Criterion Cuts: “12 Angry Men”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

So recently Amazon decided to put a bunch of random Criterion Blu-Rays on sale for some reasonable-to-good prices, and in kicked my obsession with owning pretty Criterion releases. For anyone who doesn’t know just how my madness works, if it was up to me I would own everything Criterion releases as soon as they put it out. Alas, since nobody has seen fit to give me a pile of money, I’ve had to come up some rules. Those rules are as follows:

  1. Always buy Blu-Ray
  2. Always wait until at least a 50% off sale

When these two conditions are met, I allow my inner consumer to indulge, often spending obscene amounts of money (SAVING obscene amounts of money, I justify to you and myself) on massive hauls than I then spend weeks or months slowly picking over like a starving person. This is what happens when I get 99% of my viewing through streaming and rental disks. It’s a sickness, a real honest sickness. I sincerely can’t be blamed.

Either way, when Amazon put up this sale I knew I was lost, and went and bought a whole stack of disks again. One of them, admittedly, was a movie I had already written about (Tiny Furniture, which has a Criterion Cuts devoted to it that you can read here) but for the most part these were blind buys, hopefully movies I could write about over the long summer months. The first of those movies hits today, and is a very large gap in my cinephile member’s card I can finally consider filled.

12 Angry Men (1957)

Twelve men sit in judgement of an 18 year old accused of murdering his father. Twelve men who we’re introduced to, already sweating and tired-looking, in a long pan down the jury box as the judge offers his final instructions as the trial ends. The men get up, and walk into a smaller room, tasked with dispensing justice. It’s obvious what all these men are thinking: let’s drop the guilty verdict and go home instead of wasting our time sitting in this shitty room. One of them even has tickets to a baseball game that evening.

So when they take the perfunctory vote to get their unanimous verdict, it comes as a surprise to everyone that one juror puts in his vote as Not Guilty. That one juror, identified only as Juror 7 (Henry Fonda), answers that he simply feels they should discuss it before condemning a teenager to death for his crime. That unassuming, ‘let’s just talk a bit’ start doesn’t win him any friends, but it doesn’t make him many enemies either. Begrudgingly, the other men agree, they all begin methodically going over the evidence they were told about, dissecting their opinions and assumptions about the guilt of the unidentified defendant.

What follows next is 90 minutes of a dissection of American life in the 1950s. 12 Angry Men, Sidney Lumet’s directorial debut, is an adaptation of a TV teleplay written by Reginald Rose for the broadcast films that TV networks would produce to fill their nightly schedules in the early days of big television. The movie version does little to pretend its way past its modest TV roots, being entirely to a dozen men in this jury room for almost the entire run time. But that pressure cooker situation is exactly what makes it work, and the limited scope is the gateway to what really matters in a story like this: the acting. Oh boy, the acting. You get twelve actors in a room, most of them smaller character actors nobody these days is going to recognize, and then put one of the great American actors, a symbol of Movie Decency like Henry Fonda? You’re in for some magic.

Only in the 1950s could a man look so bored in such a condescending way.

What’s most important in today’s age, where every courtroom drama or piece of crime fiction is some sort of procedural, is just how limited the facts of this case are. The evidence is mostly circumstantial, based on an array of innocuous things tied together with two eye-witnesses. There’s no forensics, just an array of testimony ready to send a kid to the chair and a reportedly lame defense by a likely apathetic public defender. And there’s just one man, soft-spoken and humble in the face of the hostility of 11 more, trying to give this kid a chance that nobody else would give him.

More than fifty years after the fact, 12 Angry Men is one of those movies it’s hard to find anything new to talk about. It’s a landmark American drama, a slice of life of an era that’s been dead and gone several times over, a culture right on the cusp of two decades of wild social change. But despite all that, I feel that its problems are timeless ones, and even removed by a half century the examples of humanity and bigotry that it contains are still relevant and as much a problem within our culture and our legal system now as ever. Because beyond all of the specifics of the case they’re discussing, what 12 Angry Menboils down to is an examination of our very human capacity to assume guilt, to carry prejudices, and the difficulties with seeing beyond them on our own volition.

Henry Fonda will CUT YOU.

A lot has been made of the movie as an example of consensus building, as Juror 7 slowly begins to pull apart the case and win people over to his way of thinking. But for me, what’s even more important is how he challenges each person to confront themselves, how everyone eventually runs up into the wall of their own understanding. 12 Angry Men doesn’t paint people as monsters, as would be easy with a socially and racially charged movie such as this, but it does portray people as limited by their experiences and preconceived ideas, things they’re rarely challenged on and even less rarely take the time to examine. What the movie presents, then, is an opportunity to see that process happen, sometimes willingly and easily, other times with a brutal, struggling aggressiveness. But either way, it is a vital component to simple humanity: the capacity to grow, the ability to move beyond yourself, the willingness to question.

That it does it all without really resorting to preaching, and with twelve great performances that manage to be distinct and memorable? A minor miracle. But there’s a lot of time to linger on faces and personalities as these arguments stretch into the night and through an evening storm, and as each man gets sweatier and more frazzled by the proceedings we see more and more of who they are. This is a triumph not only of acting but of screenwriting, with every character having a distinct voice and personality without the burden of given them excessive back story. The whole movie, coming as it does from TV, exists with an economy of construction that is wonderfully refreshing to the often cliche-ridden mess the genre has become on TV.

Most of the movie is a lot of this. I think that’s awesome, but I’ll admit it’s hardly epic cinema.

I feel stupid saying that people should see 12 Angry Men, because I imagine many people have seen it far earlier than I have. But despite its classic status, up there with To Kill A Mockingbird as a Great American Drama, it still entertains and engages for someone who goes into it nearly blind as I have. Sometimes these popular stories are of their time, but in this case we’re dealing with a truly timeless piece of art. Go see the damn thing! I feel I’m a better person for having done so, and can think of no higher praise.

Trailer time! Today’s trailer is extra hilarious because it contains EVERY WIPE KNOWN TO SCIENCE. The movie, as you might expect, isn’t nearly as ridiculous. Also has little to no score, making the overwrought horns even funnier.

About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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2 Responses to Criterion Cuts: “12 Angry Men”

  1. jlmicek says:

    Reblogged this on The Cineaste's Lament. and commented:
    One of the great courthouse dramas of all time.

  2. JustMeMike says:

    Thanks for this great review of a great film. I’ve not seen the film in a long time so it was rewarding to experience it again through your words and the trailer. I’ll probably go about seeking to this again in the near future.

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