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The Films Of Sidney Lumet: A Retrospective

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist April 9, 2012 at 11:00AM

Lumet was never fancy. He never needed to be, as a master of blocking, economic camera movements and framing that empowered the emotion and or exact punctuation of a particular scene. First and foremost, as you’ve likely heard ad nauseum -- but hell, it’s true -- Lumet was a storyteller, and one that preferred his beloved New York to soundstages (though let's not romanticize it too much, he did his fair share of work on studio film sets too as most TV journeyman and early studio filmmakers did).
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Sidney Lumet

It has been a year since Sidney Lumet passed away on April 9, 2011. Here is our retrospective on the legendary filmmaker to honor his memory. Originally published April 15, 2011.

Almost a week after the fact, we, like everyone that loves film, are still mourning the passing of the great American master Sidney Lumet, one of the true titans of cinema.

Lumet was never fancy. He never needed to be, as a master of blocking, economic camera movements and framing that empowered the emotion and or exact punctuation of a particular scene. First and foremost, as you’ve likely heard ad nauseum -- but hell, it’s true -- Lumet was a storyteller, and one that preferred his beloved New York to soundstages (though let's not romanticize it too much, he did his fair share of work on studio film sets too as most TV journeyman and early studio filmmakers did).

His directing career stretched well over 50 years, from theater and live television to embracing digital video with his final film, 2007's outstanding "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." Across that time, Lumet was nominated for five Oscars including four for directing (“12 Angry Men,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network,” “The Verdict”) and one for adapted screenwriting (“Prince of the City”), but astonishingly, never won. Although he was given a Honorary Academy Award in 2005, as Spike Lee (the influence on whom from Lumet can be felt in every picture) tweeted on hearing the news, "Sidney was Nominated 5 Times for Best Director and was ROBBED. Eventually he got an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement. They always do that Shit."

We're not going to sugarcoat it -- not every film was a stone-cold classic. There are bad films on this list, and even worse ones that we couldn't bear ourselves to write about -- the nadir being a Rebecca DeMornay/Don Johnson potboiler, "Guilty As Sin." But Lumet was a pragmatist, as he wrote in his 1995 book "Making Movies" (a must-read for anyone who's serious about directing film), "I've done two movies because I needed the money. I've done three because I love to work and couldn't wait anymore. Because I'm a professional, I worked as hard on those movies as on any I've done." And, across his career, the good far, far outweighs the bad, and he got to go out on top with the gripping 2007 picture, “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead” which seemed to demonstrate every trait that cinephiles loved about Lumet’s steady and mature hand.

Over and above anything else, Lumet loved film, dedicating his erudite, moving Oscar acceptance speech to his peers and the medium, saying "I'd like to thank the movies. I know that sounds general, but it's very real to me. I've got the best job, in the best profession in the world, and I just want to thank all of it." As Martin Scorsese put it with Lumet's passing comes, "an end of an era." He will be immensely missed, but his venerable body of work will endure.

Below, The Playlist team have assembled a selection from that titanic career. With close to 100 screen directing credits, when including his vast body of TV work, it feels like we've barely scratched the surface -- but, while we happily could have spent months on this, time and space didn't allow it. Hopefully, we've managed to cover the most significant pictures. And what better way to pay tribute to the man than by sitting down with one over the weekend?

12 Angry Men” (1957)
It’s a start that few directors have had: after a half-decade or so directing TV, Lumet got his chance at a full-length feature film and turned in a classic. A gripping, brilliant human drama that espouses the highest of ideals, “12 Angry Men” also set out the stall for many of Lumet’s recurring preoccupations: guilt, innocence, prejudice, liberalism, the justice system, and the role of the individual. The staginess of the film’s main setting (it featured prominently in our feature about single location films), its roots as a teleplay and the fact that, well, it’s about 12 men arguing with no car chases, no gangsters and no sex to liven things up, add up to a film that on paper has all the ingredients of an unappetizing, if possibly nourishing, meal. Instead it’s a banquet of masterful performances (particularly from Henry Fonda, who, notoriously self-critical, believed it one of his three best), taut, smart screenwriting and razor-sharp editing, displaying a master’s grasp of pacing. While some of the details of the plot are a little outdated now, that hardly detracts from the keenly observed mechanics of power, persuasion and manipulation on display. But what’s perhaps most surprising about such a smart film, is that it never mistakes cynicism for intelligence. Its ultimate conclusions -- that ideals are worth fighting for, that one man can make a difference and that even the worst of people can be gently prodded towards decency -- are quietly devastating in their humanism and positivity, but are entirely earned and entirely the opposite of trite. “12 Angry Men” is everything a thinking person’s film should be, and only the first example of the kind of intelligent, restrained, grown-up filmmaking that Lumet would go on to bring us many more times over his long career. In the whispered words of Fonda himself at a screening of an early cut, “Sidney, it’s magnificent.” [A]

The Fugitive Kind" (1960)
Since it’s the only Sidney Lumet film on the Criterion Collection and it stars the great Marlon Brando, it must be his best film, right? While semi-compelling and well-acted on the themes of loneliness and human misconnection, mmm, not quite. Based on Tennessee Williams’ 1957 play "Orpheus Descending" (he co-wrote the screenplay with Meade Roberts), this Southern Gothic tale centers on a snakeskin jacket-wearing drifter/musician (Brando) who finds trouble when he wanders into a nameless Mississippi town. And like a few of Williams’ lesser film adaptations there’s lots of sweaty passion, unrequited desires and tempestuous melodrama, but the narratives tend to get a little rudderless. Brando’s thrown in jail early on and tries to get out of this two-bit town, but soon becomes involved with two different sorts of helpless women; the alcoholic wild child (Joanne Woodward) and the embittered wife of a dying shoe salesman who he eventually starts to work for (Anna Magnani). Both of these women provide their conflicts, but only the latter feels integral to the story. As critic Jonathan Rosenbaum observed, Lumet feels out of his East Coast element in this picture and despite the ace credentials of the principals, this disappointing effort doesn’t ever really gel. [C+]

Long Day's Journey Into Night" (1962)
It's hardly surprising, considering the length and emotional brutality of his work, that Eugene O'Neill was never really manna for cinematic adaptation in the way that, say, Tennessee Williams was. But there are good big-screen O'Neill works out there -- John Frankenheimer and Lee Marvin turned out an underrated version of "The Iceman Cometh," for example. But head and shoulders above the rest is Lumet's 1962 version of the playwright's masterpiece "Long Day's Journey Into Night," for which he assembled a dream cast of Ralph Richardson, Dean Stockwell, Jason Robards and, most toweringly, the great Katharine Hepburn. The quartet shared the acting prizes at Cannes that year, and it's well-deserved -- all four are riveting and flawless, even across the film's punishing three-hour running time; a testament to Lumet's dedication to the rehearsal process, something that almost every film could benefit from, but very few actually use. The film was criticized at first for failing to open up the play, but, as with "12 Angry Men," Lumet expertly plays with lenses and lighting to make the film feel as claustrophobic as it should. Anyone serious about acting should seek it out without delay. [A]

The Pawnbroker" (1964)
Sidney’s Lumet’s career has its ebbs and flows, but other than his better-known ‘70s period, no other era is as peerless as his early '60s phase that saw him deliver classics such as “Fail Safe,” “Long Day's Journey Into Night,” and to a lesser degree “The Hill” and “The Pawnbroker," which features what is arguably Rod Steiger’s finest performance as an emotionally withdrawn Holocaust survivor living in New York City (though the Academy didn’t see it that way -- he won an Oscar for “In the Heat of the Night” but was only nominated for the Lumet film). As the story slowly unravels, we discover that an embittered Sol Nazerman (Steiger) witnessed his wife and two children die in Nazi concentration camps and has since callously distanced himself from the world by quietly keeping to himself in his Harlem-set pawnshop. Shunning faith and all belief in what he calls the “scum” of mankind, Sol is apathetic to everyone including his Puerto Rican shop assistant (Jaime Sanchez) who idolizes him and his business. Geraldine Fitzgerald plays a frequent customer and compassionate social worker who tries to awaken his own humanity, but the Shakespearean tragedy of his actions -- the realization that his fellow man has value -- arrives far too late. Lumet’s lessons and moralizing on paper can sound a little too sanctimonious (and granted, it doesn’t work in every picture), but “The Pawnbroker” is a powerful and haunting look at how death can make us realize life is worth living. [A-]

This article is related to: Vintage Directors, Feature, Sidney Lumet


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