You’ll be hard pressed to find a more scathingly relevant release in 2017, than Criterion’s excellent reissue of Sidney Lumet’s blistering debut feature, 12 Angry Men. Here we are presented with a room full of white men deciding the fate of a less fortunate person from a minority background. I feel like we’ve been seeing that image far too much recently.
Lumet’s sweat-soaked masterpiece is a stunning piece of filmmaking, drawing every last ounce of tension and high drama from a single location, and just 12 men talking. Set on the hottest day of the year, the film begins with a jury retiring to consider the verdict in a seemingly straightforward murder trial. The young Puerto Rican defendant is clearly guilty. 11 of the men vote to send him to the electric chair, but Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) has his doubts.
Featuring a cast of legendary character actors, including Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman, Ed Begley, Jack Warden, Joseph Sweeney, and Martin Balsam, 12 Angry Men is a pure acting master class. As the temperature rises, so does the tension as Fonda’s doubts begin to sway the others. Layers of character are slowly peeled away to reveal deep-seated prejudice, conservative views, and a complete dismissal of facts, evidence, and progressive attitudes. 12 Angry Men came out 60 years ago, yet it feels very much a film for right now.
Sometimes, not very often, but sometimes, a film comes along where every element converges into a perfect whole. 12 Angry Men is such a film. Just as the jurors delve back into the evidence of the case, Reginald Rose’s wonderful script delves into the very heart of America. Sidney Lumet’s incredible direction is a text book example of how to utilise time and space to maximum effect. Without any tricks, gimmicks, or action, Lumet makes you feel as if the walls are closing in. Everyone talks about Polanski as being the master of claustrophobia. Lumet should get more credit. And then there’s the cast, led of course by Henry Fonda, but every man here is at the top of his game, bringing depth and a unique voice to each character.
As if that isn’t enough, Criterion have assembled a tremendous selection of supplementary features. The main event of which is no doubt the original 1955 teleplay of 12 Angry Men, directed by Frank Schaffner. There are archival interviews with Sidney Lumet, as well as new interviews with screenwriter Walter Bernstein discussing Lumet, and cinematographer John Bailey talking about the influential work of Boris Kaufman. Also included is the original theatrical trailer, and a booklet featuring a new essay by writer and law professor Thane Rosenbaum.
Cast: Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Henry Fonda, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec, Robert Webber Director: Sidney Lumet Writer: Reginald Rose Released By: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Certificate: PG Duration: 96 mins Release Date: 15th May 2017