Courtroom Drama

The newest Criterion Collection Blu-Ray, Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, hits the shelves in the UK on 15th May. Fiona Pleasance joins the jury.

The premise of 12 Angry Men could hardly be simpler. Almost all of the film takes place in a single room in a New York City courthouse in the mid-1950s, where the members of a jury deliberate on the trial of a young man accused of murdering his father.

And that’s pretty much it.

But while the film’s setting and timing might seem somewhat banal – in movies, crimes are usually solved in dramatic fashion long before we ever meet any jury, and there’s not often room for much ambiguity – the emotional title and the felony at the centre hint at the potential conflict inherent in the situation; conflict which the film teases out brilliantly. It has a real sense of authenticity as a result, part of which is almost certainly down to the fact that the writer, Reginald Rose, based the story on his own experience of being a member of the jury in a manslaughter trial.

Because of the single location and the shape of the drama, I had always assumed that 12 Angry Men originated on the stage; in fact, my first encounter with the story was a theatrical production at school. But it turns out that this was an understandable mistake. The original 1954 production was a live television play, and live TV in the 1950s was basically theatre with added cuts and camera angles. The new Criterion disc includes the original teleplay – long considered lost – and comparing and contrasting the two versions is an interesting exercise.

Given that cinema had none of the temporal or spatial constraints of live TV at the time, it’s interesting that Sidney Lumet, directing his first feature, took the decision not to open out the action for the movie. Another director might have been tempted to give us flashbacks to the crime under discussion, with varying degrees of reliability, or to flesh out the jurors’ back stories in more detail. Lumet and Rose were having none of this. They recognised that the pressure-cooker atmosphere in the jury room (almost literally, as it’s a broiling hot summer’s day) depends on the single location, so that the sense of claustrophobia can build slowly over the one-and-a-half hour running time.

It’s a testament to the film’s aesthetics that the use of one location feels absolutely right and never restrictive, and this is largely down to the editing and the interplay of staging and cinematography. The camera, helmed by the great DP Boris Kaufman, is exceptionally mobile given the confined space. Lovely, fluid pans and tracking shots alternate with a carefully angled static camera, the actors positioned with precision at all times. The editing supports this perfectly, with the use of close-ups and the frequency of cuts rising subtly throughout the course of the movie as the tension builds.

henry fonda

Much of the power of chamber pieces like 12 Angry Men depends on the actors meeting the demands of the intimate staging, and this group does not disappoint. Some of them will be familiar, if mostly from later appearances, though of course Henry Fonda was a bonafide Hollywood heavyweight. His role as Juror #8, the liberal conscience of the movie, plays into his star persona so perfectly that it’s not surprising to learn that he produced the film (together with Rose) so that he could take the part. Fonda is a careful, watchful, thoughtful presence, and all of the characters are rounded and believable. Watching them bump up against one another is one of the movie’s pleasures.

The best films tell us something not only about the period in which they were made but also about our own time, regardless of the span of years between the two (which is particularly apt given that one of cinema’s USPs is its ability to manipulate time).

In the case of 12 Angry Men, the fact that it was shot 60 years ago is most clearly visible in the makeup of the jury itself: all male, all white. And yet the issues which the film addresses still resonate; perhaps more so, now, than they might have done just a couple of years ago. Characters muse on the rule of law and the implication of the phrase “reasonable doubt”. They discuss individual responsibility and the contributions required in exchange for living in a democratic society. And they enunciate the sometimes uncomfortable assumptions which underlie our social interactions, be they with people we consider to be our equals, or those who appear somehow different. “You know what those people are like”, says Juror No. 10, the unabashed racist of the group, before he is given to understand that his views will not be tolerated. (Of course this is the same character who proclaims, “I’m sick and tired of facts! You can twist them any way you like!”).

None of this is surprising given that Sidney Lumet is one of the great humanist filmmakers; the theme of the individual and the legal system is one to which he would return frequently, notably in The Offence and The Verdict. The television play and the movie were produced while the US was still in the grip of McCarthyism, and both the country in general and the entertainment industry in particular were dealing with its consequences and implications. It was a time when deliberations on the role of the US constitution and legal checks and balances were commonplace. Sound familiar?

I’ve reviewed quite a few of the Criterion UK releases on this website, and I’m probably getting a bit boring on the subject of how beautiful they all look. 12 Angry Men is no exception, I think because the restorations take pains to maintain the grain and shade of photochemical film and don’t just sharpen everything up. Their silvery sheen is probably the closest you can get to watching original 35mm material in your home these days.

Come for the aesthetics, stay for the drama.

The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of 12 Angry Men is released in the UK on 15th May 2017. It includes a high-definition digital restoration of the film; the original 1955 TV production; several archival and new interviews with or about Sidney Lumet, Reginald Rose and Boris Kaufman, plus several other features.

 

 

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