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12 Angry Men [VHS]
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Sidney Lumet's directorial debut remains a tense, atmospheric (though slightly manipulative and stagy) courtroom thriller, in which the viewer never sees a trial and the only action is verbal. As he does in his later corruption commentaries such as Serpico or Q & A, Lumet focuses on the lonely one-man battles of a protagonist whose ethics alienate him from the rest of jaded society. As the film opens, the seemingly open-and-shut trial of a young Puerto Rican accused of murdering his father with a knife has just concluded and the 12-man jury retires to their microscopic, sweltering quarters to decide the verdict. When the votes are counted, 11 men rule guilty, while one--played by Henry Fonda, again typecast as another liberal, truth-seeking hero--doubts the obvious. Stressing the idea of "reasonable doubt," Fonda slowly chips away at the jury, who represent a microcosm of white, male society--exposing the prejudices and preconceptions that directly influence the other jurors' snap judgments. The tight script by Reginald Rose (based on his own teleplay) presents each juror vividly using detailed soliloquies, all which are expertly performed by the film's flawless cast. Still, it's Lumet's claustrophobic direction--all sweaty close-ups and cramped compositions within a one-room setting--that really transforms this contrived story into an explosive and compelling nail-biter. --Dave McCoy
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When I saw the detail in Jack Warden's hat, I nearly flipped out. All the times I've watched the movie on DVD and I never saw this intricate, flashy design in his hat. It fits his character perfectly, too: salesman, goofy, etc. And there are details to be found all over the film that enrich the themes like that.
Also, if you're like me and had a full screen DVD (that was by far the easiest one to find, inexplicably), you can finally see the whole 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and this makes a big, big difference in the feel of the movie.
The clarity and aspect ratio of this Blu-ray make this, already an intimate film, all the more intimate. If, like me, you've known and loved these characters for many viewings, you might be stunned at how much closer this version brings you to them.
I own some really beautiful Blu-rays (The Searchers, Hellboy II, The Incredibles, and True Grit[Coen Bros] are some of the visual stand-outs), but none of those upgrades to Blu-ray have impacted the feeling of the film for me as much as this one.
Oh, and the audio is nice. I heard a couple lines I never quite understood before.
Twelve jurors of varying ages, personalities, cultural backgrounds and social standings enter a deliberation room to determine the guilt or innocence of a troubled teenage boy accused of murdering his father. It’s quite a simple premise – a jury’s deliberation – one that occurs daily all over the United States. But the film manages to wring every last drop of tension, drama, and social commentary from this commonplace scenario that it’s impossible not to viscerally experience the true weight and implications of such a task – to search for the truth in a case of life and death.
First things first: let’s just appreciate how entertaining 12 Angry Men is. This is a film that takes place entirely in a single room, and tells its story completely through dialogue. And yet, it manages to be significantly more absorbing and enthralling than your average film with dozens of different locations and set pieces. The dialogue is so well-written and the characters so well-realized (and acted) that you become completely swept up in the proceedings. The pacing is also pitch perfect. The film rises naturally to a few emotional climaxes and confrontations, which are punctuated by quieter moments as the characters (and we as the audience) catch our breaths and process what has developed. And for a film that takes place entirely in such a confined space, there are a pretty incredible number of interestingly-composed sequences and long takes as the camera maneuvers from character to character and the drama unfolds.
So yes, 12 Angry Men is a superbly entertaining film that absolutely flies by over the course of its brief hour-and-a-half running time. But it’s also so much more than that. It’s a film about “truth”: its elusiveness, malleability, and vulnerability to the subjectivity of the human mind. Yes, there is a single objective truth to this, and likewise any real-life case; but the jurors don’t know it, and neither do we. The objective truth isn’t the point. The point is the impressionability of the “truth” – how it morphs in the minds of the characters (and in ours) over the course of the film, and how significantly it can be informed by our emotions, past experiences, memory (and its limitations), prejudices, and a myriad of other factors. The film is able to crystallize both the beauty and the folly of our judicial system. The beauty, as Henry Fonda’s character points out, is that the scales are heavily tipped in favor of the innocent, that no man can be found guilty unless that guilt is beyond any reasonable doubt. The folly? The subjectivity of reasonable doubt, and the unavoidable reliance on a human jury who are influenced by all of the aforementioned factors.
But ultimately, 12 Angry Man a film about us – people. Each juror in the film has a unique personality, temperament, and background which informs his opinion and motivates the role he plays in the story. Every juror gets his time to shine and the result is an ensemble that feels both diverse and extremely well-balanced.
The strength of the characters in the film and the way they play off of one another is key to perhaps its most important theme: the danger of assumption, and the ease and quickness with which we judge one another. We watch as the jurors expose their biases and prejudices through their assumptions and judgments of the defendant, as well as one another. But even beyond that, the true brilliance of the film is that it subtly provokes the exact same snap-judgments from us as we watch. It’s extremely easy to start to view the more critical jurors as the “good guys” and the dissenting, guilty-proponent jurors as the “bad guys.” To invoke a psychiatric concept, we engage in splitting – seeing some of the jurors as “all good” and others as “all bad.” We automatically begin to judge the seemingly more prejudiced and willful jurors, confining them to a box of our construction without knowing barely anything about them.
But in its revealing final moments, the film snaps us back and urges us to look beneath the surface of those who we judge and ask an important question: why? Why does one juror spew prejudice and anger while another sits silently? What drives them to act in the way that they do? No one is born prejudiced, bigoted or racist. These are things we learn and which become incorporated into our personalities often through no fault of our own. The angry, prejudiced juror isn’t inherently “all bad,” but simply reacts in a way that is informed by his accumulated life experience (much of which is subconscious). Of course, that doesn’t mean that people can’t and shouldn’t be held accountable for their negative attributes and beliefs – we can always introspect and take action to improve our worst qualities. But that isn’t the point. The film simply asserts that we should strive to understand before we judge, as understanding and empathy fosters connection where judgment simply divides. As Juror #3 – who we’ve likely judged and grown to despise throughout the film – weeps over the torn photograph of himself and his estranged son at the conclusion of the film, the message couldn’t be clearer.
12 Angry Men is a masterpiece. It is a film that marvelously succeeds on all the facets that every great film should. It’s fabulously entertaining and engrossing, fantastically shot and acted, perfectly paced, and extremely thought-provoking. An undeniable classic whose themes will never lose their relevance.
But that's not really the point, is it? The problem this movie exposes is: us. We, the jury. You know who I found to be the most despicable characters in this movie? Not the bitter and wounded Lee J. Cobb or the racist Ed Begley. Rather, it was the shallow, bending-with-the-wind ad-man Juror #12 (Robert Webber) whom Cobb aptly describes as a tennis ball bouncing from one side of the court to the other, and most especially baseball fan Juror #7 (Jack Warden), who keeps glancing at his watch during the whole movie while two Yankees tickets burn a hole in his pocket. #7 changes his vote to Not Guilty only when the Not Guilty votes start overcoming the Guilty votes: anything to get the hell out of there. Perhaps forgivable for a civil case involving, say, two rich businessmen squabbling over a million dollars or something, but unacceptable when a man's life is on the line. But this, I fear, is the problem with our justice system. Most of us don't give a crap about it, finding a jury summons to be an imposition on our lives rather than the supreme privilege that it actually is. Disagree? Try living in a country where such a system of citizen-driven justice is not in place ... and then try finding actual justice in that country. We don't realize what we got, here.
But despite the high-minded institutions that arose from our Founders' high-minded ideals, we continue to fall short of expectations, as this story demonstrates. Henry Fonda as #8 portrays the better angel of our natures, but I doubt that he exists in our nation's jury rooms. And even if he does, he's outnumbered by those like Warden and Webber, the indifferent clockwatchers, or by those like Begley and Cobb, who come into a jury room seething with personal prejudices and agonizing back-stories that color their judgment. And finally, the reality is that the Fondas in those rooms stay shouted down once they're shouted down. And that's that.
5 out of 5, of course. The only nitpick I can make is that the scene where the other jurors get up and turn their backs to Begley while he goes on a racist tirade is too obvious. But even that is made up for by the fact that this movie must set some kind of record for the use of the phrase "Aw, come ON, willya?"
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