Review for 12 Angry Men [The Criterion Collection]
My second experience with a Criterion release turns out to be one of my favourite films of all, although if you skim through my movie collection, it is something of an outlier. I don’t have too many pure dramas, and few as simple as 12 Angry Men. It’s just one script, one room, twelve actors at the top of their game and a handful of props, and some masterful direction and cinematography. You could call it the epitome of a low budget movie, yet for me 12 Angry Men is one of the best movies ever made. And now it’s coming to the UK on High Definition Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion, in another feature packed release.
As the murder trial of an eighteen year old accused of killing his father comes to its conclusion, the judge gives the jury his instructions. It’s a capital case, and only a unanimous verdict will do when it comes to the death penalty. As the jury retires to a room to deliberate on a sweltering hot summer day, it seems like an open and shut case, with merely the formality of voting before they can all go home. But when the vote comes in, there are only 11 guilty verdicts. Juror #8 remains uncertain...
12 Angry Men gets a 1.66:1 widescreen 1080p monochrome transfer, with thin pillarboxing either side. The PR blurb indicates that the film got a new HD restoration for this release, and when it comes to the film’s clarity, contrast, and level of detail that certainly makes a great impact. The film is stable throughout, clean of print damage, and with a natural level of film grain. It looks fantastic, while the monaural PCM 1.0 soundtrack is certainly authentic. It has no distortion or tinniness to it, bringing the film’s dialogue across with clarity and depth, the same with the occasional sparse appearance of the film’s music soundtrack. The dialogue is clear throughout, but optional English subtitles are available should you need them.
I only received the check disc for review, so can’t comment on the packaging or the physical extras with this release. However going by the on disc features, this is one very delectable title.
The disc boots to an animated menu, and my Panasonic player holds the disc’s last position after it’s ejected.
The Television Version lasts 50:42 and is presented in 1080i pillarboxed. Quite naturally it’s an upscale of a recording of the original broadcast. 12 Angry Men was produced for television in 1954, three years prior to the movie, and back then television drama was performed live for the cameras. That certainly tells in the programme. There is also a 14:04 introduction to the programme by Ron Simon, who puts it in context, discussing its legacy and influence.
12 Angry Men: From TV to the Big Screen lasts 25:33 1080p, and film scholar Vance Ripley looks at the evolution of the teleplay.
There are a couple of featurettes on director Sidney Lumet presented in 1080i. The first lasts 22:58 and is a compilation of interviews with the director over the years. Then there is 9:28 piece called Reflections on Sidney from his friend Walter Bernstein.
On Reginald Rose is a 14:59 piece in 1080p from Ron Simon again, who here looks at the career of the writer of the teleplay and the film script. This is accompanied by another vintage television drama from 1956, Tragedy in a Temporary Town also directed by Sidney Lumet, and starring Lloyd Bridges and Jack Warden. This lasts 55:11 and is presented as pillarboxed and upscaled 1080i.
On Boris Kaufman lasts 38:21 1080p, and is a look at the career of the cinematographer of 12 Angry Men.
Finally there is the film’s trailer, running to 2:15.
12 Angry Men is a classic of cinema, a film that everyone should see at least once. You get to see the elegance of screenwriting, brilliant, measured direction, and a masterclass in screen acting, all in one simple, brilliantly conceived film. I never knew that 12 Angry Men started off as a 1 hour teleplay, which in 1954 would be better described as more of a theatre script, but its translation to the feature film format is transcendental, with the mechanics of the murder case giving way to rich and vivid character portrayals and development. The film becomes more about getting under the skin of these twelve jurors, see who they are, and how that impacts on the decision that they have to take.
It’s such a simple concept too, playing out a jury’s deliberations in real time as they decide whether an 18 year old boy will live or die. It seems an open and shut case, most of the jury just want to get it over with and go home on a hot, sweltering day, but one man, juror #8 stands up and says ‘not guilty’. He isn’t particularly adamant at first, he just has a reasonable doubt, and a sense that the guilt of a murderer can’t be assigned at a whim. But in the claustrophobia of the jury room and in the scorching heat, it’s like igniting a powder keg, and it seems like one man standing against the world, challenged by the others to explain his decision. But his reasonable explanation is enough to sway the mind of one other, and so begins a debate over this boy’s life, about the details of the case, the weakness in his defence and the flaws in the prosecution.
As I said, it’s less about these facts than it is about the personalities debating them, how who they are colours their decision. Juror #8 is the strong personality type that can stand against popular opinion, but he’s also measured, and soft spoken, a career defining performance from Henry Fonda, There is the clock-watcher who’s more interested in getting out in time for a baseball game than doing his civic duty. There is the man whose view of the accused and the crime is coloured by his fractious relationship with his own son. There is the accountant type, utterly clinical and logical, who weighs the evidence methodically, there is the observant old man, there is the immigrant who is filled with pride at American democracy and the legal system, and of course there is the bigot who has already convicted the accused based on his background. It’s how these characters are revealed and developed through the film that makes it such a classic.
12 Angry Men is a perfect film, well, almost perfect. The IMDB trivia pages will reveal the particular legalism which this film ignores, rendering it outside the bounds of reality, but you should never let the facts get in the way of telling a good story. For me, the one dramatic misstep is the bigot’s ‘downfall’, where his mouth and his attitude get just too much for the other jurors. The effect is made perfectly clear by the dialogue and the other characters’ reactions, but the script goes on to give Henry Fonda’s character a little speech about prejudice which belabours the point and is unnecessary. But that is one minor flaw in one of my favourite movies of all time, and I’m not going to hold it against it.
You simply have to appreciate the love that Criterion show to their titles. 12 Angry Men gets a fantastic and wholly sympathetic presentation on this Blu-ray, presenting the film in the best possible light, while the supplementary material on the disc will keep you engrossed and entertained for hours more.