #3 is played by Lee J. Cobb. This juror is the most boisterous of the group and the final hold out from the guilty crowd. Cobb is sensational, slowly introducing us to the man’s own demons and prejudices. He’s not necessarily a bad man, and Cobb has to walk that fine line. We hate him for most of the film, but we are allowed to finally feel for him in the end.
Juror #4 is played by E.G.
Juror # 5 is played by Jack Klugman. Klugman is the only surviving member of the cast. He is a bit quiet here, not at all like the iconic characters he would later play. In fact, it is Cobb that reminds us of the future Klugman. Many of the vocal inflections and acting nuances that Klugman would make his own you can see in Cobb. It’s no surprise when we learn in one of the features how much he admired Cobb and how much he learned doing this film. Klugman’s character relates most with the defendant. He hails from a slum and is obviously embarrased by his origins at first. Throughout the film we see him put aside those embarrassments and begin to take some pride in who he really is.
Juror #6 is played by Edward Binns. Binns plays a character much more concerned with the idea of justice than almost anyone else in the room. You can picture him in a classroom soaking up The American Dream. He’s smarter than most but does not really know or show it.
Juror #7 is played by Jack Warden. Warden’s character takes the case the least seriously. He’s got tickets to a ball game, and he’s just going through the motions. He cares little for the defendant or the justice system. He considers it all a waste of time.
Juror #8 is played by Henry Fonda. This is the pivotal character. He votes not guilty at first not because he necessarily believes the man to be innocent, but rather he wants to make sure that if they’re going to condemn a man to death they should at least take their time doing it. He wants to be satisfied about that all too familiar reasonable doubt. The more he looks at the case, the less he’s convinced of the man’s guilt, and he soon plants those seeds of doubt in his fellow jurors’ minds. He’s a softspoken man who can insist without ever raising his voice. He meets hostility with patience and treats it as irrelevant, taking the most aggressive foe off guard.
Juror #9 is played by Joseph Sweeney. He’s the eldest of the group and displays a great deal of wisdom that comes with his years. Never pushy, he speaks seldom but always with power. He relates to one of the elder witnesses who he believes desires attention.
Juror # 10 is played by Ed Begley. If any of these characters is truly evil, this man certainly is. He’s an outspoken bigot. His constant remarks about “those people” and how they commit crimes because “they can’t help it” paint him in the most unfavorable light. Begley manages to convince us with every word that comes out of his mouth. One of the most effective scenes in the film occurs during one of his bigoted rants. The rest of the jurors get up and turn their backs to him, even Cobb and the men who are on his side of the argument. A truly powerful cinematic moment.
Juror #11 is played by George Voskovec. He’s an immigrant and obviously proud to participate in the civil service. He is becoming somewhat disillusioned, however, and Voskovec does a wonderful job through subtlety in showing us the sadness that overcomes the man.
Juror #12 is played by Robert Weber. I found him to be the hardest juror to understand. He seems to be a follower with no strong opinions of his own. He’s happy to exist in the background and likely will always go with the flow.
That’s what makes this film the classic it is. In 1997 a television film was made, but it never even approached the effectiveness of Lumet’s original. Legal scholars love the film, and it’s played at almost every major law school in The United States. If you’ve never seen it before, you owe it to yourself to pick this one up.
12 Angry Men in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The film is formatted for your 16×9 televisions. This film has undergone a sweet restoration. There are few print defects, making it hard to believe it is over 50 years old. The black and white picture shows no signs of compression artifact either. Contrast is wonderful, allowing for highly defined detail in every frame. I was amazed to see the beads of sweat on several foreheads, something I would have only expected in an HD rendition. Black levels are fine, and there is a ton of shadow detail. Grain is kept at a minimum, and it’s welcome atmosphere for such a film.
The Dolby Digital Mono 2.0 track is less impressive but still a nice presentation. Yes, I did experience slight distortion, particularly during one or two of Cobb’s rants. The little bit of music that exists is fine, but it’s never really anything dynamic. You can hear the dialog, and that’s the whole film anyway. While it might not stand up to modern expectations, this sound delivers where it needs to. Trust me. You’ll be so caught up in the film you won’t even be thinking about the sound quality.
There is an audio commentary with film historian Drew Casper. It’s very dry and sounds like a college hall lecture, but there is much to be learned. Still, I wouldn’t think I’d ever give it a second listen.
Beyond A Reasonable Doubt – The Making Of 12 Angry Men: It’s a shame this thing only lasts a half hour. I couldn’t get enough. Klugman is the sole surviving cast member, and the release is worth the price just to listen to the admiration he had for the cast and Lumet. We also hear from members of the current touring company doing 12 Angry Men, most notably is Cheers alum George Wendt. They pay healthy respect to the film.
Inside The Jury Room: This 15 minute feature looks at the legal accuracy of the film. Lawyers like Alan Shapiro talk about selecting a jury and discuss the film’s impact on juries.
I taught law in high school for 7 years and used a laserdisc version of this film as part of the curriculum. It’s just that damn good. If this film doesn’t leave you eager to serve on a jury, then you just ain’t human. Here in The United States we get to make our case to 12 common everyday people, not just 12 idiots too stupid to get out of jury duty as many claim. Imagine yourself accused of a crime you didn’t commit and no one thought it was worth a day or so of their lives to hear your side of the story. “That’s something very valuable in our system.”