R.I.P. director Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)
To be honest, I’m guessing there’s a good chance you just asked “who?” Had the name above read Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, or Martin Scorsese, I imagine that would not have been the case. And although he was one of the most prolific and celebrated film directors in the history of cinema, having directed over 70 movies and shows, Sidney Lumet’s death from lymphoma on April 9 at age 87 came with far less fanfare and adoration than the passing of many of his contemporaries over the years. We just lost a legend here, people. And to loosely quote his award-winning film Network, “we…will…atone.”
Sidney Lumet began his career in early childhood, following in the family tradition. Both his parents were prominent in New York theatre circles in the 1920s, and by age 4, he was already taking small roles on Broadway and on radio. He made his film acting debut at age 15. After spending three years in the army during World War 2, Lumet returned to New York City to begin his adult career, immediately creating an Off-Broadway group and becoming its director. After many successful shows, he began working in the new medium of television in 1950, becoming an assistant to his friend and then-director Yul Brynner. He developed a lightning quick style of shooting due to the constrained schedules and high turnover required by television, and in turn, made over 200 episodes of various popular shows of that time, including Playhouse 90 and Danger.
Lumet’s fast paced approach to shooting combined with his refined ability to instruct actors (learned in the theatre) made him a natural filmmaker. In 1959 he directed his first movie, an adaptation of the play 12 Angry Men, starring Henry Fonda. The film, taking place entirely in a cramped courthouse jury room around a single table, chronicles the showdown over a murder case between Fonda’s cool-headed, logical juror and the bitter, selfish, and irrational jurors around him. It was an alarming and tense examination of both the flaws of the legal system and the faults of the individuals who control it. Lumet’s call for rational humanism over reactionary anger was radical for conservative, Eisenhower-era America, and the film was nominated for three Academy Awards.
From that point forward, Lumet literally never stopped directing. He averaged almost a movie a year for the rest of his life, finishing his last film in 2007. Called “every performer’s dream” by actress Ali MacGraw, his talent with actors led him to work with some of the biggest names in cinema history, including Marlon Brando, James Mason, Ingrid Bergman, Richard Burton, Sophia Lauren, Paul Newman, William Holden, Katherine Hepburn, Sean Connery, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and Faye Dunaway. Roger Ebert called his book, Making Movies, one of the most important ever written on the subject of directing. Throughout his career no fewer than 14 of his films were nominated for various Oscars – a rare achievement. In 2005, he was given the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Jane Fonda said of Lumet, “He was a master. Such control of his craft. He had strong, progressive values, in both his approach to life and his approach to art. He never betrayed them.”
As in all art forms, masters come and go. In cinema great directors break ground and pave the way for future directors. Sidney Lumet leaves us an amazing body of work that will be examined, debated, and loved for decades to come. He once said, “While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film in which I believe goes one step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of their own lives. It stimulates thought, gets the mind flowing, and starts deep conversations among people.” And so it shall be. Here’s a quick list of 8 more landmark films from this cinematic legend that should not be missed. Watch. Discuss. Repeat. Sidney would want it that way.
LONG DAYS JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (1962) – Based on Eugene O’Neil’s award-winning play about a young writer dealing with his drug-addled, dysfunctional family, the film won multiple awards, including an Oscar nomination for Katherine Hepburn as the self-destructive matriarch.
THE PAWNBROKER (1964) – One of the first films to address the problems of survivors of Nazi concentration camps of World War 2, the film follows the emotional and professional collapse of a Jewish pawn shop owner as flashbacks from his wartime traumas begin to spill over into his New York ghetto life. Rod Steiger is heart-breaking in the title role, and Morgan Freeman makes his first film appearance.
FAIL-SAFE (1965) – Often overshadowed by Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war satire, Dr. Strangelove, released the same year, Lumet presents a searing and bleak portrait of an accidental nuclear holocaust. American planes have been sent to bomb Moscow, but it’s all a mistake due to an electrical malfunction. Henry Fonda stars as the American president who desperately tries to avert an all-out war.
SERPICO (1973) – Al Pacino gives an explosive performance as Frank Serpico in this true story about the one honest New York cop who blew the whistle on rampant corruption in the police department only to find his former comrades turn against him. One of the definitive films of the 1970s which set the standard for the harsh realism that filled cinema of that decade.
DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975) – This film features Pacino in the best role of his career as a desperate New York bank robber who gets in over his head, turning a hostage situation into a full blown media circus. Based on the true story and often considered one of the definitive comments on New York, the film was nominated for 7 Oscars, including Best Picture. Pacino screaming “Attica! Attica!” at the growing crowds outside (in reference to mistreatment by police officers at Attica prison) is considered one of the greatest lines in movie history, and it was completely improvised!
NETWORK (1976) – Often considered Lumet’s masterpiece, the film is a devastating look at media corruption. When TV anchor Howard Beale becomes deranged and begins delivering apocalyptic rants and revelations on the air, the network cynically exploits him for profit and ratings. Literally decades ahead of its time, Lumet presents a nightmarish television landscape, where truth is irrelevant, enlightenment is sold between commercials, murder is good business, and terrorism has become entertainment. Sound familiar? Nominated for 10 Oscars, it won acting awards for Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, and Beatrice Straight, and was unfairly beaten by Rocky for Best Picture. Chilling and brilliant.
THE VERDICT (1982) – Paul Newman stars as a drunk, down-on-his-luck lawyer, who after years of dodging court through settlements, sees a chance to salvage his career and his self-respect when he decides to take a medical malpractice case to trial. Nominated for 8 Academy awards, the film set the standard for the now common court procedural and directly inspired the creation of Law & Order.
BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD (2007) – Lumet’s final film is also one of his best, as Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play brothers who, out of desperation, decide to rob their own parents’ jewelry store with disastrous results. This film is haunting, disturbing, and breathtaking, with an incredibly fearless performance from Marisa Tomei.
Rest in peace, Sidney Lumet. You made celluloid magic.
Matt Martin has written movie reviews for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and is co-owner of Black Lodge Video, located on the corner of Cooper and Evelyn. Black Lodge is the largest video store in the eastern US and is a faithful CYCA membership sponsor.