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The Films Of Sidney Lumet: A Retrospective

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
April 9, 2012 11:00 AM
13 Comments
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The Offence” (1972)
While much of Lumet’s films centered around police dealt with the corruption around them, this curious, minimal entry asked what would happen if an officer was compromised by something from within his own mind. Starring Sean Connery as Detective Sergeant Johnson , “The Offence” opens with a slo-mo sequence that would make Zack Snyder proud, with the detective savagely beating and killing a suspect in an interrogation room. The movie then jumps back, and in the first half hour, shows us the events leading up to what we’ve just seen. Johnson and the rest of the department are on the hunt of a serial child molester preying on local children, and after an exhaustive manhunt, they bring in somebody who Johnson and even his colleagues think may be their man -- based not on evidence, but on their gut instinct. Johnson is so determined to get an answer he winds up killing the man. From there the film really only has two more long extended scenes. In one, which nearly grinds the film to a halt, Johnson returns home and gets into a domestic squabble with his wife who wants him to share his dark secrets and feelings with her and when he does, she’s horrified to the point of vomiting. The next, is an interview back at the police station with an investigator tasked with getting Johnson’s complete version of events. Finally, the film closes by jumping back to the talk Johnson had with the suspect and the dark, disturbing explanation for his overreaction is posited. It’s bold, challenging material but it’s ultimately trumped by the time jumping narrative which treats the revelation as a twist, cheating the film of a greater dramatic heft. And while Connery is in great form, the overly talky two-hour picture drags at times and never quite matches the crackling intensity the actor is bringing to the part. An interesting but not entirely rewarding inversion on Lumet’s continued study of law enforcement. [C]

Serpico" (1973)
When the Antoine Fuqua-directed "Brooklyn's Finest" dropped in 2009, its mix of cops-and-crooks scheming about Brooklyn projects rang with inauthenticity. This writer wonders what Lumet could have done with the same film -- and if "Serpico" is any indication, the late director's touch could have been the defining factor that tipped the scales, producing a true New York-bred film. Utilizing countless locations in early 1970s New York, "Serpico" mostly sticks to the facts of Frank Serpico's true-life story and Pacino completes his meteoric post- 'Godfather' rise with a complex, multi-layered portrayal of a good, but frequently conflicted, cop. "Serpico" is sometimes (and probably rightfully) overshadowed by the next Lumet/Pacino collab "Dog Day Afternoon", but the gritty down-home quality of the film is hard to shake, and harder even to criticize. [A-]


Murder on the Orient Express" (1974)
The term "they don't make them like that anymore" has become something of a cliche, and it's very rarely used correctly. For something like the Agatha Christie adaptation "Murder on the Orient Express," it's particularly untrue -- the film is deliberately harking back to a glamorous time that never really existed. But it's certainly hard to imagine a collection of stars of this caliber -- Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave and an Oscar-winning Ingrid Bergman, among many others -- being assembled for a picture like this, or indeed any film ever again. Watching Finney, as Christie's most famous creation, Hercule Poirot, poking at the ensemble as he investigates the titular slaying, is the kind of pleasure that it's hard to find on the big-screen these days: no explosions or CGI creations, just great actors sparking off against each other, and beautifully shot throughout by the director. It's feather-light, to be sure, but that's part of the sumptuous joy of it. And if you've somehow managed to avoid knowing the solution, and you go in cold, it'll still keep you guessing to the end. [B+]

Dog Day Afternoon” (1975)
Lumet was often considered a filmmaker who transcended genres, which is true, but it seems like the sort of compliment that ignores how this spotlighted his greatest trait, which was a mastery of tone. Nowhere is that more evident than this true-crime suspense film, dealing with a momentous bank robbery in 1970’s Brooklyn that evolved into a media-fed hostage standoff. As Sonny, the deluded thief who is quickly in way over his head, Al Pacino gets laughs, but he also fearlessly plunges deep into the psyche of this damaged person, a humane depiction of a man with misplaced passion, oblivious to his own recklessness. Lumet never obscures the time frame of the event, a twelve hour moment in history, but the film is paced so tightly that its tonal shifts don’t feel like directorial flourishes as much as the natural rhythms of real conversation. Amongst the 70s classics, “Dog Day Afternoon,” with its criminal behavior, harsh language and downbeat ending, still feels like one of the most affecting and generous, because Lumet and screenwriter Frank Pierson remain dedicated to telling a story about a crime, and not about criminals. [A]

Network” (1976)
Generally, we’re not people who demand Oscar recounts or regard award shows as anything other than vehicles for promotion. But perhaps Lumet’s collaboration with Paddy Chayefsky should have triumphed over “Rocky” to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, if only to properly get “Network” in front of the right people. Because, in 2011, “Network” ain’t funny anymore. This scabrous tale of television executives who refashion the news as “infotainment” and turn a veteran anchorman into a false prophet of the boob tube was once a scathing show business satire. Now it seems quaint, particularly in how its depicting a world we’re already familiar with, where TV producers will do anything for a ratings point, where vile current events become prime time appointment viewing, and where ranting fools can gain a pulpit and become respectable at best, celebrities at worst. Life has imitated art. “Network” came true. Horrifying. [A]

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13 Comments

  • zeprin | April 13, 2012 10:06 PMReply

    Genesis 6:4
    Thank you Sidney.

  • Christopher Plummer Website | April 10, 2012 12:55 PMReply

    Oscar winner Christopher Plummer made his feature debut in "Stage Struck" (1958), Sidney Lumet's remake of Zoe Akins' 1933 stage play: the start of a career that spans over five decades and includes substantial roles in film, television, and theatre: http://www.christopherplummer.eu/Introduction.php

  • Mass | April 10, 2012 4:26 AMReply

    Network is my favorite film of all time. Sidney Lumet was truly a fantastic Director and his work will live on forever. RIP.

  • Jeffrey Sweet | December 24, 2011 3:02 PMReply

    Disagree with notes on "Sea Gull." Simone Signoret is miscast, but Vanessa Redgrave and James Mason are the best Nina and Treplev I've seen, Warner is terrific in a nearly impossible part, and the supporting cast is very strong.

  • Mr. Arkadin | April 18, 2011 8:27 AMReply

    I really enjoyed reading this.

  • Db | April 16, 2011 7:53 AMReply

    I don't remember the morning after being *that* bad, but then again, I was probably 10 when I saw it. Also, why was I watching this movie at age 10?

  • Christopher Bell | April 16, 2011 6:33 AMReply

    Leah, if you manage to get any fun out of that one, let me know. And let me know how.

  • Leah Zak | April 16, 2011 4:06 AMReply

    I realize that the reviewer's intention was not to generate MORE interest in "The Morning After" ... but on that premise alone, I just upped it to #1 on my Netflix Queue.

  • Leah Zak | April 16, 2011 2:14 AMReply

    Ha, I will Chris. But when it comes to 80s-era cinema, I just can't get enough vaseline-lensed dinner dates and young Jeff Bridges-es -- so I have a feeling I'mgonnaloveit.

  • Beats | April 15, 2011 11:13 AMReply

    Awesome writeup! I love it. Lumet was one of my first big inspirations to become a filmmaker, and this is a fitting, beefy tribute to a man with a beefy body of work.

  • Erik McClanahan | April 15, 2011 7:53 AMReply

    Thanks Tabb. Made the change.

  • Tabb | April 15, 2011 7:48 AMReply

    Note: Rod Steiger did not win an Oscar for ON THE WATERFRONT as noted above. Edmond O'Brien won that year for THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA. Steiger won only for IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.

  • jimmiescoffee | April 15, 2011 5:28 AMReply

    absolutely amazing body of work. nice write up. however, 'fugitive kind' is a better than that.

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