Monday, April 11, 2011

Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)

Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)
Sorry for posting so late about this great filmmaker. Sometimes you want to write so much and it's hard to meet the deadline.

Three weeks ago, Elizabeth Taylor - one of cinema's greatest in-front-of-the-camera talents - passed away. On Saturday morning, one of cinema's greatest behind-the-camera talents left us a well. Lumet, an incredibly accomplished and astonishingly prolific filmmaker, made movies for six decades and was responsible for some of the most Earth-shattering cinematic experiences this humble little blogger has ever had. I was shocked to find out that I'd only gotten around to seeing nine of his films in my life. Perhaps it felt like so much more because I've seen all of them (save for one) so many times. Perhaps an unfortunate run of mostly forgettable films in the late 80's and 90's has caused Lumet's name to fall out of the pantheon that included Scorcese and Coppola, but it's hard not to argue that Lumet's peak was not right up there with his greatest peers. If there is one consistent part to all of Lumet's films, it's a love for explosive drama and pyrotechnic-like acting, but his films never managed to feel over-the-top, even when they were the very definition of it.

Lumet did a lot of his early work in television, directing episodes for various television programs such as the murder mystery drama Danger and the historical re-enactment program You Are There. His breakthrough in movies came in 1957 when he released his debut feature, 12 Angry Men. It was nominated four three Oscars (Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay) and contained a phenomenal collection of performances from some of the top actors of the time. The story of jury meeting, it recalls how one lonely juror (played by Henry Fonda) is able to convince the other eleven men in the jury (to name a few from the stupendous cast: Martin Balsam, Jack Warden, and Lee J. Cobb) that a young teenager is not guilty of murder. The film was a powerful statement from the rookie director, showing his ability to handle incredible talent and hold tension and interest in a 96 minute film that takes place in real time.

Henry Fonda's turn in 12 Angry Men still stands amongst his greatest screen work.

And Lumet never stopped working with powerful acting talent. In 1959, he directed Italian movie star Sophia Loren in That Kind of Woman and a year later, a young Marlon Brando in The Fugitive Kind.  It was his 1962 film, though, that solidified his status as a filmmaker that all actors wanted to work with. He tackled Eugene O'Neill's legendary stage play Long Day's Journey Into Night, and cast it with Jason Robards, Dean Stockwell, Ralph Richardson, and the already legendary Katherine Hepburn. Filming without a screenplay - Lumet used the O'Neill's play as the film's script - Lumet allows the film to stretch into a 174-minute exercise in dialogue and stupendous acting. Hepburn got a much deserved Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the drug-addicted matriarch of the troubled Tyrone family, and the film established Lumet as having one of cinema's biggest pair of balls. Lumet had many other hit films from the 60's, including the Sean Connery, WWII film The Hill and the groundbreaking Rod Steiger-led picture The Pawnbroker (which comes off as incredibly dated today, but was important for being one of the first mainstream films to deal with Holocaust survivors, as well as being the first film to receive the Production Code seal while also having nudity).

Lumet had what was arguably his greatest streak of films in the 1970's, beginning in 1973 with Serpico, his first of two combinations with Al Pacino. Sure, Serpico is much more of cultural phenomenon than it is a great movie, but it does contain a forceful performance from Pacino and some of Lumet's most daring filmmaking. A year later, he adapted the Agatha Christie novel, Murder on the Orient Express. A sharp turn from the gritty, documentary style of Serpico, Orient Express was a period piece, murder mystery with a vast list of unique characters. Albert Finney (as Christie mainstay, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot) led another impressive cast that included Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, John Gielgud, and Ingrid Bergman (in an Oscar winning performance).

In 1975, Lumet directed Dog Day Afternoon, his other collaboration with Al Pacino. It tells the "true" story of a run-down New Yorker (Pacino) who decides to rob a bank with his troubled friend (John Cazale) in order to pay for a sex change operation for his lover. When everything in their plan falls apart, the situation turns into a stand-off/hostage situation with the police, quickly evolving into a circus sideshow, all caught on television cameras and broadcasted across the city. The film was huge hit, getting nominated for seven Academy Awards (and won one for Frank Pierson's funny but tragic screenplay) and gaining Pacino worldwide acclaim for his frazzled portrayal of the poor man's bank robber with his back against the wall. It is career-defining work for Pacino, a gold highlight in a career filled with excellent performances, and with Lumet's immediate, personal direction, the film's twisted underdog tale connected with audiences and continues to do so today.

Peter Finch died just days before winning the Oscar for his incredible performance in Network.

There are many who thought Dog Day Afternoon was Lumet's peak, so how did he respond? The very next year, he made a film that was even better. The Paddy Chayefsky-penned Network, a scathing satire  about a struggling television program and it's demented head newsman. Chayefsky's sickly funny screenplay won an Academy Award, by writing the story of Howard Beale (an Oscar-winning turn from Peter Finch) a man who is "as mad as hell and not going to take it anymore". But it was Lumet who tells this story, and while there is nothing that is spectacularly cinematic in Network, Lumet was once again able to show his excellent ability to manage a large and accomplished cast (including stellar work from William Holden, Robert Duvall, and a Best Actress winning Faye Dunaway). Network has become one of the most important films in American cinema, almost perfectly predicting the degeneration of American television media from thoughtful and insightful, to empty segments pandering for ratings. Chayefsky is the one who usually gets the credit for it, but Lumet deserves a whole lot more for standing back and letting the script and the actors tell the story. Other filmmakers may not have been so patient, and the film would not have been as good.

In the later part of the decade, Lumet made Equus (which garnered its lead star Richard Burton his final Oscar nomination), and then The Wiz, the cult favorite and Afro-centric re-visualization of The Wizard of Oz. He would not have another hit film until 1982, with The Verdict, a very downplayed tale of a run-down lawyer (played with precise grittiness by Paul Newman) who gets the case of a lifetime. The film was nominated for five Oscars (Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor - James Mason, Best Actor - Newman, and Best Picture), and even though it lost all of them, The Verdict has gone down as some of the best work from both Newman and Lumet. After this, it seems that his prolific style harmed his stock in the pantheon, as he made a film just about every two years. While a few of those films were very good (Running On Empty), many of them were disappointing flops (Guilty as Sin, A Stranger Among Us). Lumet did have one last push in him, making the much talked about Before The Devil Knows You're Dead in 2007, his final film. I was not as big a fan of the film as others were, but it was a sharp reminder of what Lumet was always capable of: a dark, twisted melodrama filled with excellent performances.

Sidney Lumet never won the Oscar himself himself, despite all his achievements, though he was awarded the Honorary Oscar in 2005. It's hard to say what made Lumet stand out as a filmmaker, because what made him so great had very little to do with the camera. Lumet never tried to deconstruct his stories cinematically. He didn't have Scorsese's dynamic eye or Spielberg's gift for attempting the impossible. Coming from television, Lumet seemed to believe that the characters tell the story and it was his job to stay out of the way. Perhaps this is why, when you look through his IMDb resume, you see a lot more underperforming disappointments than seminal achievements. But few filmmakers have ever made films as good as Network and Dog Day Afternoon, and then say that their "secondary works" were as big 12 Angry Men, The Pawnbroker, or The Verdict. The loss of Sidney Lumet is a sad one, if not an altogether surprising one (he was very old at 86 and very sick). There have been few as committed to filmmaking as he, and there are few that have left the stamp that he has placed on American cinema. Here's a clip from Dog Day Afternoon just to get your blood boiling:

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