Friday, May 19, 2017

12 ANGRY MEN: Blu-ray (UA 1957) Criterion Collection

Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957) is a filmic exercise in American jurisprudence; a taut, emotionally charged glimpse into the legal machinery and even more intense backdoor haranguing everyday citizens rely upon to maintain law and order in a peaceable, freedom-loving society at large. But how fair is a system of checks and balances when those twelve citizens chosen for the task of deciding a man’s fate have all come to the table of discussion harboring built-in prejudices against the accused? A jury of our peers? Hmm. As the argument goes…it’s the only (if not the best) system we have. That isn’t saying much according to Lumet, who uses Reginald Rose’s original one-hour teleplay, first broadcast on CBS in 1954, to explore and expose the truest foibles of flawed human nature, and how it alone, strangle-held by one man’s refusal and defiance to surrender his primal doubts, is the only element standing in the way of another man’s destiny with the electric chair.
The movie, like the teleplay preceding it, is a no-holds barred gripping drama, devoted to critiquing those passages in the Constitution promising defendants their day in court under the presumption of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. 12 Angry Men was unique for its time, in that it begins and ends ostensibly in the middle; the trial already over by the time the main titles begin, the fate of the unnamed ‘accused’ decided in an unprepossessing and thoroughly cramped jury room on the hottest day of the year. A brief word about the set; co-producer/co-star, Henry Fonda arriving one afternoon shortly before shooting was about to begin, flabbergasted by its cheap-jack painted backdrop of the New York skyline that Fonda despised due to its theatricality. But Sidney Lumet, an alumnus of far more stringent conditions as a TV director, nevertheless had faith in his cinematographer, Boris Kaufman – a true genius in the art of B&W photography.
And while no one could ever confuse the New York painted backdrop for the real McCoy, Kaufman gets considerable mileage from these theatrical trappings, as does Lumet, who never allows Kaufman’s lens to move too far beyond the distinctly etched and indelible faces in his cast; all of them impossible to dismiss. Virtually all of the evidence debated for the next 96 min. is learned after the fact, or rather, inflicted upon the movie audience from various jury members quick to add their own biases and distortions via interpretation; the chain of events becoming muddled in this sweat box of rivaling egos. The verdict, deceptively ‘clear cut’ at the beginning of their deliberations, proves anything but as the conversation and disagreements arising from it loom large; the presumption of guilt waffling; then, breaking apart under the convictions of Juror #8.   
Even in 1957, a B&W movie where virtually all the dramatic tension is derived from what is essentially a single sustained personality conflict, seemed like a gamble; one, alas that did not pay off in the end. For here came a movie in stark monochromatic tones and mono to boot at the zenith of Cinemascope, Color by DeLuxe and stereophonic sound. By today’s standards, 12 Angry Men is an irrefutable classic; bold, original and daring. Yet, equally ascribing those standards to it now gives one pause to reconsider what an anomaly even in the art of its own time it truly was; a tour de force in formalized aesthetics, so sparsely on display, one cannot help but to be mesmerized by its characters’ articulations in free speech; even more of a revelation when one considers the stringency of the production code dictating the do’s and don’t’s of that artistic expression. For 12 Angry Men declares itself the staunch proponent of choice, even as it illustrates the narrow-minded principles on which too many of our fellow men base their assumptions on little more than opinion rather than fact.  
The critics could see 12 Angry Men for its intrinsic value as a ‘message picture’ truly to pack the proverbial wallop. Audiences, primarily looking for splashy escapism, stayed away in droves. Even as live television on Playhouse 90, 12 Angry Men did not have a particularly eager or widespread audience. So, the decision to make it into a feature film seems even more ambitious – if equally as misguided. Nevertheless, Henry Fonda believed in it, enough to put up a portion of its financing himself, along with his wife, Rose. Depending on one’s point of view, the staging of the piece either exposes Sidney Lumet’s shortcomings and lack of experience (he was, after all, a TV director with no movie-work to his credit as yet), or illustrates unequivocally his streak of intensity and brilliance later to be exercised throughout most – if not all – of his movie career. A little of both, I think; Lumet, most effective when he lets his camera remain stationary, allowing his actors (occasionally, oddly framed in deep focus; an extreme close-up of one actor’s talking head filling the entire side of the screen while the full-bodied figure of another is theatrically poised in the background as counterbalance on the other side. To make the set gradually seem smaller as tensions mounted, Sidney Lumet incrementally changed camera lenses with longer focal lengths; the first act photographed just above eye level, the second at eye level, and the finale (save a singular wide-angle overhead shot to conclude the picture) just below eye level; a visual illustration of Fonda’s Juror’s increasing gains to win back the respect of his peers with an intelligent deconstruction of the not so cut and dried facts.
12 Angry Men is a wordy deliberation; a dialogue-driven battle royale with Fonda’s cool-headed theorizing pitted against the ruthless bigotry spewed by Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb). Owing to a lack of funds, Fonda is, in fact, 12 Angry Men’s one ‘name above the title’ star, even as others in the cast like Cobb, Martin Balsam, E. G. Marshall, Ed Begley, Robert Webber, Jack Warden and Jack Klugman would go on to have very distinguished careers thereafter. Remaining true to Rose’s teleplay, Lumet and Fonda have abstained from giving their characters names beyond the appointment for which they were chosen. Instead, we come to know these twelve angry men exclusively by their personalities, prejudices and demonstrative gradients. I suspect the picture’s implosion at the box office had something to do with audiences’ expectations for another Agatha Christie-esque courtroom drama and/or whodunit’. But 12 Angry Men is not about solving a crime. Indeed, even the judge’s (Rudy Bond) perfunctory instructions to the jury before they retire to deliberate seems to hint of a foregone conclusion: the evidence pointing irrefutably to the accused having murdered his own father in cold blood with a switchblade.
12 Angry Men is oft’ cited for its almost Hitchcockian touches, its sparse use of a single set a la Hitchcock’s own Lifeboat (1944), Rope (1948), Dial M for Murder and Rear Window (both in 1954). While Hitchcock meant for his movies to be confined to single sets, Lumet’s decision herein, apart from stylistic, is predicated on the minuscule budget afforded him to make this indie picture. Today, you can’t shoot a thirty-second commercial for $350,000.00. But even in 1957, the odds of achieving anything better than B-grade cheese and plunk on such a slim wallet of investment was pretty barbaric and disheartening. Again, used to working with a lot less proved not only to Lumet’s advantage, but equally to working within his element, herein relying heavily on his stellar cast to sell the movie’s narrative through sheer force of their confrontational interactions. That 12 Angry Men’s debut failed to garner success outside of its critical plaudits was a disappointment slightly offset by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences unanimous praise for Lumet’s efforts. And yet, 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 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) believes 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 he bought at a local pawn brokers just around the corner from where the accused lives, the rest of the jurors must admit 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 to acquit rather than convict; 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 the teen’s alibi is awash in contradictions, not the least 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 is much more to this textually rich and melodramatically dense exercise, best left to be discovered by the first time viewer. Suffice it to say, despite its confinement and lack of scenery, Lumet’s concentration on his actors is well-intended and even more precisely orchestrated for maximum intensity. 12 Angry Men is never boring; 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 by which twelve complete strangers right now are about to define another person’s innocence or guilt.
Henry Fonda is the right choice to play Juror #8; adding an air of nobility to an otherwise unanimous flock of sheep. Fonda’s great gift to the movies in general – and this one in particular – has always been his quiet ‘every man’s’ majesty; solitary, never petty: a critical, free-thinking individual who places rationale ahead of terse reactions, either his own self-doubt or the frustrated condemnation of his peers who would decidedly rather be elsewhere. But Fonda’s performance keeps the others in perfect counterbalance; the more gregarious Lee J. Cobb and deliberately whiny and fear-mongering Ed Begley the veritable antithesis of his stoic rectitude. In the final analysis, 12 Angry Men is a reality check - an absorbing drama exposing how even the slightest miscalculation minus a catalyst like Fonda’s Juror #8 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 the image benefits from Blu-ray’s higher resolution, age-related artifacts persist and, on occasion, are distracting. The Blu-ray's gray scale greatly improves. The image is darker, grainier and generally solid. But the grain toggles between competent in certain scenes, to slightly digitized in others. It isn’t the thickness of the grain that distracts, but the obtrusive pixelization of it, adding video-based noise to this presentation. 12 Angry Men was never meant to look pristine. But herein, it somethings appears a tad thick and ever so slightly out of focus and soft, except in close-ups. The audio is PCM 1.0 mono, presented at an adequate listening level. Criterion fleshes out the extras with impressive featurettes, extensive interviews with director and stars, an informative audio commentary, the original TV broadcast version and the 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, although this release is far from perfect, it nevertheless comes recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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