Monday, April 25, 2011

A Life in Film: Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)

We were all saddened by the recent death of master filmmaker Sidney Lumet. In my books, he ranks as the second best director of all time (behind Martin Scorsese). Each one of his films is a must-watch for any film buff. Every one of his films has a certain flair and attention to detail, yet none of them are the same movie. Even Hitchcock and Scorsese have made films that are basically the same movie with different characters. With Lumet, he never stayed in the same realm. One of the great crimes in Academy history is never giving Lumet a Best Director Oscar. He was nominated four times for groundbreaking films, yet he never came out on top. He had four Best Picture nominations in his career, yet none of them won. Looking back on it, is there any way that Network should have lost to Rocky? 12 Angry Men to The Bridge on the River Kwai? Dog Day Afternoon to Cuckoo’s Nest? I do not know of anyone that would say those losses were justified.

Lumet was perhaps the best director at working with actors in film history. He had a knack for pulling performances out of his actors that we never thought would have been possible, and they were characters whose depths were never approached again by those actors. Classic examples of this are Nick Nolte in Q&A, Paul Newman in The Verdict, Vin Diesel in Find Me Guilty, and the list goes on and on. He transformed actors into characters. Actors would work with Lumet to expand their range and do something that had never done before. Who would have thought Al Pacino, fresh off playing Michael Corleone, could have shown such vulnerability like he did in Dog Day Afternoon? Who would have thought the typically shy and nervous Philip Seymour Hoffman could have pulled off such a raging portrayal of human evil like he did in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead? Then there is William Holden, one of the most beloved Hollywood heartthrobs of all time, and then he gets his part in Network, playing an older, more self-aware and broken-down version of his heroic characters from the ‘50s. These characters are nothing like the image these actors had built up to that point. These all-time great performances have to be attributed to Lumet’s keen eye for spotting potential image-shattering qualities in his actors.

A common critique of Lumet’s work was that he did not make his films visually interesting enough to be considered a top-level director. He was not a great stylist, some claimed. He did not use exotic sets, crazy camera gimmicks, or long tracking shots. His camera almost always focused in on his actors’ faces, and he let them tell the story. However, he was able to use his unique style to his advantage and create some of the most suspenseful films in existence. 12 Angry Men is one of the most astonishing directorial debuts of all time. Essentially, the entire film takes place in one room, and the audience is left completely breathless, even more so than after 90% of most action films made recently. Nothing is special about how the film is shot or produced. What makes the film truly spectacular is the performances, the attention to detail, and the aura in the room. This cannot be attributed to anyone else but the director at the helm.

My favorite Lumet film, Serpico, takes the police genre and flips it. He got Al Pacino to give his best performance and one of the ten best performances in history. The rage and humanity of his shamed character are completely realized, and Lumet’s ability to just sit back and portray normal life on screen is something to truly be marveled at. Four years later came Network, one of the most important and timeless movies of the 1970s. Not only did Holden give some of his finest work, but Peter Finch gave one of the greatest and most unforgettable portrayals of the last 25 years. Yes, most of Lumet’s films are blessed with terrific screenplays, but if they were in other hands, they would not have been as effective on screen. It is Lumet’s humanism and how he told the stories that made his films so compelling, so breathtaking, and so true.

To put his career in perspective, I will go with a few lists. There is only so much you can say about one of the strongest voices ever in film. Here are his best achievements as a director:


5. Paul Newman – The Verdict

4. River Phoenix – Running on Empty

3. Faye Dunaway – Network

2. Al Pacino – Dog Day Afternoon

1. Al Pacino – Serpico


5. Lee J. Cobb – 12 Angry Men

4. Nick Nolte – Q&A

3. John Cazale – Dog Day Afternoon

2. Peter Finch – Network

1. Lindsay Crouse – The Verdict


5. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

4. 12 Angry Men

3. Network

2. Dog Day Afternoon

1. Serpico

Mr. Lumet will be remembered as one of the all time greats. Never has a director had a run quite like Lumet did in the mid 70s, with Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network, all coming within 4 years of each other. Even his smaller films like Find Me Guilty are terrific in their own ways, and I have yet to see one of his films that did not feature at least one Oscar-worthy performance in it. Even Family Business had Lumet regular Sean Connery in a hilarious role that could have easily garnered a Golden Globe nomination had the film been more popular. By the way, is that not the strangest three generation family (Connery, Dustin Hoffman, Matthew Broderick) ever cast in film? I think so.

Anyway, Sidney Lumet is a major part of what got me so interested in film. After watching Network and Dog Day Afternoon for the first time, I was hooked. Now, I am on a personal quest to seek out and watch each one of the gifts that he left us throughout his career (yes, even The Wiz). He ended his career on such a high note, with the underrated and criminally underseen films Find Me Guilty and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. I cannot help but wonder which tremendous story he might have told next.

RIP Sidney Lumet

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