The original big screen 12 Angry Men (1957) began life as a landmark of live television. Reginald Rose’s original teleplay won an Emmy Award in 1955. Henry Fonda brought the story to the big screen and brought Rose along with it to adapt and expand the script.
Producer Fonda takes the lead as a hold-out juror who tries to stop a rush to judgment in a murder trial and debate the facts at hand before sentencing a young man to death. Lee J. Cobb leads the “guilty” votes and becomes belligerent as others change their votes during the debate.
The courtroom debate is a lot of things—a detective story uncovering the truth behind the evidence, a psychological drama, a piece of social commentary—while delivering a fascinating drama without ever resorting to recreations or flashbacks. It’s all in the words and the performances and they are all superb.
The film marked the feature debut of Sidney Lumet, himself a veteran of live TV, and he effectively modulates the drama without ever taking the camera out of the jury room until the verdict is in and the jury is out. He helps us feel the heat of the room on a summer day along with the pressure on the men (and they are all men here) to rise to the responsibility of their duty amidst distractions of their lives outside.
It’s a near perfect mix of theme and setting, personal drama and social commentary, a microcosm that suggests an entire world outside the frame, and it’s been remade, revived, and reworked on stage and screen ever since, reimaged for different countries and cultures and recast to reflect a more inclusive world over the years. And yet the original version still packs a dramatic punch that time has not softened.
Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, and Robert Webber co-star as fellow jurors.
It earned Oscar nominations for best director, screenplay adaptation, and picture and Fonda won the BAFTA for his performance. It was added to the National Film Registry in 2007.
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12 Angry Men (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
12 Angry Men [4K UHD]
12 Angry Men (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]
12 Angry Men [DVD]
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Criterion’s special edition DVD and Blu-ray releases include a wealth of archival programs: the original 1955 live-TV version of Reginald Rose’s “12 Angry Men” with Robert Cummings and Franchot Tone, directed with style by Franklin Schaffner, and the 1956 television play “Tragedy in a Temporary Town,” directed by Lumet from a teleplay by Rose, plus interviews with director Lumet. There is also a video essay, interviews with writer Walter Bernstein on Lumet, TV scholar Ron Simon on Reginald Rose and cinematographer John Bailey on cinematographer Boris Kaufman (who shot the 1957 film).
The original MGM anniversary edition features commentary by film historian Drew Casper, the retrospective featurette “Beyond A Reasonable Doubt: The Making Of 12 Angry Men” (featuring director Lumet and surviving cast member Jack Klugman) and “Inside The Jury Room,” where legal experts discuss the films facts and fictions.