It’s always fun to rewatch a favorite film, especially when you learn something new even after many viewings. For my money, 12 Angry Men is the best legal drama on film.
I own a copy of this amazing film, but I wanted to see the Criterion version, which I knew would have a remastering and some featurettes. I watched those before I watched the Criterion remastering. I’m glad that I did, particularly the features on director Sidney Lumet, writer Reginald Rose and cinematographer Boris Kaufman.
The film was first a television play. Rose adapted his 1954 television play, Twelve Angry Men, into a feature film, renamed 12 Angry Men. The television production was part of the weekly Westinghouse Studio One. Rose won an Emmy for his script. Rose would write other theatrical plays and feature films, and be remembered for creating and writing The Defenders television series, often called the best television legal show ever.
The television play aired live, as was the norm in the early 1950s. Starring in the television play was Bob Cummings, Franchot Tone, Edward Arnold, Paul Hartman, John Beal, Walter Abel, Norman Fell, Lee Phillips, Bart Burns, Will West, George Voskovec, and Joseph Sweeney. Voskovec and Sweeney would later reprise their roles in the feature film. The television play was directed by Franklin Schaffner, who would go on to direct Patton (Academy Award for Director), Planet of the Apes and Papillion.
The television play is part of the Criterion DVD set. For comparison, the television play is about 40 minutes shorter. The main points are there, but much of the nuance and character subtext is missing. Everything happens so quickly and the pace is so fast that it’s difficult to appreciate the clever and complex peeling away of the “evidence.”
Kaufman was an award-winning cinematographer (On the Waterfront), he was recognized for his lighting and camera movements. He immigrated from France (he was Russian born) where he made films, establishing his bold and stark style. During the 1950s and 1960s, Kaufman made films with Lumet, Otto Preminger, George Roy Hill, Elia Kazan among other influential directors.
Examples above of Kaufman’s complex lighting for wide-focus closeups.
12 Angry Men takes place essentially in a jury room and adjoining bathroom. It’s small and has 12, hot and sweaty jurors. Kaufman’s camera moves up and down, dollies and uses tight closeups. In the feature, I noticed now much his camera really puts the audience in the room. The jury room is a studio set, so Kaufman is able to adapt the set to his camera placement. In watching the film, I often overlooked much of the camera work, mainly because it advances the action rather than drawing attention to it. With 12 characters, finding ways to isolate certain actors is challenging, as it filling the screen with faces. As the film gets deeper into the deliberations, the closeups get tighter, even when it is a two or three shot. Kaufman used wide-angle lenses with key lighting and deep-focus. Why is this important? Tighter faces brings out facial features, highlighting the drama. Using wide-angle photography can distort images, it’s tricky, at least back before computer designed lenses. Kaufman knew what he was doing.
This was also Sidney Lumet’s first feature directorial effort. He gets a script from one of the most renowned television writers, a skilled cinematographer, a big name star and producer (Henry Fonda), and a cast of fine veteran and up-and-coming character actors. Ed Begley, Sr., Edward Binns, Jack Warden, John Fiedler, Jack Klugman, Robert Webber, Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, George Voskovec, Joseph Sweeney, and Lee J. Cobb. Lumet came from the stage and was a perfect choice for this uneasy mix of personalities and powder-keg of emotions.
Read my original view of the film.
One thought on “12 Angry Men: Revisited”
I have only seen this movie once. It is a remarkable movie but so tension filled I never wanted to watch it again.
But now I will. I know almost all the actors from later shows I’ve seen. So to see them in this film was a great way to really see their acting chops.
I’ll rewatch soon.
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