Sidney Lumet was my favorite indie-film director before I knew there was such a thing. I was in the seventh grade when I saw “12 Angry Men” from a metal folding chair inside Wesley Hall, as a special feature for my Sunday evening youth group. (The leader was a lawyer who liked to teach justice and morality.) At the time, black-and-white movies projected from rickety reel-to-reels were avatars of boredom; they connoted Things That Were Good For You. My heart sank even further when I was told the whole movie took place in one room.
By the end of the night, not only was I convinced that “12 Angry Men” was the best movie I’d ever seen, I’d also realized that a film’s ability to captivate did not lie in its proportionate attention to movie stars, explosions, stunning visuals or seating comfort. That, in fact, there was something even cooler about a movie that succeeded when it didn’t have any of those things.
Of course, “12 Angry Men” was not exactly an indie film; it was a United Artists release, one that came out the same year as the studio’s “Witness for the Prosecution,” “Sweet Smell of Success” and “Paths of Glory.” (That said, an awful lot of UA’s 65 releases in 1957 were titles like “The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown,” “Jungle Heat,” “Pharaoh’s Curse” and “Voodoo Island.”)
However, “12 Angry Men” sure acted like an indie film. It had the dubious distinction of being one of UA’s lowest-grossing movies of the year. Despite the star power of Henry Fonda, who was also the film’s champion and producer, critical praise and the film’s memorably florid tagline (“LIFE WAS IN THEIR HANDS – DEATH WAS ON THEIR MINDS!”), it flopped. And it also received three Oscar nominations, including Lumet’s first for best director.
Lumet would go on to make more than 40 films in his life, and while technically he didn’t go indie until the end with “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” and “Find Me Guilty,” his most successful films were those that ignored practical (read: studio) considerations in favor of artistic ones.
It’s been noted that it’s hard to imagine classic films like “Network” or “The Verdict” being made by a major studio today. Unfortunately, it’s not hard to imagine some analog of Lumet’s lesser titles making it through the system: “The Wiz” (fascinating if only for its genuine weirdness), “A Stranger Among Us” (Melanie Griffith posing as a Hasidic Jew), “Gloria” (Sharon Stone posing as Gena Rowlands).
That’s not to fault Lumet for making those films; getting “12 Angry Men” made wasn’t easy and even his hit films like “Dog Day Afternoon,” Serpico” and “Network” lacked the easy hooks (Diana Ross as Dorothy!) that make studios comfortable. And it’s easy to see why they hoped his talents might help spin dreck into gold.
Lumet’s last studio movie, “Night Falls On Manhattan,” was released by Paramount Pictures in 1997. He ended his career as an independent filmmaker, first with “Find Me Guilty” (Yari Film Group Releasing) and then with “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (THINKfilm). Both opened to strong reviews, if not box office. Which, if you’re Sidney Lumet, is not the worst place to be.
“I often thought to myself how lucky I was to have had the opportunity to work with Sidney,” said “Before the Devil” star Philip Seymour Hoffman in a statement emailed to indieWIRE. “He was a true master who loved directing and working with actors like no other. He was and is invaluable on so many levels the thought itself overwhelms. I adored him. God, we’re going to miss him.”