Today! Because ever since you walked into this room, you’ve been acting like a self-appointed public avenger –
12 Angry Men (1957)
Directed by Sidney Lumet (x3)
Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb (x2), Martin Balsam (x4), Jack Klugman, E.G. Marshall (x4), Jack Warden (x3), Ed Begley, John Fiedler, Edward Binns, Joseph Sweeney, George Voskovec, Robert Webber
And we’re back to play-based movies barely doing anything to update the setting! But really, what all could they’ve done? You can’t very well stick the jury on a train and have them debate the merits of the case over a hot dog at Coney Island, can you? (Or, could you? Maybe as some sort of commentary on the judicial system, its role as some manner of funhouse stacked against the little guy? It being a rollercoaster to no where except back where you started, under the boss’s heal, busting your hump for King Business? Jesus, who’s ready to produce my crazy new plan for 12 Angry Men: Keep Your Hands and Feet Inside the Jury??)
No, Lumet’s 12 Angry Men is locked-in, and that’s the way it works best. The jury nearly eats itself alive in their discussion of the case, revealing all their hidden prejudices, grappling with the facts of the case and each other’s motives for wrapping this deliberation up. Things are shouted and twists uncoiled and minds won over – or at least persuaded for the time being – until they finally arrive at a decision. It’s a marvelously acted tour-de-force by everyone involved, especially the leads, with Fonda’s curious, questioning Juror #8 and Cobb’s volcanic, passionate #3 locked in epic cross-table battle.
Okay, strictly speaking this isn’t a movie based on a play – the original 12 Angry Men (titled Twelve Angry Men) was a TV movie in 1954, and wasn’t adapted for the stage until the early ’60s. It didn’t get a proper Broadway production for another 40 years, but come on, this thing is built for the live theater. The numerous film and TV versions are great, but I always think of this as a play first. That might just be the old theater guy in me, though.
It’s so great that any other attempts at making a jury deliberation film would just seem a cheap knock off, so despite the sort of natural drama inherent in such a situation, barely anyone’s attempted it. Seriously, it feels like it should be its own sub-genre, but 12 Angry Men effectively created it and perfected it in one fell swoop. There are loads of courtroom movies – maybe we’re just lacking a perfect one to finally end that old trope – but barely anything about juries. Hell, Runaway Jury isn’t even really about the jury, just its selection. Pauly Shore’s Jury Duty might seriously be the next best film, because there’s basically nothing else in existence. Am I just glaringly forgetting something? That Demi Moore movie The Juror wasn’t really about the jury in any way – the trial barely makes up any of the movie. Nope, 12 Angry Men and Jury Duty, that’s it.
Due to my own bullshit eligibility rules, the second best jury movie ever – Showtime’s 1997 12 Angry Men – got left behind, despite it also being terrific, and with a cast just as accomplished – George C. Scott, Jack Lemmon, James Gandolfini, Courtney B. Vance, Edward James Olmos. If you’ve only ever seen ’57, check out ’97, I’d argue it nearly equals the original.
1957’s rendition was nominated for three Academy Awards – Best Picture, Director, and Reginald Rose’s screenplay – while it picked up four Globe noms, including Fonda and Cobb for Actor and Supporting. It was 87th on the AFI’s redone Top 100 from 2007, while it currently sits as the 5th best movie ever from IMDB votes, if that means anything to you. It’s also my favorite film from the entirety of the 1950s, I learned today.
This is Lumet’s third film on the list, following #160 Dog Day Afternoon and #374 Murder on the Orient Express, while we’ve got a pair of new Four-Timers in Balsam (#360 Cape Fear, #100 Catch-22, Orient Express) and Marshall (#214 Nixon, #119 Christmas Vacation, #199 Superman II). Spotlight!