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Critic's Notebook: Despite His Best Efforts, Sidney Lumet Was a Brilliant Stylist

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 9, 2011 at 10:14AM

On the surface, Sidney Lumet was not a personal filmmaker, but he made intensely personal movies. Everyone has their favorite moments: The remarkably contained drama of "12 Angry Men," the fury of facing a corrupt justice system in "Serpico" and the uncertain nature of a hostage scenario in "Dog Day Afternoon" maintain central roles in the memory banks of American pop culture. These fierce, enthralling works contain sharp moralistic stances that imbue them with timelessness, but they also resist categorization. In the wake of his death today at the age of 86, Lumet didn't leave a mark; he left several.
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On the surface, Sidney Lumet was not a personal filmmaker, but he made intensely personal movies. Everyone has their favorite moments: The remarkably contained drama of "12 Angry Men," the fury of facing a corrupt justice system in "Serpico" and the uncertain nature of a hostage scenario in "Dog Day Afternoon" maintain central roles in the memory banks of American pop culture. These fierce, enthralling works contain sharp moralistic stances that imbue them with timelessness, but they also resist categorization. In the wake of his death today at the age of 86, Lumet didn't leave a mark; he left several.

Beginning with "12 Angry Men" in 1957, Lumet made movies for five decades straight. Rather than slowly developing his approach, he reinvented it each time. As times changed and new filmmakers continually challenged storytelling conventions, Lumet's career remained steady. His background in theater and television turned him into a dedicated craftsman schooled in multiple forms of dramaturgy, yielding a capacity for uncovering the emotional core of any given story that entered his domain.

Unlike Frank Capra, John Ford or contemporary filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, no single quality can describe the entire range of Lumet's creations. Fully appreciating his output requires a microscopic approach that scrutinizes the differences between each of his movies. He generally avoided comedies, but humor crept into much of his work. He never dabbled in horror, but often dissected the scarier aspects of the human condition. The demands of story transcended the boundaries of genre, but he still excelled at traditional storytelling. Above all else, he wanted to put on a good show.

Anything could happen in a Sidney Lumet picture. Despite the satiric edge of "Network" that invited disdain from many early audiences, it still won an Oscar for Beatrice Straight, whose five-minute scene displayed a heartbreaking portrayal of marital frustration. The tense early scenes of "Dog Day Afternoon" suddenly turn humorous when Al Pacino's bank robber vainly struggles in the middle of a bank to undo the tightly wound wrapping paper and reveal his weapon. "The Pawnbroker" deals with post-Holocaust trauma while also grappling with themes of racism and urban discontent. Many considered Lumet a quintessential New York director, although his depiction of the city varied from project to project.

As Lumet's career predated the era of directors who also became stars, such as Martin Scorsese and later Quentin Tarantino, he never took a journeyman's approach. Each movie spoke in specific terms, so he evaded questions about any definitive statements in his work. In a 2007 video interview with Lumet, recently posted by The New York Times, he issues a sublime response when asked how he would like to be remembered after his death. "I don't give a shit," he says, a refrain consistent with his speech at the 2005 Academy Awards, when he received an Oscar for lifetime achievement: "I'd like to thank the movies," he said. It wasn't about the man behind the camera, but rather whether the decisions he made succeeded in the final product. In Lumet's case, they often did.

"Good style, to me, is unseen style," he wrote in his essential 1995 book "Making Movies," a detailed how-to guide to filmmaking that doubled as his showbiz memoir. Defiantly anti-auteur, Lumet was a walking contradiction, doggedly opposed to leaving an imprint on his work but nevertheless creating some of the more sensational moments in American cinema.

Consider the tearful breakdown at the conclusion of "12 Angry Men," the unnerving hand-on-spike moment in "The Pawnbroker" or the stomach-churning crane shot that sweeps down toward Paul Newman as the jury announces its decision in "The Verdict." Beyond camera trickery, Lumet had intense ethical convictions, which explains why "Serpico" and "Prince of the City" make such compelling cop dramas. It also explains the pathos of a family on the lam in "Running on Empty," his last masterpiece. In the under-appreciated "Bye Bye Braverman," the postwar Jewish-American experience--as manifested in a trio of jaded baby boomers--comes to life in sharply naturalistic exchanges. These movies are alive with the intricacies of human behavior, a result of Lumet's fluency in film form. He was, in short, a stylist against his best efforts.

In his later years, Lumet made fewer great movies, but while becoming a figure of the past he maintained a clear grasp on the future. His take on the art and business of filmmaking sounded a lot more modern than that of many younger directors. This was a guy who acted in the Yiddish theater during the Great Depression and shot live television in the 1950s, yet could easily wax poetic on the merits of shooting digital video instead of film, and spent the last page of his book comparing the box office receipts of "Batman Returns" and "My Life as a Dog."

Just four years ago, Lumet managed an extraordinary comeback with the Oscar-nominated crime caper "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," which hit theaters the year that "12 Angry Men" celebrated its 50th anniversary. Both movies dealt with the justice system in provocative shades of gray, proving he had not lost his touch. As "Devil" began its Oscar campaign, Lumet signed a three-picture deal that sadly never came to fruition. Even in his twilight years, he was still going strong. His legacy shows no sign of letting up.