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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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Equus" (1977)
Already a treasured stage production when Lumet took it on, "Equus" saw Peter Shaffer move beyond the confines of the stage to the screen, aided by Lumet's ever-present grasp of the minutia that defines, and sometimes resuscitates, the limitation of everyday life. Richard Burton and Peter Firth square off as a psychiatrist and a pathological horse mutilator, respectively and Lumet makes a brave choice to show the animal violence effectively enough that it still startles today. A potent mix of drama and horror, you could argue that at first, "Equus" looms outside Lumet's ouvre. This writer's advice: take another look at the master's final film, "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead". The man knew what all of us are scared to unearth, buried deep underneath. [B+]

Prince of the City” (1981)
While “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon” tend to get all the love whenever Lumet’s name is mentioned, for their gritty approach and New York City vibe, no film is perhaps more underrated in his canon than “Prince of the City.” Originally premiering on TV in a sprawling 196-minute version (still unreleased) and eventually hitting DVD in a theatrical length 167-minute version, the power of the film is no less diminished. Starring Treat Williams (who got the role after Al Pacino turned it down) it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part -- his fresh faced naivete is crucial in playing Daniel Ciello, a cop who slowly realizes his department is knee deep in corruption and who reluctantly agrees to become a turncoat against his colleagues. With nearly three hours to stretch out and tell the story, Lumet slowly builds the film to a bristling, fever pitch, aided by an excellent supporting cast that features Jerry Orbach, Bob Balaban and a bunch of great character actors who lend the film a vibrant authenticity. A hands-down must see alongside Lumet’s more well known works, “Prince of the City” is simply one of the best police procedurals ever made, a textbook example and benchmark for the genre. [A]

The Verdict” (1982)
A moody and intense court room drama, while many parts of “The Verdict” feel hackneyed these days -- lawyerly grandstanding and yelling, boiler plate legal thriller tropes, etc. -- Lumet’s third film of the 1980s (yes, he was clocking one a year and made 10 films that decade, two of which came out in 1986) is still one of the many jewels in his oeuvre crown and was extremely well-regarded during its day, which speaks to its relevance at the time (it was nominated for 5 Oscars, including Best Director, Actor, Picture and Screenplay). Centering on a grizzled, alcoholic lawyer (yet another solid Paul Newman turn), the film centers on his attempts at redemption and clearing his tarnished professional reputation as he transforms from hack ambulance chasing attorney to a righteous defender when a egregious malpractice case that lands a woman in a vegetative state for life triggers a spark in him. One of the elements that helps this picture rise above court-room cliches is David Mamet’s powerful script (one reinstated after several rewrites when Lumet came on board), and Newman is gifted some tremendous monologues as a result. Co-starring the great avuncular character actor Jack Warden, James Mason, Milo O'Shea, and Lindsay Crouse, the picture can be a little awkwardly dated -- there’s some minor early suspension of disbelief elements with Charlotte Rampling’s character which are explained later, but don’t feel quite right regardless -- while “The Verdict” in retrospect is perhaps not in Lumet’s top 5 all-time films, it is still yet another example of his finely-crafted morality tales, and more than worth a second look. [B]

Daniel" (1983)
This adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's 1971 novel "The Book of Daniel" was something of a passion project, for both Lumet and the novelist, who wrote the screenplay adaptation himself. A critical and commercial failure, the film is seen as one of Lumet's biggest disappointments, and yet the director always considered it one of his favorite films. So, well-intentioned disaster or hidden gem? The answer is somewhere in between. Following the titular Daniel, the son of a Jewish couple convicted of spying for the Soviet Union, and executed (based heavily on the Rosenbergs), the film was rather misunderstood, criticized for its ambiguity regarding Daniel's parents and their possible treason -- but it was very much Lumet and Doctorow's intention, the film riffing on the idea of 'the sins of the father,' and the relative complexity holds up well today. The performances are, as ever, very strong, with Timothy Hutton fresh off "Ordinary People," Mandy Patinkin and Lindsay Crouse particularly good as the parents, and an excellent early performance from a young Amanda Plummer. But at the same time, the film is uneven and overstretched, trying to cover the whole scope of the novel, and feeling a little thin in places as a result. Still, it doesn't deserve to have been forgotten in the way that it's been. [C+]

Power" (1986)
Another unjustly neglected picture, "Power" is yet another remarkably prescient film from Lumet, taking a cynical look at the world of political media consultants, as embodied by Pete St. John (Richard Gere, in a somewhat unfortunate mustache). Perhaps the closest that the director ever came to returning to the subject matter of "Network" and while it's barely a shadow of that picture (Chayefsky's wit is sorely missed -- the film is a little dour), yet another exceptional cast, also including Julie Christie, Gene Hackman and a very early role for Denzel Washington -- again showing Lumet's eye for talent -- act their little socks off. Gere in particular has rarely had as good a role since -- and he plays beautifully with both Hackman and Christie. It loses its way in the second half, feeling a little aimless, and the very end is a bit blunt, but"Power" is more of a character study than anything else, and it remains a thoroughly absorbing film, one that's become more relevant than ever in the passing years. [B-]

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


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