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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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Fail Safe" (1964)
The Cold War and threat of nuclear extinction was on the minds of politicians and filmmakers alike in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, but arguably this crisis reached its cinema fever pitch in 1964. Earlier in the year, Stanley Kubrick presciently turned the burgeoning genre on its head with the highly satirical and biting “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” which is perhaps why the dead-serious “Fail Safe” is less well known, and was less well regarded when it arrived in theaters 10 months later (if you didn’t know better, you’d assume ‘Strangelove’ is almost a spoof as they are about the exact same subject with some uncanny and incredibly similar scenes and archetypes though essentially made at the same time). Though somber and terrifyingly real -- the movie almost plays out like a suspenseful horror -- “Fail Safe” is not the humorless version of Kubrick’s masterpiece. It is in fact, a masterpiece in of its own kind. A gripping, nail-biting and intense portrait of the spiraling-out-of-control arms race -- and it’s a wonder this picture’s disturbing drama didn’t come to pass in our history. Henry Fonda plays the earnest and compassionate leader of the United States, Walter Matthau plays a ruthless scientist bound by stats and cold logic, and the picture also contains excellent performances by Dan O'Herlihy, Frank Overton and Edward Binns, plus early appearances by Dom DeLuise, Larry Hagman and Fritz Weaver. Need a foolproof nuclear deterrent? Just watch “Fail Safe,” one of the best wartime cautionary tales (nuclear or otherwise) ever made. [A+]

The Hill" (1965)
Set in a North African British “glasshouse” during World War II (the name of an English military detention center) in the middle of the baking hot Libyan desert, Lumet’s dusty and sun-bleached 1965 war film centers on the injustices of war and its outdated rules by focusing on five new soldiers imprisoned and being punished for a litany of infractions such as going AWOL, stealing booze and in one special case, defying direct orders and assaulting his commanding officer. The idea is the dogs of war must be beaten and broken, and spirits and wills are almost crushed in this gritty 1965 military prison picture. But one incorrigible soldier, Sean Connery -- who took this detour, the first of five team-ups with Lumet, in the middle of his Bond run between "Goldfinger" and "Thunderball," much to the chagrin of most critics -- doesn’t make it easier for his tyrannical, near blood-thirsty superiors, himself, or his fellow inmates, one of them being the late, great Ossie Davis. Connery’s insubordination means his exhausted and parched outfit is humiliated, demeaned and punished to the edges of human limits by his barbaric staff sergeants (British character actors Ian Hendry and Harry Andrews play the monsters of discipline). One man dies during the abuse which sets off a chain of rebellion and makes Connery even more intractable. While “The Hill” is very much a message film and wears its morality on its sleeves, it is nevertheless, a highly engaging and underrated work in the Lumet body. The crushing, tragic ending and its bitter irony make it all the more striking. [B+]

The Deadly Affair" (1966)
Later this year will finally see John Le Carre's best-known character, the anti-Bond spy-catcher George Smiley, reach the big screen, played by Gary Oldman in Tomas Alfredson's much-anticipated version of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." But Smiley's actually been the central character in a film before -- sort of. Le Carre's first book, "Call for the Dead," was adapted by Lumet in 1966 into "The Deadly Affair" as a vehicle for James Mason, and, while the character has been renamed Charles Dobb, it's Smiley in all but name. While Lumet and writer Paul Dehn may take some liberties with the story, it's very faithful to Le Carre in spirit, and Mason is particularly good in the lead -- it's arguably one of his best screen performances. The cast around him, particularly Maximilian Schell as the colleague sleeping with Dobbs' wife, are equally good. It's a neat little spy thriller -- probably not action-packed enough for contemporary audiences, but mostly terrific, and yet another film from this era of Lumet's work that deserves reappraisal. [B-]

The Sea Gull" (1968)
For the most part, Lumet's theatrical background stood him in good stead in the film world, with a number of his best early films being derived from stage hits. The major exception is "The Sea Gull," a mostly disastrous take on Anton Chekhov's great play (a play that, in this writer's opinion, is among the very best ever). Lumet assembled an impressive cast, led by James Mason, Vanessa Redgrave, David Warner, Denholm Elliot and the great French star Simone Signoret, and shot on a lush Swedish location, but seems to have something of a tin ear for Chekhov. The writer always described the play as a comedy, and the very best productions have always been the ones which play it as such, but Lumet's cast seem overwhelmed by tragedy, as doom-laden as Rod Steiger's protagonist in "The Pawnbroker." It's oddly taste-free, for a man who made so many great choices: Gerry Fisher's softly pastoral photography is misjudged, making the film pretty at the expense of truth, while the famous ending is entirely botched by the director's decision to cut away to Konstantin's body. Signoret and Redgrave both seem a little miscast, although Warner and Elliott in particular are superb. One for Chekhov completists only, really. [D+]

The Anderson Tapes" (1971)
Sean Connery always had something of a reputation as an actor who would have a tempestuous relationship with directors, and even early on would occasionally phone in a performance, but he always had a top relationship with Lumet, working with the helmer on five separate occasions, so it was no surprise that, when he wanted to prove his leading man chops outside of the Bond franchise, he went to Lumet and to "The Anderson Tapes." A fiendishly complex thriller with some neat, more-relevant-than-ever commentary on the surveillance society on the side, it involves the actor as a career burglar coerced into pulling off a heist for the Mob without the knowledge that the building's under surveillance from a number of competing sources. Connery more than proved he could carry a movie away from 007, and the film remains pretty enjoyable, even if it's an uneasy blend of the kind of gritty crime picture that Lumet would make his stock-in-trade, and the lighter caper flick so popular at the time. Bonus points for the first screen appearance of Christopher Walken and for the score, the second collaboration with jazz legend Quincy Jones, and, while not as ambitious as his work on "The Pawnbroker," it's still a classic. [C+]

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


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