Derek Winnert

Twelve Angry Men ***** (1957, Henry Fonda, Lee J Cobb, Martin Balsam) – Classic Movie Review 10

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In Sidney Lumet’s electrifying 1957 film classic courtroom drama, Henry Fonda gives a true, trusty, stalwart performance as Juror Number 8 in a murder trial. He’s a symbolically white-suited architect, who starts as the lone voice of reason in a hot and sweaty New York City courtroom.

Going with the idea of reasonable doubt, he slowly starts trying to convince his all-male fellow jurors to reconsider what initially seems the cut-and-dried murder case of a Spanish-American teenager (John Savoca) killing his father with a switch-blade knife. he’s got a lot of prejudice to break through.

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The accused’s actual ethnic background is left vague, the only point being the possible prejudice of the white jurors against him. ‘It’s an open-and-shut case,’ says Lee J Cobb’s Juror Number 3 and everyone agrees, except Juror Number 8. ‘We’re talking about somebody’s life here,’ says Fonda. ‘Supposing we’re wrong.’

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Though based on a single-set TV play (broadcast live in 1954) and using the original teleplay virtually unchanged, this brilliantly written courtroom drama par excellence is impressively cinematic, ingeniously directed and turbo-charged.

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It boasts astonishingly fiery, fully-fleshed performances from the special cast of star character actor worthies. It’s unfair to pick anyone out, but Lee J Cobb’s Juror Number 3, Martin Balsam’s jury foreman, E G Marshall’s emotionless stockbroker and Ed Begley’s racist juror are outstanding among them.

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The United Artists film studio asked Fonda both to star and produce, and he hired Sidney Lumet to make his film debut as director after a distinguished career in TV drama. Wise choice – working in such an enclosed space, Lumet’s direction is impeccable, whipping up almost unbearable sweaty tension and claustrophobic atmosphere.

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A blueprint of how to transfer a play into a film, it should be studied in film schools and colleges. Rating this, The Ox-Bow Incident and The Grapes of Wrath his best movies, Fonda told Lumet: ‘Sidney, it’s magnificent.’ And he’s right.

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Despite nominations for Best Picture, Direction and Adapted Writing, alas there were no Oscars at all, losing out to The Bridge on the River Kwai. And it wasn’t a box-office success either, but it has acquired great critical stature, cult status and public favour as the years go by.

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For the record, in order of Juror Number 1, 2, 3 etc, these are the 12 angry men: Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Lee J Cobb, E G Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Henry Fonda, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec and Robert Webber.

It was remade as a TV movie in 1997 with Jack Lemmon.

A theatre version graced the London stage in 2014, with Martin Shaw starring and Robert Vaughn among the jurors.

© Derek Winnert 2013 Classic Movie Review 10

Check out more reviews on http://derekwinnert.com/

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