Shot on a shoestring budget of $350,000.00, Lumet relies heavily on his stellar cast to sell the movie’s narrative through sheer force of their collective interaction. That 12 Angry Men’s debut failed to garner popular success was a disappointment slightly offset by the fact that critics and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences applauded Lumet’s efforts. Although nominated for 7 Oscars, 12 Angry Men lost in virtually every category to David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Plot wise: It is the eleventh hour in the life of the nameless ‘accused’ (John Savoca) – a youth suspected in the brutal homicide of his abusive father and whose life now quietly hangs in the balance of twelve total strangers who shall decide if he is to receive the death penalty. At first the atmosphere in the sequestered jury room is relaxed – almost glib. Juror #7 (Jack Warden) even suggests that a speedy consensus will leave him enough time to take in a ballgame that he has bet on.
Though Juror #1 (Martin Balsam) attempts to hasten the verdict along by a quick show of hands, a single note of quiet dissention is struck by Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) who cannot bring himself to agree with his peers, at least, not solely on the basis of thrift.
Juror #5 (Jack Klugman) can relate to #8’s apprehension. In the accused, #5 recalls his own tough upbringing on the wrong side of the tracks; a circumstance beyond the accused’s control that Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb) seems to believe is somehow paramount in recognizing his culpability. Juror #4 (E.G. Marshall) seeks to reason the case by persuasion on the basis of its 'facts' – the most concrete proof being a knife (the murder weapon) that defense counsel has claimed is a 'one of a kind' purchased by the accused just hours before the murder occurred.
However, when #8 produces an exact copy of the weapon that he bought at a pawn brokers just around the block from where the accused lives the rest of the jurors must admit that evidence alone might not be enough to convict. Thus, when #1 proposes a secret ballot vote - the majority returns minus #8’s participation contains yet another vote of innocence; this time from Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney).
For bigoted Juror #10 (Ed Bagley) this new revelation plays more like superficial grandstanding. He despises #8 for his foresight and wherewithal in investigating the case beyond the sequence of events presented at trial. Furthermore, #10, backed by #3 and #4 suggests that the boy’s alibi is awash in contradictions, not the least of which is the fact that he claims to have been at the movies at the time of the killing, but cannot recall the specifics about the films he reports to have watched.
There’s much more to this textually rich and melodramatically dense exercise, best left to be discovered by the first time viewer. Suffice it to say, this is not a boring movie; if for no other reason – that its high stakes deliberations occur each and every day in a free thinking, law abiding world. The film, therefore, may very well be a snapshot of the process twelve total strangers go through to define another person’s innocence or guilt.
Henry Fonda is the right choice to play #8; the one noble note of dissention in an otherwise unanimously flock of sheep. There’s a quiet majesty to his performance that keeps the more gregarious performances neatly in check. Lee J. Cobb and Jack Klugman are equally superb.
In the final analysis, 12 Angry Men is a reality check for the public - an absorbing drama that exposes how the slightest miscalculation can shatter an innocent life in an instant. This is ‘must see’ entertainment for the masses.
Criterion Home Entertainment's Blu-ray incarnation takes a quantum leap forward from the old MGM/Fox Collector’s Edition DVD. Although image benefits from the higher resolution, age related artifacts persist throughout this presentation. The Blu-ray's gray scale greatly improves in its density and tonality. Blacks are generally deep and solid. Whites are almost pristine but not as bright as one might expect.
The audio is mono but presented at an adequate listening level. Criterion fleshes out the extras features with impressive featurettes, extensive interviews with director and stars, an informative audio commentary, the original TV broadcast version that inspired the film and original theatrical trailer. We lose Drew Casper's audio commentary from the MGM/Fox DVD but gain much more on this outing. Coupled with the Blu-ray's marked improvement in the visuals, this comes recommended for a repurchase. Good stuff all around!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)