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12 Angry Men

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: 12 Angry Men

Starring: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb
Director: Sidney Lumet
Rated: NR
RunTime: 95 Minutes
Release Date: April 1957
Genres: Classic, Drama

*Also starring: Rudy Bond, Ed Begley Sr., E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, George Voskovec, Robert Webber, Edward Binns, Joseph Sweeney

Review by Steve Rhodes
4 stars out of 4

In a time of bloated productions where special effects have become the movies' real stars, going back to a classic like director Sidney Lumet's 12 ANGRY MEN can remind viewers what movie making is supposed to be about -- acting.

12 ANGRY MEN from 1957 focuses the viewers' attention on the drama at hand with few props to distract them. The script by Reginald Rose is firmly rooted in the 1950s, but, like a Shakespearean play, most of the lines reveal deeper meanings and hidden truths. Arguably one of the best early television dramas was the original 1954 "Studio One" version of 12 ANGRY MEN. The only link between the two is Reginald Rose's script which was kept almost totally intact. The cast and the director changed, but the story stayed the same. And what a story. (The Showtime cable network recently remade the story, and, being smart enough to use basically the same script, managed to make an interesting film, albeit not in the same league as the original two.)

Many movies start with promising premises which end up only partially fulfilled, but 12 ANGRY MEN never disappoints. The rich drama with minimalist sets occurs almost completely within the confines of a jury room. The incredibly strong ensemble cast for the jury includes: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Joseph Sweeney, Martin Balsam, George Voskovec, John Fiedler and Robert Webber. To further minimize distractions, we never learn most of the jurors' names. We know them by their opinions, backgrounds and weaknesses. They have their juror numbers, and that is considered sufficient labeling.

As the story opens, a bored judge in a capital murder case is reading his charge to the jury. When he comes to the part about a reasonable doubt, he repeats it with such an emphasis that he seems to be suggesting that any doubt they may have in their minds about the defendant's guilt is probably not reasonable. Indeed everyone, including the defendant, seems to think the case is hopeless. The accused, played with big, soulful eyes by John Savoca, never speaks, but his sunken, despondent demeanor says it all. The evidence in the case is clear, and as we find out later, his attorney apparently was pretty inept.

Before the jurors start their deliberation, they idle away their time arguing over whether the case was dull or not and over how well the attorneys performed. If you didn't know better, you could assume they were reviewing some movie they had seen. None of them seems to be concerned in the least that the defendant's life is at stake.

Into this sure and certain world comes a voice of caution, someone who is willing to demand that the jurors put a halt to their headlong rush to judgment. This voice of reason comes from a juror played by Henry Fonda, giving a resolute and perfect performance that should have at least gotten him an Academy Award nomination for best actor, but didn't. (Alex Guinness won the best actor award that year for THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. Sidney Lumet was nominated for best director but lost to David Lean for THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. And the best picture award was lost the same way. Easily the biggest shame was that Reginald Rose's script -- an absolute classic -- lost to the excellent but lesser one for THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. Then again, Academy voters do like sweeps.)

Fonda's character votes not guilty on the first ballot, not because he's sure the defendant is innocent, but because he wants to get his fellow jurors to stop and reconsider the merits of the case. The other jurors are aghast that he seems to have forgotten the sure and certain "facts" of the case that prove the defendant's guilt. "Now these are facts," barks an angry juror played by Lee J. Cobb. "You can't refute facts."

Everyone brings their differing lifestyles into the jury room. E.G. Marshall plays a prim and proper Wall Street stockbroker. He ticks off the facts in the case as if he were reading closing stock prices from the newspaper. His studious and ever stern glare cuts down those who disagree with him. And he is the only one who keeps his coat on the entire time -- he claims he never sweats, even in the stiflingly hot jury room. His banker's glasses, one of the film's few props, turn out to be key to the case's solution. With superciliousness, he bemoans slum dwellers such as the defendant, only to find out that another juror, played by Jack Klugman, grew up in the slums and resents the broker's remarks.

Although most jurors are known by the intensity of their convictions, Robert Webber plays someone who works in advertising and views serving on a jury no more seriously that he would concocting a laundry soap jingle. He tries using advertising lingo such as "run this idea up the flagpole and see if anybody salutes it."

After ridicule and scorn by his fellow jurors, Henry Fonda's character suggests a startling compromise. He will abstain from the second ballot, and if they all vote guilty, so will he. But if he has garnered any support for the defendant, then the rest of the jurors have to agree to stay awhile and discuss the case with him. After he wins that round, one by one, the other jurors begin to fall in line behind him, but even if the conclusion is obvious, the way they get there constantly surprises and fascinates.

The beauty of Rose's script is that we come to know each of the jurors by the end of the deliberations. Most writers would gloss over some of them to concentrate on a few, but Rose gives each a unique personality and background. Jack Warden, for example, plays an extroverted marmalade salesman, who made $27,000 last year and has tickets to tonight's ball game burning in his pocket. He wants to vote guilty as quickly as possible so he can get to the ballpark.

Boris Kaufman's intimate, black-and-white cinematography makes each member of the audience feel like a 13th juror. And the wailing, solo flute music by Kenyon Hopkins provides a somber atmosphere without ever overpowering.

My only complaint with Lumet's direction is that the last holdout for guilty is allowed to convert all too abruptly. Nevertheless, 12 ANGRY MEN is a nearly perfect drama to be savored by generation after generation.

12 ANGRY MEN runs 1:36. It is not rated but would be PG for mature themes. The show would be fine for any child old enough to be interested in such a serious story. I give the film my top recommendation and rating of ****.

Copyright 1997 Steve Rhodes

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