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03.26.08

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Phaedra

12 Angry Men Collector's Edition

One disc; MGM Home Entertainment; $19.98

By Michael S. Gant


The earnest 1957 jury-room drama 12 Angry Men (or 12 Angry White Guys, as Jami Floyd of Court TV quips on the minidoc Inside the Jury Room) promotes skepticism as civic duty—a lesson too often forgotten. In a hot, damp New York jury room, 11 ordinary people and one extraordinary man (Henry Fonda) must deliberate the fate of a teenager accused of stabbing his abusive father to death. Fonda's juror No. 8 is the only one who takes the concept of reasonable doubt seriously, while his peers initially want a quick guilty verdict. Slowly, quietly Fonda convinces the others that the state's case is full of holes. The speechifying is didactic '50s liberal, and Fonda's character engages in some stunts that would get him thrown off a real jury, but screenwriter Reginald Rose is serious about the duty not to rush to judgment. Much of the message for both justice and mercy depends on our repugnance for juror No. 10 Ed Begley's obvious bigotry, although the script has been de-ethnicized to such a degree that it's not clear who the objects of his hatred are—slum dwellers in general, apparently. The film showcases a roster of great character actors: Martin Balsam as the foreman; Lee J. Cobb as a father alienated from his own son; E.G. Marshall as the rectitudinous stock broker who "never sweats"; Jack Klugman as the token slum dweller; George Voskovec as the quiet immigrant faithful to American values; Robert Webber as the wishy-washy ad executive; and a brash young Jack Warden as a know-nothing who just wants to go to the Yankees game. Sydney Lumet, in his first directorial job, showed a sure hand at milking the claustrophobia as the arguments and animosities escalate. He was helped immensely by Boris Kaufman, a master of black-and-white cinematography. Kaufman, the brother of Russian avant-garde director Dziga Vertov, moved to France in the 1920s and worked with Jean Vigo on L'Atalante and Zéro de conduite. In the United States, Kaufman shot On the Waterfront and Baby Doll for Elia Kazan before hooking up with Lumet. His intricate tracking shots around the jury table undercut the static tendencies of the material. The extras include commentary and two documentaries, one about the making of the film and one about the jury system. The former is fairly obvious stuff, although the still lively Lumet and Klugman provide useful insights. Lumet remembers that while screenwriter Rose "believed that people were good ... I don't feel that."


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