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12 Angry Men (Blu-ray Review)

28 Nov, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, Jack Warden.

Like A Face in the Crowd, Sweet Smell of Success and Paths of Glory, this Oscar-nominated adaptation of Reginald Rose’s famed teleplay opened and closed in a near-blink to scant U.S. revenues — but that was then. Now, with the others, it forms the quartet of what have generally come to be regarded as the four most enduring Hollywood movies of 1957, depending on how you feel about The Bridge on the River Kwai (which got the Oscar but was at least significantly British) or possibly Funny Face. But however you parse it, the moral here is that in the long run, history regards any week’s ephemeral box office receipts as a non-issue, which is the beauty of the system.

Men is especially durable. First came that previously-on-DVD original teleplay (also included here as a Criterion bonus), which got Rose, director Franklin Schaffner and lead Robert Cummings (in, for him, a kind of buzz-cut) 1954 Emmy awards. Much later, William Friedkin did a respectable 1997 version for Showtime with Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott; Russian director Nikita Maikhalkov did a 159-minute riff on it a decade after Friedkin (called 12) that got Oscar-nominated in the foreign-language category; and the play has been a staple of high school drama departments — though, at mine (and I suspect, most), the title was changed to The Angry 12 so that some women could be worked into the cast. But despite its long ago commercial blahs, this version — expanded a little more than 40 minutes from the TV rendering — is the one people know. Over 95 minutes, there isn’t a single lull — and, as is pointed out on one of the accompanying featurettes here, a sizable number of its edits occur in the final sections when the filmmaking goes into an accelerated frenzy with increased close-ups.

The “men,” as I hope most would know by now, are jurors who have the fate of a murder-accused minority in their hands. What seems like slam-dunk evidence for conviction by a mix of reasonable folks and a couple mouthy bigots is incrementally broken down by initial lone holdout juror No. 8 — in one of the premier model-of-integrity roles that Henry Fonda (also the film’s producer) ever had. Of course, as Vance Kepley from the Wisconsin Historical Society points out in one of this release’s typically succulent Criterion bonus extras, the casting smoothly traded in on Fonda’s past movie history with (as it turned out) predominantly John Ford. Because for Ford alone, Fonda had played Abraham Lincoln (Young Mr. Lincoln), Wyatt Earp (My Darling Clementine) and The Grapes of Wrath’s Tom Joad. (No one at that time could have even imagined the against-type menace he would bring to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West a decade later.)

Men has been on DVD before, but as with previous MGM-UA releases that Criterion seemingly rebuilt from scratch, this new version is of a jaw-dropping piece with its releases of Glory and Success, The Night of the Hunter, Kiss Me Deadly and even Men director Sidney Lumet’s otherwise borderline ludicrous The Fugitive Kind — whose photographic case the great camerawork scholar John Bailey makes in a 38-minute bonus section treatise about Men/Kind cinematographer Boris Kaufman. Bailey is no slouch himself; I just re-saw his work on Ordinary People, and it is bulls-eye when it comes to giving the movie the look it should absolutely have). But here he is bowing to someone who, in seemingly separate lifetimes, also managed to shoot L’Atalante for John Vigo and On the Waterfront for Elia Kazan.

Even with Men’s paltry budget (coming in for just under $350,000 thanks in part to Fonda deferring a salary that probably never arrived), it was able to afford Kaufman, who was working with an energetic young director with a wealth of TV experience, organizational skills and knowledge of lenses. His name? Sidney Lumet — here making (despite Men’s all but exclusive employment of interior shots) his first “New York” movie. Notwithstanding this, Lumet (eventually Oscar-nominated for one of screen history’s great debut achievements) joined Kaufman in turning claustrophobia into art. Though I’ve never ever been able to bump into Men anywhere without watching it for the duration, I hadn’t before noticed the full intensity of the actors’ sweat beads in one of the greatest portrayals (along with Hitchcock’s Rear Window) of what city life was like before air conditioning. Same goes for, and this is what Criterion releases make possible, the close-ups of Fonda’s glistening hair (either more perspiration or a generous sprinkling of Vitalis with V7).

The movie’s other auteur is author Rose, who later parlayed his imposing social consciousness into CBS’s much lauded “The Defenders” TV series with E.G. Marshall (who plays one of the Men jurors). As Ron Simon (curator of the Paley Center for Media) points out in a sympathetic interview, the relatively forgotten Rose was one of the “big three” of Golden Age TV dramatists along with Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky (both of whom railed against sponsor interference, while Rose was more pliable).

Rounding out the stops-pulling collection of extras are edited-together passages from various Lumet interviews about his career; an essay by writer/law professor Thane Rosenbaum (who seems to know his film scholarship); a new interview with screenwriter Walter Bernstein about old pal Lumet; and — get this — the Feb 19, 1956, “Alcoa Hour” Rose-Lumet teleplay Tragedy in a Temporary Town. This is the one I’d always heard about without knowing its title — the live drama where Lloyd Bridges got so worked up in a scene about racial prejudice that he cursed on live TV. And according to Wikipedia, his slip got NBC hundreds of complaints, though probably not from an amused Jeff and Beau. I hope these time-on-their-hands doofuses lived to see Janet Jackson on Super Bowl XXXVIII.

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