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To find the best description of the American Jury system in film, there’s one gold standard: 12 Angry Men. Remade and borrowed from more times than any other film with the exception of The Maltese Falcon, 12 Angry Men is one of the few films selected by the Library of Congress for its cultural significance. Focusing on the jury deliberations in a death penalty case, the film is one of the greatest ever made because it holds up better than almost any other film of the era in which it was made.
Produced as a starring vehicle for Henry Fonda, the film thrives on its simplicity. An 18 year old boy has been charged with killing his father with a knife and it seems like a pretty straightforward situation. There are witnesses who saw him do the act, another who heard the boy threaten his father as well as the boy’s spotty testimony in the aftermath of the incident. When Juror #8 (Fonda) is the lone dissenter in an initial 11-1 vote, the jury goes through the evidence and deliberates to bring about a unanimous decision. As they become acquainted with each other, their personalities come out and the vote becomes muddled. 90 minutes later, were left with a verdict and more about the men who made it.
If Sidney Lumet had never done another movie after this, he’d still be remembered as a great director because of 12 Angry Men. It doesn’t hurt that he did masterpieces like Network, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon too, but its hard to argue against his first work as perhaps his best. Using a minimal process and story-telling manner he learned as a director in the theatre, Lumet’s style early is as polished as his later works would be. Lumet’s original picture is one from a steady hand who’s been there before. Lumet had rehearsed with the cast for three weeks before, and with a film like this it shows. Originally designed for the television, and developed into a touring play afterwards, the film has a basic and simple quality to it. We have the case presented, but with critical thinking we see there’s more to this than what initially is thought. There’s nothing the audience knows that the jury itself doesn’t know already, and as they explore the evidence we explore it too.
There’s a slow, deliberate pace to the proceedings and Lumet knows exactly where he’s going. He lets his cast handle the proceedings; at that point none of them were household names, except for Fonda, but all were highly skilled and chosen specifically for the film. This is a cast that works together extremely well and plays off each other like they had been working together for years on this project. Lumet’s three weeks of rehearsals show as the cast knows the material extremely well.
The interesting thing about 12 Angry Men is how well it holds up. Fifty years is a lot for any film to endure, and a select few can really hold up over time. It’s still riveting and fascinating to watch now, as it doesn’t bear any signs of being a sign of its times. It is still a film of the ages and the best example of any about the American Jury system.
12 Angry Men is presented in a widescreen format with a mono sound and has been cleaned up somewhat for this release. Over five decades old, the sound can only be modified and enhanced so much. As such, the film’s audio uses the front speakers only and isn’t the greatest of audio experiences. The visual aspect of things is in black and white, as color wasn’t used in the era, but has been cleaned on any significant grain as well as any wear and tear on the picture.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Making 12 Angry Men is a look back at the film from several film historians as well as the few members of the cast & crew that are still alive. It’s mainly a retrospective on the proceedings, with some tidbits on Henry Fonda thrown in for good measure. Its interesting that the film was shot in three weeks, mainly due to the fact that Lumet and the cast were rooted in plays and the theatre and thus allowed them to be ready for a film like this.
Inside the Jury Room is a historical look at the evolution of the jury system in the United States, as well as an evaluation of the film’s approach to it. It’s interesting to see what would be illegal and what wouldn’t be in terms of behavior of the jurors, as some of the more dramatic moments would be patently illegal in the real world.
Commentary with Film Historian Drew Casper
12 Angry Men is a classic of cinema that needs to be watched by everyone. While it’s not a terrific DVD release, it’s better than anything that has been released so far so it’s a major improvement over previous efforts. It’s a must own for the film itself but not for the extras, which are decent but not special.
MGM presents 12 Angry Men. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Starring Lee J Cobb, Henry Fonda. Written by Reginald Rose. Running time: 96 minutes. Rated Approved. Released on DVD: March 4, 2008. Available at Amazon.com