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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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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]

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


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