Cinema aficionados, both students and scholars, rely on Criterion for exhaustively adorned DVDs with lots of educational extras. Wes Anderson says in an interview somewhere that he learned filmmaking from Criterion. In this regard, the company's new disc set of 12 Angry Men doesn't disappoint.
This short 96-minute film from 1957, in somber black and white and in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio, similar to its roots as a television live drama, comes in a two-disc set with the film on Disc One, along with the original television broadcast, aired in 1955 with a mostly different cast, directed by Frank Schaffner. This hour long version is introduced by Ron Simon, curator at the Paley Center for Media, who gives some insight into the origins of the piece in author Reginald Rose's own experience as a juror, and into the visual style of Schaffner, unusual for live TV. There is also a short video history of the film, and the trailer. On Disc Two, there's old interview footage with the director, the late Sidney Lumet, and an interview with screenwriter Walter Bernstein about Lumet, for whom he was an occasional collaborator. Ron Simon comes back for an interview about the career of Reginald Rose, and DP John Bailey comes on to talk about esteemed cinematographer Boris Kaufman, whose career ranged from L'Atalante to The World of Henry Orient. Last on the disc, there is Tragedy in a Temporary Town, aired originally in 1956, and written by Rose, with Lumet directing. Finally there is a 24-page booklet, with cast, crew, chapter titles, and transfer information, and a functional essay on the film by law prof Thane Rosenbaum. The art for the box cover and in the booklet seems to be by Sean Phillips, but unearthing that information is harder than it needed to be. I'm also surprised that the booklet doesn't feature Rose's own short afterward to the play, which appeared in his collection Six Television Plays (Simon and Schuster, 1956, pages 155-159).
That's a lot of info packed into a set, and some might wonder if all this labor is an exegesis of a gnat turd. Released in 1957, 12 Angry Men fared poorly at the box office, possibly because it was yet another grim kitchen sink tale premised with a good gimmick but used as a platform to broadcast obvious social problem issues, with Henry Fonda as the unnamed dissenting juror in a room of guillotine pullers who scores some easy liberal wins off the straw man racists and executioners all around him. The music, by Kenyon Hopkins, who did other films for Lumet, is that popular "arty" kind of mournful fanfare music of the time with lots of wind instruments that Alex North made famous.
But in an era of dumb movies, or at least dumbed down movies, 12 Angry Men now seems to grow in stature. At least it is about something besides itself, or snappy editing, or a rock score. International filmmakers seem to agree. 12 Angry Men became something of a proto-The Office, with different nations doing their own version or variations. In 1963 there was an adaptation for German television, Die zwölf Geschworenen, followed by a 1982 TV adaptation called Tolv edsvorne menn and then an adaptation for television in India in 1986 (Ek Ruka Hua Faisla). America finally got back in the act with a little known HBO adaptation directed by William Friedkin in 1997, with Jack Lemmon in the Fonda role. There was even a Russian variation in 2007, called 12, and directed by Nikita Mikhalkov (Burnt by the Sun), and the most recent was for French TV in 2010 (Douze hommes en colère). The play version even makes a cameo appearance in Stephen King's new novel, 11/22/63, retitled The Jury so that a high school teacher could cast girls in the production. Though far from the original, the recent British mini-series, The Jury, shows roots in the Rose play. These wide ranging adaptations may speak to the cleverness and flexibility of Rose's original premise, but at the same time they bespeak an interest in a work that addresses fundamental issues of truth and justice.
12 Angry Men begins at the tail end of a trial of a young Hispanic man accused of stabbing his father to death in their tenement apartment, with the jurors, all male, walking out after hearing their instructions. The foreman is Martin Balsam, subtly brilliant as usual, as he was in Psycho, so wonderfully naturalistic. Lee J. Cobb, one of the great "anger actors," is No. 3. Beside him, E. G. Marshall is No. 4, a prissy accountant type, while TV's Jack Klugman is No. 5, an easy going fellow. Jack Warden is No. 7, a guy who wants to wrap things up quick so he can make a baseball game, Henry Fonda is No. 8, and next to him is retiree Joseph Sweeney, carried over from the TV broadcast as No. 9. Ed Begley is a racist with father-son issues as Juror No. 10, and Robert Webber is ad exec "mad men" Juror No. 12.
After the first vote, all the jurors but one are for conviction, which carries a death sentence. Fonda then gets his chance to talk out his reservations about the case, and gradually wins over two more skeptics. As tempers flare in the hot room on a late summer afternoon, the jurors reveal a great deal about themselves, and some of them express noble beliefs about the system while others serve as warnings about how the process can go awry.
Fonda is great as the dissenter, but skeptical viewers may see through his piety to the manipulator underneath. He begins by claiming that he just wants to give the boy on trial his due, and sending him to the chair without at least talking about it strikes him as wrong. But it is clear that he is voicing questions that he has been ruminating all along, especially when he suddenly produces a knife exactly like the kid's, undermining one of the prosecution's points. Like a Machiavelli, Juror No. 8 manipulates his fellow citizens to effect the outcome that he wants. He may be right, but there is something about the film that undermines his stature.
The TV version ended with some uncertainty, or alleged uncertainty, imposed on the text by Schaffner. The original script makes it clear that the men go back to the court with a "not guilty" verdict, as does the movie. At root, the film is about reasonable doubt, and like another brilliant courtroom drama from a few years later, Anatomy of a Murder, also to be released by Criterion, it explores the profound ambiguity at the heart of the criminal justice system, which by necessity must deal with surfaces, and not motivations, or true, existential guilt.
12 Angry Men, Criterion No. 591, hit the streets on Tuesday, 22 November, 2011, in both reg and Blu-Ray, and retails for $29.95 to $39.95, or is available at a video store near you.