12 Angry Men
12 Angry Men, by Sidney Lumet, may be the most radical courtroom drama in cinema history. A behind-closed-doors look at the American legal system that is as riveting as it is spare, this iconic adaptation of Reginald Rose’s teleplay stars Henry Fonda as the dissenting member on a jury of white men ready to pass judgment on a Puerto Rican teenager charged with murdering his father. The result is a saga of epic proportions that plays out over a tense afternoon in one sweltering room. Lumet’s electrifying snapshot of 1950s America on the verge of change is one of the great feature film debuts.
Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men makes its surprising debut on Blu-ray through The Criterion Collection, presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on this dual-layer disc in a new 1080p/24hz high-definition transfer.
The presentation is typically strong but a little problematic. To get the splendid things to say out of the way this is easily the sharpest I’ve ever seen the film, my previous viewings limited to VHS and DVD presentations. Every detail, from fine threading to sweat stains to blotches on the walls of the room we’re trapped in for 96-minutes, all of them come through crisp and clear. The print has been cleaned up extensively and other than a few minor specs the materials are in near-perfect condition. From this aspect the image really looks marvelous.
Where it falters is its handling of the film’s grain structure. The film is pretty grainy and as always Criterion is good at leaving it as to not lose any of the finer details, but the transfer doesn’t seem to handle it as well as it probably could. There are some distracting moments where it looks like noise and there’s some mild pixilation and blocking. I suspect some digital sharpening has gone on, which may be the reason for this, and the bitrate could also play into it, as the bitrate hangs around the low 20s (the actual film file takes up just over 19GB on the disc) but whatever the reason it is noticeable in places. But I thankfully didn’t detect any other artifacts.
While the noise can be noticeable here and there the image is still pleasing as a whole and I was still thrilled with it; it’s a large improvement over MGM’s previous DVD editions.
The lossless PCM mono track is also pleasing as a whole but again it has some problematic aspects to it. Dialogue is clear and articulate most of the time, as one would hope since dialogue is so important to the film, and it manages to have some depth to it. Music, when it does occur, also has some power behind it but it can just reach the edge of coming off a little too harsh I thought, probably more a product of its age.
During the last portion of the film it begins to rain outside, coming down hard. Unfortunately this is where the track experiences some problems. The rain effects come off a bit distorted and harsh, actually seeming to distort the track as a whole; dialogue comes off a bit edgy at times during this portion of the film. This could be a product of the source materials and the age of them but it’s a noticeable distraction to what is otherwise a fairly solid mono track.
MGM previously released their own special edition on DVD but Criterion has given it a complete overhaul: Not one feature appears from that disc, which is a bit of a shame, but Criterion more than makes up for it taking the supplements in a direction one may not expect.
The most fascinating feature on here would easily be the original television version of the film. This live television version directed by Franklin J. Schaffner was made for the television program Westinghouse Presents Studio One and aired September 20th, 1954, and runs about 50-minutes. Since the same script by Reginald Rose was used for both this television version and the Lumet version the story is the same with similar dialogue but there are some minor differences, like the fact Juror #7 has tickets to the theater instead of the ball game or the fact the jurors are all seated differently than how they are in the film version (which I was surprised to find actually threw me off,) and some missing sequences found in the film version. Lumet’s version, which benefits from a longer running time, actually offers a little more individual character development where this one focuses primarily on the group as a whole, a likely a limitation of the live TV format. They also differ in ending, where the ending here is a little more open than the more definitive conclusion of Lumet’s film. It’s a solid presentation of the story, and I was impressed with the almost effortless look of the camera work and staging, which in reality is incredibly complicated for the live television format, and its performances are all great, featuring Robert Cummings (as Juror #8), Franchot Tone, Walter Abel, and Norman Fell. And yes, that’s both Joseph Sweeney and George Voskovec (sans moustache) playing the same roles they would in Lumet’s film version, Jurors #9 and #11 respectively (I also recognized the bailiff but could not find out through online research who it was, and it’s driving me nuts.) As to the presentation: Since this was recorded using the Kinescope process, pointing a film camera at a television screen, the materials don’t look great, presenting obvious warping to the image along with a fuzzy, flickering look. The audio also drops out on occasion and can be hard to hear when its present.
Criterion also supplies this feature with an introduction by Ron Simon, curator at the Paley Center for the Media. Presented in black and white (I guess Criterion is trying to get a little stylish and creative with their talking head pieces) the 14-minute segment has Simon talk a little about the Studio One program and the live television dramas at the time. He also talks specifically about Reginald Rose and his script for Twelve Angry Men, its examination of group thinking (which appears to have been a theme that really interested Rose based alone on another feature on this disc), and then he talks about the performers and Schaffner’s television work.
Overall this is a great section to the disc, offering an interesting look at the development of the script as well as offering an alternate version, the original at that.
12 Angry Men: From TV to the Big Screen is a 25-minute interview with film scholar Vance Kepley. He explains how Rose came up with the script after serving on a jury, and then how Schaffner came on board to direct the television version. From here he explains how Henry Fonda came in to get a film version made, which appealed to some as Marty, which was also based on a television production, became a successful film. He makes some comparisons between the original television version and Lumet’s version, and then concludes with its disappointing run in theaters, especially disappointing to United Artists who originally thought they had a hit on their hands. Though again primarily a talking-heads piece Kepley keeps it interesting as he charts the process that led from the original script to the film version, also touching on some of the other versions that have appeared over the years.
Criterion next compiles together interview footage with Sidney Lumet, who unfortunately passed away earlier this year. The footage comes from various sources taken over the years, including footage Criterion shot for, I assume, their DVD of The Fugitive Kind. They edit it together in a creative way I must say, so that we get him covering the history of his career, from acting in a Yiddish theater to his more or less accidental job as a television director. He offers some fascinating anecdotes but also explains how directing for television was the best thing that ever happened to him as it taught him organization and in comparison directing actual films is incredibly easy. This proves to be the most fascinating segment of what is already a fascinating montage, as he gets into the nitty-gritty of what it was like to direct live television, something that was only skimped on surprisingly in Criterion’s own Golden Age of Television set. Throw in some comments about 12 Angry Men and his filmmaking career as a whole and this is a well done, thoroughly engaging “interview”.
Accompanying the compilation of Lumet interviews is an interview with Lumet friend and collaborator Walter Bernstein who talks about his work with Lumet for 9-minutes. Bernstein was blacklisted and Lumet was able to get him work, though under a pseudonym (which was incredibly complicated to do as he explains, having to employ fronts to pose as the writer.) He then talks about Lumet, his admiration for the man, and the work they did in television. And for good measure he talks about how his black listing came about. Another decent addition, it offers more insight into Lumet’s early television work.
On Reginald Rose first presents another interview with Ron Simon who talks about Rose’s career for 15-minutes, comparing him to other television writers like Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky. He looks at the themes Rose liked to cover, usually prejudices and the dangers of group thinking, going over some of his scripts like Thunder on Sycamore St., which had to have a major change done to it to please the advertisers (a common problem during the era of live television.) He then talks about his television show The Defenders and the television drama Tragedy in a Temporary Town, which Criterion also includes here. The 55-minute drama, also directed by Lumet and starring Lloyd Bridges and Jack Warden, focuses on a group of construction workers who believe a young Hispanic boy molested/assaulted a young girl, and a man (Bridges) who is so outraged by the group’s quick rush to judgment and how quickly their opinions match that of the one, stronger individual played by Warden.
This section works great in offering more of an examination of Rose’s work, but it also offers a fascinating look into Lumet’s television work as well and is another clever addition on Criterion’s part.
On Boris Kaufman is a 40-minute interview with cinematographer John Bailey who talks to great extent about Kaufman’s career from Russia (with mention of Man With a Movie Camera) to his work with Jean Vigo on three of the four films the director did. He then talks about his move to Canada and then the States, where he talks about his work with Elia Kazan and Sidney Lumet, specifically 12 Angry Men, of which he breaks down some of the more impressive shots in the film. A rather thorough and thoughtful examination overall, and a bit more lively than most talking-head pieces.
The disc concludes with the film’s original theatrical trailer and then comes with a nice looking booklet containing a surprisingly lengthy essay on the film, the story, Rose, and Lumet by Thane Rosenbaum.
The previous MGM edition came with making-of featurettes and an audio commentary by Drew Casper, which I haven’t heard, so I can’t comment on whether it’s any good. It’s odd Criterion didn’t carry any of this over, though maybe it was a limitation of licencing the film, MGM possibly wanting to keep their own unique features for their DVD. The features in Criterion’s edition are missing that “making-of” aspect concentrating on the film, and there’s surprisingly very little in that regard, but Criterion has gone a completely different and I’d say even more interesting route with the features on here choosing to focus a lot on writer Reginald Rose, Lumet’s television work, and the era of live television as a whole, making for a terrific set of material.
This is a very thoughtful edition by Criterion, the supplements offering a wonderful look into the era of live television and the respective works of writer Reginald Rose and director Sidney Lumet from that time period. The video presentation probably suffers a little bit because of the extensive material on here, but it’s still fairly strong and the best I’ve ever seen the film. Overall I’m very fond of this edition of one of my favourite films and do give it a very high recommendation despite some of its issues.