Sidney Lumet has died
, one of the most respected directors in Hollywood.
Like many of his contemporaries, he first gained notice in TV, in the days when there was live drama coming out of New York. It was a natural step to movies, and Lumet's TV experience helped make him a director who knew how to shoot quickly. (Pauline Kael in her fascinating if nasty piece on the making of Lumet's The Group
said he worked too quickly--he'd hardly get done with a shot before he was ready to move on. She also asked him about the transition from child actor to director. He gave a long explanation and she wrote down "too short.")
Right off the bat he made something special-12 Angry Men
(1957), starring Henry Fonda and a bunch of great character actors. Originally a television drama, it's the story of how the conscience, and conscientousness, of one man sways the rest of a jury. Citics liked the film, but though it was low budget, it was also low on thrills and locations, and was not a hit. In fact, Lumet would be associated with (Hollywood's idea of) smart films and rarely created major hits. But he kept working. The film was nominated for Best Picture and Lumet was nominated for Best Director. His career as a film director was set.
It's easy to claim the film is dated--the jurors are all white males, for instance--except I'd say the kind of programmatic drama, so common at the time, with each person a type, and a pre-ordained end that teaches us a valuable lesson, was never that good. I will say, though, if nothing else, the basic plot has become a staple ever since on sitcoms.
Lumet got to shoot a more conventional drama in 1958 with Stage Struck
--a misguided remake of the film that won Katharine Hepburn her first Oscar, Morning Glory
. Truth is, the original wasn't much and there wasn't any point in trying again. (I really do like a lot of old films, honest.) In 1959, he made Tennessee William's The Fugitive Kind
, not one of Marlon Brando's better films. (In fact, it was the beginning over more than a decade of flops for Brando.)
In the 60s, he hit his stride. He made Long Day's Journey Into Night
(1962), a respectable adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's great play, The Pawnbroker
(1964), starring Rod Steiger as a concentration camp survivor with repressed emotions living in modern-day New York and Fail-Safe
(1964), a tale of the Cold War becoming hot.
We're starting to see a pattern here--serious subjects and powerful emotions. The stark, black and white cinematography (often by Boris Kaufman) helps create the mood. They're certainly prestige projects--they get Oscar nominations, even if they don't make big money. And for my taste, they tend to be a little too in love with their seriousness.
For the rest of the 60s, I think Lumet opened up a bit, and for the better. The Hill
(1965) is a decent film about a British prison camp in WWII, starring Sean Connery, who'd gotten time off for good behavior from the James Bond films. Then there's Pauline Kael's favorite, The Group
(1966) a delirious adaptation (in color!) of a bestselling novel, a film that moves so quickly from one plot to the next (after all, it's about a group) to develop anything deeply, but is still kind of fun anyway. And in Bye Bye Braverman
(1968), we have an oddly-toned, highly Jewish comedy about four friends attending a funeral of a fifth that's still one of Lumet's most fascinating pieces.
It's the 70s where Lumet made the films he's probably best remembered for. In 1971, there's The Anderson Tapes
, a crime film that verges on comedy--it's one of the first of that decade's paranoid movies about how we're all under surveillance. Then, in 1973, we've got Al Pacino's cop with a conscience in Serpico
. In 1974, we've got the all-star Agatha Christie romp Murder On The Orient Express
Lumet got his second Best Director nomination for Dog Day Afternoon
(1975), about a standoff at a bank heist, featuring a tour de force performance from Al Pacino. Next year, another Oscar nomination for helming Network,
perhaps his most respected film. (Sorry, I don't buy it. I recognize the Paddy Chayefsky screenplay is satrical comedy, but it's always struck me as overdone and essentially ridiculous.)
Lumet even tried a musical in 1978--The Wiz
. Alas, his sensibility worked best with gritty New York settings, not an eased-on-down road to Oz.
From the 80s onward, his films were hit and miss, and usually less notable. He got some respect (and another Oscar nomination) for Prince Of The City
(1981) though it felt to me with a cop exposing corruption that we'd been here before. He made a respectable if little seen adaptation of Broadway thriller Deathtrap
in 1982, which featured a kiss between two men--a rarity at the time. In The Verdict
(1982), Paul Newman played a lawyer who's seen better days yet puts it all together for a great and noble case.
was a hit, and got nominated for a bunch of Oscars, including Lumet's fifth and final competitive nod. (He never won, but was given an honorary statuette in 2005.) While it features some good performances, I've always found the story overheated and manipulative. In any case, Lumet's career had nowhere to go but down. He continued to make the kinds of films he'd been associated with, but for the last quarter century of his career, never really had another hit, and rarely received the same sort of critical reception.
Not that he didn't make some interesting films. Garbo Talks
in 1984, isn't very good, but I'm amazed it got made at all. It's a story starring Anne Bancroft as an old leftist who learns she's got a terminal disease and decides she wants to meet Greta Garbo. This should win a contest for least commercial concept ever. Let's see. Annoying protagonist? Check. Lead dies? Check. Plot and title about a a figure from the past no one cares about, or knows, any more. Check.
Also weak was the murder mystery The Morning After
(1986), starring Jane Fonda as an alcoholic actress and Jeff Bridges as an ex-cop. The problem was the paucity of characters. Not good when there are two suspects in a whodunnit. Eliminate the most likely one and you've found the killer. Speaking of casting, Family Business
(1989) was generally regarded as ridiculous because no one bought Sean Connery as the grandfather, Dustin Hoffman as the father and Matthew Broderick as the son.
Not that Lumet was always misfiring. I thought Running On Empty
(1988), about 60s radicals still on the run in 80s, with kids in tow, was one of his best. But as his career continued into the 90s, the films were even less notable. Some critics liked Q & A
(1990), but it seemed like yet another police drama. A Stranger Among Us
(1992) has the Witness
plot with a tough female cop going undercover in the Hasidic community, but Melanie Griffith's weak performance combined with Lumet's idealized view of Jewish life make the film absurd.
Night Falls In Manhattan
(1997) was yet another film about corruption in the NYPD (they must have hated Lumet). Critical Care
(1997) was a satire on American medicine that seemed like a retread of The Hospital
. Find Me Guilty
(2006) was based on the longest Mafia trial, and is notable in that it had trouble getting a release.
Lumet did go out well. His last film, Before The Devil Knows Your Dead
(2007), may not have been a hit, but it made a lot of critics' top ten lists. It's a family drama about a crime that goes wrong, and the tragic consequences that follow. As so often with Lumet, I think it's a bit overdone, but the film does have undeniable power.
Lumet also put out a book in the 90s, Making Movies
, which is full of useful technical advice, and does communicate his passion for film.
Looking back on his career, I don't know if he had a style so much as certain themes he liked. Though there are notable exceptions, his films are often gritty, realistic dramas set in New York, generally with a social conscience. I wouldn't say he has a light touch, but sometimes that works--he let's his actors have big moments, which can lead to scenery chewing, but also to memorable moments.
His work was, overall, a bit too earnest for me, but there's no question he was a committed filmmaker involved in many interesting projects. And he's certainly a guy who aimed high.