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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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Night Falls In Manhattan" (1996)
The third in Lumet's trilogy of self-penned efforts about corruption in New York is, unfortunately the less of them by quite some way. The film has a pulpier take on the subject matter than either "Prince of the City" or "Q&A," thanks to Richard Daley's source material, and while the director approaches it with his usual sincerity, the contrivances of the plot, which involves an assistant DA (Andy Garcia) prosecuting a drug dealer who shot his cop father (Ian Holm), still shine through. More importantly, Garcia isn't as strong a lead as his predecessors, miscast and sometimes overplaying the role a little. But still, the James Ellroy-style scope is admirable, and Lumet has as keen an eye and ear for the city, and the people in it, as he's ever had. As ever, the supporting cast is full of the best character actors around, and as disappointing as Garcia, and Lena Olin as his lover, are, the fine performances of Holm, James Gandolfini and, in particular, Richard Dreyfuss, make up for it. It might not be top-rate Lumet, considering the high standards he set himself in this genre alone, but we'd still take this over a thousand corrupt cop movies from, say, David Ayer. [C+]

Find Me Guilty” (2006)
Buried underneath what at the time was an avalanche of love for Lumet in the wake of the Thalberg Award at the Oscars, this low-key dramedy was regarded as an odd duck by distributors, who quietly had this in and out of theaters before anyone noticed. And while it’s decidedly off-product material from the director of several classics, “Find Me Guilty” manages to be oddly touching. A highly improbable true story, “Find Me Guilty” features Vin Diesel as mobster Jackie DiNorscio, placed on trial and pressured to sell out his associates. Instead, DiNorscio refuses to turn rat, becoming his own legal representative in a case that would stretch on for an unprecedented 21 months. Despite the absurdity of the case and the larger-than-life persona of life-of-the-party DiNorscio, Lumet shoots the material in a clipped, professional manner, allowing the actors to do the heavy lifting. And they step up to the task, with the mismatched pair of Diesel (who wears several extra pounds and a wig) and the diminutive Peter Dinklage (as a beleaguered defense attorney) generating a surprising amount of chemistry. “Find Me Guilty” feels episodic and disjointed, as if there was some sloppy last minute tinkering in the editing suite that went unfinished, but it has all the traits of Lumet’s earlier films, in its clear-eyed portrayal of criminal misconduct and warm human comedy. [B-]

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" (2007)
It's frankly staggering to think that Lumet was able to start his career with a stone-cold classic like "12 Angry Men" and to top it off, a full half-century later, with a film as terrific and alive as "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." Released when the helmer was 83, the film (shot digitally, with Lumet predicting that film would soon be rendered obsolete) feels like it could have come from a director a quarter of his age -- except we can't think of a twenty-something who could have assembled a cast of the calibre of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Rosemary Harris, Brian F. O Byrne, Michael Shannon and Amy Ryan, or extracted such tremendous performances from every one of them. Lumet invests his seedy, twisty little genre tale (from a script from playwright Kelly Masterson) about two brothers hard-up for cash who fatefully decide to rob their parents' jewelery store with the heft of a Greek tragedy; as an investigation of the bad decisions that bad people make, it's second to none. It proved too grubby for many, but as far as we're concerned, it's close to a miracle. [A]

And The Rest: As we said, we simply didn't have the time or space to fit everything in, even without mentioning that some of his lesser known films are tricky to get hold of. So what did we miss? There's the theatrical melodrama "Stage Struck," Lumet's poorly received sophomore feature, a remake of the Katharine Hepburn vehicle "Morning Glory," which toplined Henry Fonda and a young Christopher Plummer. It was swiftly followed by "That Kind of Woman," a wartime romance starring Sophia Loren, which saw something of an upswing -- being nominated for the Golden Bear at Berlin.

"A View From the Bridge," sometimes known as "Vu du Pont," an adaptation of one of Arthur Miller's very best plays, came between great versions of other top flight American playwrights, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill, but never quite got the same cachet as those films. "The Group" in 1966, and "Bye Bye Braverman" in 1968 were both films that Lumet felt suffered from a lack of lightness of touch from him, although the latter, from what we remember, isn't bad at all.

1969's "The Appointment," meanwhile, was a film that Lumet admitted he only took because he wanted to learn how to shoot in color, despite a terrible story -- only taking it if he was able to use Antonioni's DoP Carlo Di Palma. He went back to the Tennessee Williams well, with less success than "The Fugitive Kind," for "Last of the Mobile Hot Shots," an adaptation of the writer's "The Seven Descents of Myrtle" with a script by Gore Vidal, no less. He also co-directed the Martin Luther King documentary "King: A Filmed Record... Montgomery to Memphis" in the same year.

"Child's Play" was an adaptation of the Broadway thriller and was initially meant to team the director with Brando, who dropped out in a fit of ego over the size of co-star James Mason's role. It's generally seen as one of Lumet's worst pictures and has never been released on either video or DVD in the U.S. "Lovin' Molly" came in the same year as "Murder on the Orient Express," an adaptation of a Larry McMurtry novel, intended to cash in on the success of "The Last Picture Show," even to the extent of casting Beau Bridges, the brother of that film's star, Jeff. As you might have guessed, it came nowhere close.

"The Wiz" is perhaps the best known film we haven't written up -- a big budget musical remake of "The Wizard of Oz" starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Richard Pryor. It's best known for bringing Jackson together with Quincy Jones for the first time, but the film itself is mostly undone by a terrible script, by no less than Joel Schumacher. It was followed by another flop, the Ali MacGraw comedy "Just Tell Me What You Want" -- Lumet always fared less well with comedy.

His final stage adaptation was the thriller "Deathtrap," an enjoyably twisty thriller starring Christopher Reeve and Michael Caine. 1984's "Garbo Talks!" was another awkward attempt at comedy, with a slightly curious cast led by Anne Bancroft, Ron Silver and Carrie Fisher.

And then came the 1990s, for the most part somewhat lean years for Lumet. Both Hasidic Jewish thriller "A Stranger Among Us," with a horrendously miscast Melanie Griffith and the aforementioned "Guilty As Sin" were seemingly strictly paycheck gigs, and should be treated as such. Medical satire "Critical Care" is seen as being slightly better, with an impressive cast including James Spader, Albert Brooks, Kyra Sedgwick, Jeffrey Wright and Helen Mirren, but there's a reason you've probably never heard of it -- it's on Netflix Instant, if you're curious. He closed out the 1990s with the entirely redundant "Gloria," a remake of the John Cassavetes/Gena Rowlands film, with Sharon Stone.

And then came the 21st century, which saw Lumet return to TV for the first time in decades. He co-created the legal drama "100 Centre Street," a series on A&E that toplined Alan Arkin and Bobby Cannavale, and was generally well received, although it only lasted two seasons. He later teamed with "Oz" writer Tom Fontana for the HBO movie "Strip Search," a post 9/11 drama starring Glenn Close, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ken Leung, showing that even as he entered his 80s, Lumet's conscience would never abandon him.

Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang, RP, Kevin Jagernauth, Gabe Toro, Mark Zhuravasky, Christopher Bell.

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


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