The streets of New York City have lost one of their greatest cinematic voices as legendary filmmaker Sidney Lumet has passed away at the age of 86.
Where does one even begin talking about Lumet? His body of work is littered with classics — “12 Angry Men,” “The Pawnbroker,” “Serpico,” “Network,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” — each deserving of their own article. His filmography stretches well over five decades, finding him working with a staggering array of talent including Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Paul Newman, Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall and John Gielgud and thus respectfully summarizing his career and achievements will inevitably only scratch the surface, as the director made a huge impression on both television and cinema.
Lumet got his start on the small screen as a prolific director for Playhouse 90, Kraft Television Theatre and Studio One, with his adaptation of “The Iceman Cometh,” starring Jason Robards, which is considered one of his finest works for the small screen. But he would then hit the ground running in feature films.
His first movie, “12 Angry Men,” is an undeniable classic, following the heated workings of jury members as they deliberate a murder case with one juror slowly convincing the others that the man on trial is innocent. And the thin line between law and order and the shifting morality of those involved would become an important, recurring theme for Lumet through this career. Films like “Serpico,” “The Prince Of The City,” “The Verdict,” “Q&A,” “Night Falls On Manhattan” and the television series “100 Centre Street” would investigate these themes from various, usually highly-charged points of view.
But Lumet was also a lover of good theater, using plays as the foundation for many of the films in his early career. Tennessee Williams’s “The Fugitive Kind,” Arthur Miller’s “View from the Bridge,” Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and Anton Chekhov‘s “Sea Gull” all made their way to the big screen shepherded by Lumet.
And even with all this, there are still his other crowning achievements. There’s “Network,” the scathing commentary on exploitative television that earned ten Academy Award nominations and five wins. The contained nuclear scare drama “Fail Safe,” the powerful “The Pawnbroker” about a Holocaust survivor numbed by his experiences during the war, “The Anderson Tapes” about penetrating electronic surveillance (with a great score by Quincy Jones), the star-studded “Murder On The Orient Express,” the gripping WWII prison drama “The Hill,” and hell, there’s even his flop “The Wiz” a grand scale re-telling of “The Wizard Of Oz” with Michael Jackson and Diana Ross.
It’s hard to adequately cover Lumet’s influence on the world of filmmaking. It’s pretty much impossible to watch any cop drama, law series or procedural without seeing his fingerprint somewhere. His films had an emphasis on character and an intuitive knack for turning his frequent shooting location of New York City into its own living, breathing character. And while his work frequently touched upon social issues or concerns about the system, that sense of morality never turned into a strident message; it was always about the story first.
Lumet was nominated for Best Director four times, and Best Screenplay once, never winning, but he earned an honorary Oscar from the Academy in 2005. He will be greatly missed. [NY Times]