Friday, July 10, 2015

12 Angry Men (1957)

I finally got around to watching one of the Criterion movies from my backlog box that I will be covering in today’s blog. For those unaware of the Criterion Collection, all you need to know is that the people at Criterion are huge fans of cinema and painstakingly restore and remaster critical classics all the way back from the dawn of modern cinema in the 1930s until standout hits as recent as a year or two ago. They then proceed to pack each release with as many must see extra features as possible, and usually include a well-crafted booklet filled with production notes and other facts about the film’s legacy.

Criterion releases films not just from the United States, but from all over the world, making sure each part of the world is well represented with the very best they have to offer as you can tell from their extensive catalog listing here. A lot of their releases usually go for a bit more than your standard DVD/BluRay release, but a couple times a year they run half off sales on their website to get them down to more reasonable rates, which I took advantage of last year to get a few releases, one of which is the topic of today’s blog with 1957’s 12 Angry Men (trailer).

12 Angry Men is a film that has been remade many times over the years, but the original 1957 theatrical release I am covering here today is the first time I have viewed any version of it (there was an awful spoof of it that Family Guy did a couple years ago, but I am going to erase that dreck from my memory). For the longest time I intentionally held off watching any version because I have fond memories of reading the play version of this that the film was based on in 11th grade. About 15 years have passed since then, and I reasoned to myself that a Criterion release was the way to finally watch it.

If you are unfamiliar with 12 Angry Men, the title itself is a big hint at what to expect as the film opens with a murder trial just wrapping up and a judge sending the jurors off to deliberations to determine if the defendant is guilty or not guilty. The judge proclaims if the defendant is found guilty he will get the electric chair death penalty. Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) is the only holdout with a not guilty vote of the 12, and the next hour and a half is an intense round of deliberations as these 12 jurors weigh all the evidence and have the fate of one man’s life in the palm of their hands.

There are so many things I love about this film that makes it hold up remarkably well, even today 58 years after its initial release. There is something to the pacing of the opening minutes of the men walking into the deliberation room that does a great job at establishing the tone of the film. It is a hot summer day, and air conditioning back then is a new appliance that the courthouse was not equipped with and the fan is not working either to top it off. The jurors are already dripping with sweat, and when they realize they are in for a long round of deliberations they despondently take off their suit coats, but as the day gets longer and the deliberations get more intense the jurors themselves certainly show it as all their shirts are beautiful sweaty messes halfway through the film.

Director Sidney Lumet made great use of constant up close, wide shots of all the jurors’ faces so you can see how exacerbated some of them get towards the end of the film when they have beads of perspiration dripping from their foreheads. I will give props again to Criterion for committing who knows how many hours remastering this film, and considering its age, it looks fantastic! In the booklet included with the film they list all the equipment they used to restore and remove as many faults like screen grain and tearing as they could so there could be as pristine a picture and sound as possible. It is from their hard work that make moments like the up close, in your face shots of the jurors really pop off the screen. All the jurors are not named throughout the film (minus two in the closing moment), and while Fonda is obviously the star of the film, the rest of the jurors each get their individual moments and time to shine in the film. In a weird way it is kind of like trying to split up the screen time for all the heroes in The Avengers, and like that film, 12 Angry Men somehow manages to make each juror a pivotal character by the end of the film.

In recent years I have a special place for films that go outside the norm and have a majority of a movie take place in a small setting such as Phone Booth and Buried. I cannot believe I have neglected 12 Angry Men from this list as one of the pioneers of films like this as 95% of the film takes place in the jurors’ deliberation room. Even though it is just one location, there are so many special breakthrough moments that transpire in there. In one memorable moment, a juror goes on a monologue talking about his son and making a man out of him that really struck a chord with me through its delivery. As each juror starts to change sides, the last few holdouts get desperate, and in another striking moment, one juror goes on a prejudice tirade, and the rest of the jurors shun him with the silent treatment in what I feel is the most powerful scene of the film.

A lot of how these scenes were shot, and the reasoning on how 12 Angry Men came to be is explained in the extra features. The original TV movie of 12 Angry Men from 1954, or teleplays as they were called back then, is included in its 50 minute entirety, along with a 15 minute intro talking about how exclusive made-for-TV dramas at the time like this were the reason why TV sets in households got a rapid boom in the 50s. Unlike the feature film, the teleplay is not remastered and presented in its original standard definition. A bonus second teleplay is included with 1956’s Tragedy in Temporary Town. It is 55 minutes and also directed by Sidney Lumet, and like 12 Angry Men, this deals with standing up against prejudice and bullying. I hate to admit it, but I did not watch either teleplay as both of them have several clips spliced into the other extra features that after viewing gave me a good idea of what the teleplays were all about.

From TV to Big Screen is an in-depth 25 minute feature about the history of turning teleplays like 12 Angry Men into film. It proceeds to go on how the film came upon a cast consisting largely of unknown actors aside from Fonda, and how the film was a critical success, but a box office failure. Next up is a 23 minute compilation of interviews with Lumet at various points talking about his career, going into the military and the original TV broadcast of the film. There are mini-features interviewing subjects about Lumet and screenwriter Reginald Rose praising their work and talking about how they overcame adversities like being blacklisted from Hollywood in the 50s. The final noteworthy extra is a 38 minute interview with cinematographer John Bailey discussing this film’s director of photography Boris Kaufman, who has many kind words for Kaufman’s unique and effective style of camera work in 12 Angry Men. Finally, there is the finely crafted booklet I mentioned above filled with a new essay of production notes and facts. It is a well made and an informative read, but if you already watched all the extra features it mostly touches on a lot of the same ground covered there.

Nearly 60 years after its release, and 12 Angry Men is still a gem. I wholeheartedly applaud the message behind this film about standing your ground and rising up against the odds. Criterion made sure to give this classic the five star home video treatment and pack it with not a dull extra, with every extra feature worth going out of your way to watch to get the full story behind the film. If you love dramas, filled with intense, powerful moments, then do not let this 1957 release date intimidate you as 12 Angry Men is still a must see film now as it was nearly 60 years ago.

Other Random Backlog Movie Blogs

12 Angry Men (1957)
21 Jump Street
Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie
Atari: Game Over
The Avengers: Age of Ultron
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Bounty Hunters
Cabin in the Woods
Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Clash of the Titans (1981)
Clint Eastwood 11-pack Special
Dirty Work
Field of Dreams
Fight Club
The Fighter
For Love of the Game
Good Will Hunting
Hercules: Reborn
Man of Steel
Marine 3 & 4
Mortal Kombat
The Replacements
Rocky I-VI
Running Films Part 1
Running Films Part 2
ScoobyDoo Wrestlemania Mystery
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Source Code
Star Trek I-XII
Take Me Home Tonight
The Tooth Fairy 1 & 2
Veronica Mars
The Wrestler (2008)

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