It has been a year since Sidney Lumet passed away on April 9, 2011. Here is our retrospective on the legendary filmmaker to honor his memory. Originally published April 15, 2011.
Almost a week after the fact, we, like everyone that loves film, are still mourning the passing of the great American master Sidney Lumet, one of the true titans of cinema.
Lumet was never fancy. He never needed to be, as a master of blocking, economic camera movements and framing that empowered the emotion and or exact punctuation of a particular scene. First and foremost, as you’ve likely heard ad nauseum — but hell, it’s true — Lumet was a storyteller, and one that preferred his beloved New York to soundstages (though let’s not romanticize it too much, he did his fair share of work on studio film sets too as most TV journeyman and early studio filmmakers did).
His directing career stretched well over 50 years, from theater and live television to embracing digital video with his final film, 2007’s outstanding “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” Across that time, Lumet was nominated for five Oscars including four for directing (“12 Angry Men,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network,” “The Verdict”) and one for adapted screenwriting (“Prince of the City”), but astonishingly, never won. Although he was given a Honorary Academy Award in 2005, as Spike Lee (the influence on whom from Lumet can be felt in every picture) tweeted on hearing the news, “Sidney was Nominated 5 Times for Best Director and was ROBBED. Eventually he got an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement. They always do that Shit.”
We’re not going to sugarcoat it — not every film was a stone-cold classic. There are bad films on this list, and even worse ones that we couldn’t bear ourselves to write about — the nadir being a Rebecca DeMornay/Don Johnson potboiler, “Guilty As Sin.” But Lumet was a pragmatist, as he wrote in his 1995 book “Making Movies” (a must-read for anyone who’s serious about directing film), “I’ve done two movies because I needed the money. I’ve done three because I love to work and couldn’t wait anymore. Because I’m a professional, I worked as hard on those movies as on any I’ve done.” And, across his career, the good far, far outweighs the bad, and he got to go out on top with the gripping 2007 picture, “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead” which seemed to demonstrate every trait that cinephiles loved about Lumet’s steady and mature hand.
Over and above anything else, Lumet loved film, dedicating his erudite, moving Oscar acceptance speech to his peers and the medium, saying “I’d like to thank the movies. I know that sounds general, but it’s very real to me. I’ve got the best job, in the best profession in the world, and I just want to thank all of it.” As Martin Scorsese put it with Lumet’s passing comes, “an end of an era.” He will be immensely missed, but his venerable body of work will endure.
Below, The Playlist team have assembled a selection from that titanic career. With close to 100 screen directing credits, when including his vast body of TV work, it feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface — but, while we happily could have spent months on this, time and space didn’t allow it. Hopefully, we’ve managed to cover the most significant pictures. And what better way to pay tribute to the man than by sitting down with one over the weekend?
“12 Angry Men” (1957)
It’s a start that few directors have had: after a half-decade or so directing TV, Lumet got his chance at a full-length feature film and turned in a classic. A gripping, brilliant human drama that espouses the highest of ideals, “12 Angry Men” also set out the stall for many of Lumet’s recurring preoccupations: guilt, innocence, prejudice, liberalism, the justice system, and the role of the individual. The staginess of the film’s main setting (it featured prominently in our feature about single location films), its roots as a teleplay and the fact that, well, it’s about 12 men arguing with no car chases, no gangsters and no sex to liven things up, add up to a film that on paper has all the ingredients of an unappetizing, if possibly nourishing, meal. Instead it’s a banquet of masterful performances (particularly from Henry Fonda, who, notoriously self-critical, believed it one of his three best), taut, smart screenwriting and razor-sharp editing, displaying a master’s grasp of pacing. While some of the details of the plot are a little outdated now, that hardly detracts from the keenly observed mechanics of power, persuasion and manipulation on display. But what’s perhaps most surprising about such a smart film, is that it never mistakes cynicism for intelligence. Its ultimate conclusions — that ideals are worth fighting for, that one man can make a difference and that even the worst of people can be gently prodded towards decency — are quietly devastating in their humanism and positivity, but are entirely earned and entirely the opposite of trite. “12 Angry Men” is everything a thinking person’s film should be, and only the first example of the kind of intelligent, restrained, grown-up filmmaking that Lumet would go on to bring us many more times over his long career. In the whispered words of Fonda himself at a screening of an early cut, “Sidney, it’s magnificent.” [A]
“The Fugitive Kind” (1960)
Since it’s the only Sidney Lumet film on the Criterion Collection and it stars the great Marlon Brando, it must be his best film, right? While semi-compelling and well-acted on the themes of loneliness and human misconnection, mmm, not quite. Based on Tennessee Williams’ 1957 play “Orpheus Descending” (he co-wrote the screenplay with Meade Roberts), this Southern Gothic tale centers on a snakeskin jacket-wearing drifter/musician (Brando) who finds trouble when he wanders into a nameless Mississippi town. And like a few of Williams’ lesser film adaptations there’s lots of sweaty passion, unrequited desires and tempestuous melodrama, but the narratives tend to get a little rudderless. Brando’s thrown in jail early on and tries to get out of this two-bit town, but soon becomes involved with two different sorts of helpless women; the alcoholic wild child (Joanne Woodward) and the embittered wife of a dying shoe salesman who he eventually starts to work for (Anna Magnani). Both of these women provide their conflicts, but only the latter feels integral to the story. As critic Jonathan Rosenbaum observed, Lumet feels out of his East Coast element in this picture and despite the ace credentials of the principals, this disappointing effort doesn’t ever really gel. [C+]
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (1962)
It’s hardly surprising, considering the length and emotional brutality of his work, that Eugene O’Neill was never really manna for cinematic adaptation in the way that, say, Tennessee Williams was. But there are good big-screen O’Neill works out there — John Frankenheimer and Lee Marvin turned out an underrated version of “The Iceman Cometh,” for example. But head and shoulders above the rest is Lumet’s 1962 version of the playwright’s masterpiece “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” for which he assembled a dream cast of Ralph Richardson, Dean Stockwell, Jason Robards and, most toweringly, the great Katharine Hepburn. The quartet shared the acting prizes at Cannes that year, and it’s well-deserved — all four are riveting and flawless, even across the film’s punishing three-hour running time; a testament to Lumet’s dedication to the rehearsal process, something that almost every film could benefit from, but very few actually use. The film was criticized at first for failing to open up the play, but, as with “12 Angry Men,” Lumet expertly plays with lenses and lighting to make the film feel as claustrophobic as it should. Anyone serious about acting should seek it out without delay. [A]
“The Pawnbroker” (1964)
Sidney’s Lumet’s career has its ebbs and flows, but other than his better-known ‘70s period, no other era is as peerless as his early ’60s phase that saw him deliver classics such as “Fail Safe,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” and to a lesser degree “The Hill” and “The Pawnbroker,” which features what is arguably Rod Steiger’s finest performance as an emotionally withdrawn Holocaust survivor living in New York City (though the Academy didn’t see it that way — he won an Oscar for “In the Heat of the Night” but was only nominated for the Lumet film). As the story slowly unravels, we discover that an embittered Sol Nazerman (Steiger) witnessed his wife and two children die in Nazi concentration camps and has since callously distanced himself from the world by quietly keeping to himself in his Harlem-set pawnshop. Shunning faith and all belief in what he calls the “scum” of mankind, Sol is apathetic to everyone including his Puerto Rican shop assistant (Jaime Sanchez) who idolizes him and his business. Geraldine Fitzgerald plays a frequent customer and compassionate social worker who tries to awaken his own humanity, but the Shakespearean tragedy of his actions — the realization that his fellow man has value — arrives far too late. Lumet’s lessons and moralizing on paper can sound a little too sanctimonious (and granted, it doesn’t work in every picture), but “The Pawnbroker” is a powerful and haunting look at how death can make us realize life is worth living. [A-]
“Fail Safe” (1964)
The Cold War and threat of nuclear extinction was on the minds of politicians and filmmakers alike in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, but arguably this crisis reached its cinema fever pitch in 1964. Earlier in the year, Stanley Kubrick presciently turned the burgeoning genre on its head with the highly satirical and biting “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” which is perhaps why the dead-serious “Fail Safe” is less well known, and was less well regarded when it arrived in theaters 10 months later (if you didn’t know better, you’d assume ‘Strangelove’ is almost a spoof as they are about the exact same subject with some uncanny and incredibly similar scenes and archetypes though essentially made at the same time). Though somber and terrifyingly real — the movie almost plays out like a suspenseful horror — “Fail Safe” is not the humorless version of Kubrick’s masterpiece. It is in fact, a masterpiece in of its own kind. A gripping, nail-biting and intense portrait of the spiraling-out-of-control arms race — and it’s a wonder this picture’s disturbing drama didn’t come to pass in our history. Henry Fonda plays the earnest and compassionate leader of the United States, Walter Matthau plays a ruthless scientist bound by stats and cold logic, and the picture also contains excellent performances by Dan O’Herlihy, Frank Overton and Edward Binns, plus early appearances by Dom DeLuise, Larry Hagman and Fritz Weaver. Need a foolproof nuclear deterrent? Just watch “Fail Safe,” one of the best wartime cautionary tales (nuclear or otherwise) ever made. [A+]
“The Hill” (1965)
Set in a North African British “glasshouse” during World War II (the name of an English military detention center) in the middle of the baking hot Libyan desert, Lumet’s dusty and sun-bleached 1965 war film centers on the injustices of war and its outdated rules by focusing on five new soldiers imprisoned and being punished for a litany of infractions such as going AWOL, stealing booze and in one special case, defying direct orders and assaulting his commanding officer. The idea is the dogs of war must be beaten and broken, and spirits and wills are almost crushed in this gritty 1965 military prison picture. But one incorrigible soldier, Sean Connery — who took this detour, the first of five team-ups with Lumet, in the middle of his Bond run between “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball,” much to the chagrin of most critics — doesn’t make it easier for his tyrannical, near blood-thirsty superiors, himself, or his fellow inmates, one of them being the late, great Ossie Davis. Connery’s insubordination means his exhausted and parched outfit is humiliated, demeaned and punished to the edges of human limits by his barbaric staff sergeants (British character actors Ian Hendry and Harry Andrews play the monsters of discipline). One man dies during the abuse which sets off a chain of rebellion and makes Connery even more intractable. While “The Hill” is very much a message film and wears its morality on its sleeves, it is nevertheless, a highly engaging and underrated work in the Lumet body. The crushing, tragic ending and its bitter irony make it all the more striking. [B+]
“The Deadly Affair” (1966)
Later this year will finally see John Le Carre’s best-known character, the anti-Bond spy-catcher George Smiley, reach the big screen, played by Gary Oldman in Tomas Alfredson’s much-anticipated version of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” But Smiley’s actually been the central character in a film before — sort of. Le Carre’s first book, “Call for the Dead,” was adapted by Lumet in 1966 into “The Deadly Affair” as a vehicle for James Mason, and, while the character has been renamed Charles Dobb, it’s Smiley in all but name. While Lumet and writer Paul Dehn may take some liberties with the story, it’s very faithful to Le Carre in spirit, and Mason is particularly good in the lead — it’s arguably one of his best screen performances. The cast around him, particularly Maximilian Schell as the colleague sleeping with Dobbs’ wife, are equally good. It’s a neat little spy thriller — probably not action-packed enough for contemporary audiences, but mostly terrific, and yet another film from this era of Lumet’s work that deserves reappraisal. [B-]
“The Sea Gull” (1968)
For the most part, Lumet’s theatrical background stood him in good stead in the film world, with a number of his best early films being derived from stage hits. The major exception is “The Sea Gull,” a mostly disastrous take on Anton Chekhov‘s great play (a play that, in this writer’s opinion, is among the very best ever). Lumet assembled an impressive cast, led by James Mason, Vanessa Redgrave, David Warner, Denholm Elliot and the great French star Simone Signoret, and shot on a lush Swedish location, but seems to have something of a tin ear for Chekhov. The writer always described the play as a comedy, and the very best productions have always been the ones which play it as such, but Lumet’s cast seem overwhelmed by tragedy, as doom-laden as Rod Steiger’s protagonist in “The Pawnbroker.” It’s oddly taste-free, for a man who made so many great choices: Gerry Fisher’s softly pastoral photography is misjudged, making the film pretty at the expense of truth, while the famous ending is entirely botched by the director’s decision to cut away to Konstantin’s body. Signoret and Redgrave both seem a little miscast, although Warner and Elliott in particular are superb. One for Chekhov completists only, really. [D+]
“The Anderson Tapes” (1971)
Sean Connery always had something of a reputation as an actor who would have a tempestuous relationship with directors, and even early on would occasionally phone in a performance, but he always had a top relationship with Lumet, working with the helmer on five separate occasions, so it was no surprise that, when he wanted to prove his leading man chops outside of the Bond franchise, he went to Lumet and to “The Anderson Tapes.” A fiendishly complex thriller with some neat, more-relevant-than-ever commentary on the surveillance society on the side, it involves the actor as a career burglar coerced into pulling off a heist for the Mob without the knowledge that the building’s under surveillance from a number of competing sources. Connery more than proved he could carry a movie away from 007, and the film remains pretty enjoyable, even if it’s an uneasy blend of the kind of gritty crime picture that Lumet would make his stock-in-trade, and the lighter caper flick so popular at the time. Bonus points for the first screen appearance of Christopher Walken and for the score, the second collaboration with jazz legend Quincy Jones, and, while not as ambitious as his work on “The Pawnbroker,” it’s still a classic. [C+]
“The Offence” (1972)
While much of Lumet’s films centered around police dealt with the corruption around them, this curious, minimal entry asked what would happen if an officer was compromised by something from within his own mind. Starring Sean Connery as Detective Sergeant Johnson , “The Offence” opens with a slo-mo sequence that would make Zack Snyder proud, with the detective savagely beating and killing a suspect in an interrogation room. The movie then jumps back, and in the first half hour, shows us the events leading up to what we’ve just seen. Johnson and the rest of the department are on the hunt of a serial child molester preying on local children, and after an exhaustive manhunt, they bring in somebody who Johnson and even his colleagues think may be their man — based not on evidence, but on their gut instinct. Johnson is so determined to get an answer he winds up killing the man. From there the film really only has two more long extended scenes. In one, which nearly grinds the film to a halt, Johnson returns home and gets into a domestic squabble with his wife who wants him to share his dark secrets and feelings with her and when he does, she’s horrified to the point of vomiting. The next, is an interview back at the police station with an investigator tasked with getting Johnson’s complete version of events. Finally, the film closes by jumping back to the talk Johnson had with the suspect and the dark, disturbing explanation for his overreaction is posited. It’s bold, challenging material but it’s ultimately trumped by the time jumping narrative which treats the revelation as a twist, cheating the film of a greater dramatic heft. And while Connery is in great form, the overly talky two-hour picture drags at times and never quite matches the crackling intensity the actor is bringing to the part. An interesting but not entirely rewarding inversion on Lumet’s continued study of law enforcement. [C]
When the Antoine Fuqua-directed “Brooklyn’s Finest” dropped in 2009, its mix of cops-and-crooks scheming about Brooklyn projects rang with inauthenticity. This writer wonders what Lumet could have done with the same film — and if “Serpico” is any indication, the late director’s touch could have been the defining factor that tipped the scales, producing a true New York-bred film. Utilizing countless locations in early 1970s New York, “Serpico” mostly sticks to the facts of Frank Serpico’s true-life story and Pacino completes his meteoric post- ‘Godfather‘ rise with a complex, multi-layered portrayal of a good, but frequently conflicted, cop. “Serpico” is sometimes (and probably rightfully) overshadowed by the next Lumet/Pacino collab “Dog Day Afternoon”, but the gritty down-home quality of the film is hard to shake, and harder even to criticize. [A-]
“Murder on the Orient Express” (1974)
The term “they don’t make them like that anymore” has become something of a cliche, and it’s very rarely used correctly. For something like the Agatha Christie adaptation “Murder on the Orient Express,” it’s particularly untrue — the film is deliberately harking back to a glamorous time that never really existed. But it’s certainly hard to imagine a collection of stars of this caliber — Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave and an Oscar-winning Ingrid Bergman, among many others — being assembled for a picture like this, or indeed any film ever again. Watching Finney, as Christie’s most famous creation, Hercule Poirot, poking at the ensemble as he investigates the titular slaying, is the kind of pleasure that it’s hard to find on the big-screen these days: no explosions or CGI creations, just great actors sparking off against each other, and beautifully shot throughout by the director. It’s feather-light, to be sure, but that’s part of the sumptuous joy of it. And if you’ve somehow managed to avoid knowing the solution, and you go in cold, it’ll still keep you guessing to the end. [B+]
“Dog Day Afternoon” (1975)
Lumet was often considered a filmmaker who transcended genres, which is true, but it seems like the sort of compliment that ignores how this spotlighted his greatest trait, which was a mastery of tone. Nowhere is that more evident than this true-crime suspense film, dealing with a momentous bank robbery in 1970’s Brooklyn that evolved into a media-fed hostage standoff. As Sonny, the deluded thief who is quickly in way over his head, Al Pacino gets laughs, but he also fearlessly plunges deep into the psyche of this damaged person, a humane depiction of a man with misplaced passion, oblivious to his own recklessness. Lumet never obscures the time frame of the event, a twelve hour moment in history, but the film is paced so tightly that its tonal shifts don’t feel like directorial flourishes as much as the natural rhythms of real conversation. Amongst the 70s classics, “Dog Day Afternoon,” with its criminal behavior, harsh language and downbeat ending, still feels like one of the most affecting and generous, because Lumet and screenwriter Frank Pierson remain dedicated to telling a story about a crime, and not about criminals. [A]
Generally, we’re not people who demand Oscar recounts or regard award shows as anything other than vehicles for promotion. But perhaps Lumet’s collaboration with Paddy Chayefsky should have triumphed over “Rocky” to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, if only to properly get “Network” in front of the right people. Because, in 2011, “Network” ain’t funny anymore. This scabrous tale of television executives who refashion the news as “infotainment” and turn a veteran anchorman into a false prophet of the boob tube was once a scathing show business satire. Now it seems quaint, particularly in how its depicting a world we’re already familiar with, where TV producers will do anything for a ratings point, where vile current events become prime time appointment viewing, and where ranting fools can gain a pulpit and become respectable at best, celebrities at worst. Life has imitated art. “Network” came true. Horrifying. [A]
Already a treasured stage production when Lumet took it on, “Equus” saw Peter Shaffer move beyond the confines of the stage to the screen, aided by Lumet’s ever-present grasp of the minutia that defines, and sometimes resuscitates, the limitation of everyday life. Richard Burton and Peter Firth square off as a psychiatrist and a pathological horse mutilator, respectively and Lumet makes a brave choice to show the animal violence effectively enough that it still startles today. A potent mix of drama and horror, you could argue that at first, “Equus” looms outside Lumet’s ouvre. This writer’s advice: take another look at the master’s final film, “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead”. The man knew what all of us are scared to unearth, buried deep underneath. [B+]
“Prince of the City” (1981)
While “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon” tend to get all the love whenever Lumet’s name is mentioned, for their gritty approach and New York City vibe, no film is perhaps more underrated in his canon than “Prince of the City.” Originally premiering on TV in a sprawling 196-minute version (still unreleased) and eventually hitting DVD in a theatrical length 167-minute version, the power of the film is no less diminished. Starring Treat Williams (who got the role after Al Pacino turned it down) it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part — his fresh faced naivete is crucial in playing Daniel Ciello, a cop who slowly realizes his department is knee deep in corruption and who reluctantly agrees to become a turncoat against his colleagues. With nearly three hours to stretch out and tell the story, Lumet slowly builds the film to a bristling, fever pitch, aided by an excellent supporting cast that features Jerry Orbach, Bob Balaban and a bunch of great character actors who lend the film a vibrant authenticity. A hands-down must see alongside Lumet’s more well known works, “Prince of the City” is simply one of the best police procedurals ever made, a textbook example and benchmark for the genre. [A]
“The Verdict” (1982)
A moody and intense court room drama, while many parts of “The Verdict” feel hackneyed these days — lawyerly grandstanding and yelling, boiler plate legal thriller tropes, etc. — Lumet’s third film of the 1980s (yes, he was clocking one a year and made 10 films that decade, two of which came out in 1986) is still one of the many jewels in his oeuvre crown and was extremely well-regarded during its day, which speaks to its relevance at the time (it was nominated for 5 Oscars, including Best Director, Actor, Picture and Screenplay). Centering on a grizzled, alcoholic lawyer (yet another solid Paul Newman turn), the film centers on his attempts at redemption and clearing his tarnished professional reputation as he transforms from hack ambulance chasing attorney to a righteous defender when a egregious malpractice case that lands a woman in a vegetative state for life triggers a spark in him. One of the elements that helps this picture rise above court-room cliches is David Mamet’s powerful script (one reinstated after several rewrites when Lumet came on board), and Newman is gifted some tremendous monologues as a result. Co-starring the great avuncular character actor Jack Warden, James Mason, Milo O’Shea, and Lindsay Crouse, the picture can be a little awkwardly dated — there’s some minor early suspension of disbelief elements with Charlotte Rampling’s character which are explained later, but don’t feel quite right regardless — while “The Verdict” in retrospect is perhaps not in Lumet’s top 5 all-time films, it is still yet another example of his finely-crafted morality tales, and more than worth a second look. [B]
This adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s 1971 novel “The Book of Daniel” was something of a passion project, for both Lumet and the novelist, who wrote the screenplay adaptation himself. A critical and commercial failure, the film is seen as one of Lumet’s biggest disappointments, and yet the director always considered it one of his favorite films. So, well-intentioned disaster or hidden gem? The answer is somewhere in between. Following the titular Daniel, the son of a Jewish couple convicted of spying for the Soviet Union, and executed (based heavily on the Rosenbergs), the film was rather misunderstood, criticized for its ambiguity regarding Daniel’s parents and their possible treason — but it was very much Lumet and Doctorow’s intention, the film riffing on the idea of ‘the sins of the father,’ and the relative complexity holds up well today. The performances are, as ever, very strong, with Timothy Hutton fresh off “Ordinary People,” Mandy Patinkin and Lindsay Crouse particularly good as the parents, and an excellent early performance from a young Amanda Plummer. But at the same time, the film is uneven and overstretched, trying to cover the whole scope of the novel, and feeling a little thin in places as a result. Still, it doesn’t deserve to have been forgotten in the way that it’s been. [C+]
Another unjustly neglected picture, “Power” is yet another remarkably prescient film from Lumet, taking a cynical look at the world of political media consultants, as embodied by Pete St. John (Richard Gere, in a somewhat unfortunate mustache). Perhaps the closest that the director ever came to returning to the subject matter of “Network” and while it’s barely a shadow of that picture (Chayefsky’s wit is sorely missed — the film is a little dour), yet another exceptional cast, also including Julie Christie, Gene Hackman and a very early role for Denzel Washington — again showing Lumet’s eye for talent — act their little socks off. Gere in particular has rarely had as good a role since — and he plays beautifully with both Hackman and Christie. It loses its way in the second half, feeling a little aimless, and the very end is a bit blunt, but”Power” is more of a character study than anything else, and it remains a thoroughly absorbing film, one that’s become more relevant than ever in the passing years. [B-]
“The Morning After” (1986)
There couldn’t have been a more appropriate title for this 1986 Jane Fonda mystery-thriller (maybe “Paycheck Gig”), as the general handling of every story and idea is just as messy as an absinthe-induced hangover. Alcoholic ex-actress Alex Sternbergen (Fonda) wakes up next to a dead body without a clue of how she got there or what happened the previous night. She finds comfort in an ex-cop (Jeff Bridges) who decides to help her out of kindness/horniness, and together they lay low and play detective while somehow finding time to have romantic dinners and long conversations detailing Alex’s backstory. A character being wanted for murder couldn’t be higher stakes; yet somehow these stakes are promptly ignored as the plot waits patiently so two characters can further their relationship arc. We’d figure that maybe there was a deleted scene that explained of some sort of brain defect that the protagonists had, rendering them to randomly be unable to perceive the trouble they were in, except that every single character detail wasn’t divulged twice over in the dialogue. Now it’d be one thing if only the wannabe-pulpy plot didn’t work, but even the love story is shoddy, somehow containing zero chemistry between the usually lovely Fonda and a young & dashing Bridges. To top it all off, the entire thing is glazed with 80s music that would embarrass even the most delusional composer of the decade, and Fonda’s breakdown over her addiction to the bottle is “Mommie Dearest” bad (yet was deemed Oscar worthy…). If you’re still not convinced to forget about this one, even IMDB can’t offer up more than a shrug, somehow constituting this as worthwhile trivia. Keep away at all costs. [D]
“Running On Empty” (1988)
Likely impressed by his solid turns in “Stand by Me” and “The Mosquito Coast,” Sidney Lumet quickly cast youthful actor River Phoenix as the heart in his 1988 drama, alongside a post-“Taxi” Judd Hirsch and a pre-“Chicago Hope” Christine Lahti. The premise here is that Arthur (Hirsch) and Annie (Lahti) exploded a lab that was creating napalm for the Vietnam War in their activist heyday, blinding an innocent janitor in the process. Since then they’ve been on the run, relocating and changing identities whenever Arthur feels the heat. That kinda life certainly doesn’t leave much time for Michael (Phoenix) to do regular kid stuff, including putting his extraordinary talents on the piano to good use. Things get complicated in their new town when his skill is recognized by a music teacher which eventually leads to the boy falling in love and being ushered towards Julliard – much to the dismay of his family, who instead wish to keep living together and in secrecy. Lumet’s outright refusal to squeeze tear-jerking scenes out of the plot is refreshing considering the story’s ripe, innate sappiness. That said, the script by Naomi Foner (aka Mamma Gyllenhaal) is completely puzzle-less, written as if she was trying to arouse her screenwriting teacher by taking all the appropriate roads and hitting all the apropros notes. The actors feel very at home in their characters which lends to believable performances, but since everything is much too predictable so early on, even they can’t keep the film from dragging. [B-]
“Family Business” (1989)
However much you swallow the premise of this low-key crime caper depends on how willing you are to stomach the casting. We have to believe that Dustin Hoffman is the son of Sean Connery, despite being only seven years younger and recipient of some very, ah, different genes. Perhaps more difficult to accept is that Matthew Broderick, here as an enterprising young man who yearns to be involved in one of his grandfather’s criminal schemes, could sport a Jew-fro and thick-framed glasses and convincingly play a person grandfathered by the still-smooth Connery. Despite the flimsy age difference, there is fun to be had in watching Hoffman and Connery go head to head, their wildly different acting styles suggesting lifelong friends but still providing a compelling sort of chemistry. The heist itself is a bit of a fizzle, though, and the picture straddles the line between slack, listless drama and wet blanket comedy that suggests that the set became far more entertaining once someone said “cut.” [C]
Lumet was one of the great New York directors, albeit never in as extravagant manner as, say, Woody Allen was. But he understood the heartbeat of the city in an eminently truthful way, and in “Q&A,” he delivers a crime picture that shows a vision of a multi-cultural New York melting pot that Spike Lee, a self-proclaimed fan of the elder director, would be proud of. The plot — a rookie cop (Timothy Hutton) investigating the shooting of a Puerto Rican kid by a legendary, brutish cop (a walrus-like Nick Nolte, in possibly the best work of his career) — might seem familiar, and it is. But Lumet, adapting the novel by New York supreme court judge Edwin Torres himself, gives it a rich underbelly, showing the racial ties that have always divided NYC, and never depicts a character in broad strokes, right down to Armand Assante’s drug lord, who’s given far more depth than most similar characters. It’s an incredibly rich, almost novelistic take on the crime genre — to the degree that, if you have a complaint about the film, it’s that it’s almost overstuffed. It’s one of Lumet’s most personal films, he even pulled a Coppola and cast his daughter Jenny Lumet as the love interest of Hutton’s character — like Sofia Coppola, she would go on to make films, rather than act, penning the script for Jonathan Demme’s excellent “Rachel Getting Married” [A-]
“Night Falls In Manhattan” (1996)
The third in Lumet’s trilogy of self-penned efforts about corruption in New York is, unfortunately the less of them by quite some way. The film has a pulpier take on the subject matter than either “Prince of the City” or “Q&A,” thanks to Richard Daley’s source material, and while the director approaches it with his usual sincerity, the contrivances of the plot, which involves an assistant DA (Andy Garcia) prosecuting a drug dealer who shot his cop father (Ian Holm), still shine through. More importantly, Garcia isn’t as strong a lead as his predecessors, miscast and sometimes overplaying the role a little. But still, the James Ellroy-style scope is admirable, and Lumet has as keen an eye and ear for the city, and the people in it, as he’s ever had. As ever, the supporting cast is full of the best character actors around, and as disappointing as Garcia, and Lena Olin as his lover, are, the fine performances of Holm, James Gandolfini and, in particular, Richard Dreyfuss, make up for it. It might not be top-rate Lumet, considering the high standards he set himself in this genre alone, but we’d still take this over a thousand corrupt cop movies from, say, David Ayer. [C+]
“Find Me Guilty” (2006)
Buried underneath what at the time was an avalanche of love for Lumet in the wake of the Thalberg Award at the Oscars, this low-key dramedy was regarded as an odd duck by distributors, who quietly had this in and out of theaters before anyone noticed. And while it’s decidedly off-product material from the director of several classics, “Find Me Guilty” manages to be oddly touching. A highly improbable true story, “Find Me Guilty” features Vin Diesel as mobster Jackie DiNorscio, placed on trial and pressured to sell out his associates. Instead, DiNorscio refuses to turn rat, becoming his own legal representative in a case that would stretch on for an unprecedented 21 months. Despite the absurdity of the case and the larger-than-life persona of life-of-the-party DiNorscio, Lumet shoots the material in a clipped, professional manner, allowing the actors to do the heavy lifting. And they step up to the task, with the mismatched pair of Diesel (who wears several extra pounds and a wig) and the diminutive Peter Dinklage (as a beleaguered defense attorney) generating a surprising amount of chemistry. “Find Me Guilty” feels episodic and disjointed, as if there was some sloppy last minute tinkering in the editing suite that went unfinished, but it has all the traits of Lumet’s earlier films, in its clear-eyed portrayal of criminal misconduct and warm human comedy. [B-]
“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007)
It’s frankly staggering to think that Lumet was able to start his career with a stone-cold classic like “12 Angry Men” and to top it off, a full half-century later, with a film as terrific and alive as “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” Released when the helmer was 83, the film (shot digitally, with Lumet predicting that film would soon be rendered obsolete) feels like it could have come from a director a quarter of his age — except we can’t think of a twenty-something who could have assembled a cast of the calibre of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Rosemary Harris, Brian F. O Byrne, Michael Shannon and Amy Ryan, or extracted such tremendous performances from every one of them. Lumet invests his seedy, twisty little genre tale (from a script from playwright Kelly Masterson) about two brothers hard-up for cash who fatefully decide to rob their parents’ jewelery store with the heft of a Greek tragedy; as an investigation of the bad decisions that bad people make, it’s second to none. It proved too grubby for many, but as far as we’re concerned, it’s close to a miracle. [A]
And The Rest: As we said, we simply didn’t have the time or space to fit everything in, even without mentioning that some of his lesser known films are tricky to get hold of. So what did we miss? There’s the theatrical melodrama “Stage Struck,” Lumet’s poorly received sophomore feature, a remake of the Katharine Hepburn vehicle “Morning Glory,” which toplined Henry Fonda and a young Christopher Plummer. It was swiftly followed by “That Kind of Woman,” a wartime romance starring Sophia Loren, which saw something of an upswing — being nominated for the Golden Bear at Berlin.
“A View From the Bridge,” sometimes known as “Vu du Pont,” an adaptation of one of Arthur Miller’s very best plays, came between great versions of other top flight American playwrights, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, but never quite got the same cachet as those films. “The Group” in 1966, and “Bye Bye Braverman” in 1968 were both films that Lumet felt suffered from a lack of lightness of touch from him, although the latter, from what we remember, isn’t bad at all.
1969’s “The Appointment,” meanwhile, was a film that Lumet admitted he only took because he wanted to learn how to shoot in color, despite a terrible story — only taking it if he was able to use Antonioni‘s DoP Carlo Di Palma. He went back to the Tennessee Williams well, with less success than “The Fugitive Kind,” for “Last of the Mobile Hot Shots,” an adaptation of the writer’s “The Seven Descents of Myrtle” with a script by Gore Vidal, no less. He also co-directed the Martin Luther King documentary “King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis” in the same year.
“Child’s Play” was an adaptation of the Broadway thriller and was initially meant to team the director with Brando, who dropped out in a fit of ego over the size of co-star James Mason’s role. It’s generally seen as one of Lumet’s worst pictures and has never been released on either video or DVD in the U.S. “Lovin’ Molly” came in the same year as “Murder on the Orient Express,” an adaptation of a Larry McMurtry novel, intended to cash in on the success of “The Last Picture Show,” even to the extent of casting Beau Bridges, the brother of that film’s star, Jeff. As you might have guessed, it came nowhere close.
“The Wiz” is perhaps the best known film we haven’t written up — a big budget musical remake of “The Wizard of Oz” starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Richard Pryor. It’s best known for bringing Jackson together with Quincy Jones for the first time, but the film itself is mostly undone by a terrible script, by no less than Joel Schumacher. It was followed by another flop, the Ali MacGraw comedy “Just Tell Me What You Want” — Lumet always fared less well with comedy.
His final stage adaptation was the thriller “Deathtrap,” an enjoyably twisty thriller starring Christopher Reeve and Michael Caine. 1984’s “Garbo Talks!” was another awkward attempt at comedy, with a slightly curious cast led by Anne Bancroft, Ron Silver and Carrie Fisher.
And then came the 1990s, for the most part somewhat lean years for Lumet. Both Hasidic Jewish thriller “A Stranger Among Us,” with a horrendously miscast Melanie Griffith and the aforementioned “Guilty As Sin” were seemingly strictly paycheck gigs, and should be treated as such. Medical satire “Critical Care” is seen as being slightly better, with an impressive cast including James Spader, Albert Brooks, Kyra Sedgwick, Jeffrey Wright and Helen Mirren, but there’s a reason you’ve probably never heard of it — it’s on Netflix Instant, if you’re curious. He closed out the 1990s with the entirely redundant “Gloria,” a remake of the John Cassavetes/Gena Rowlands film, with Sharon Stone.
And then came the 21st century, which saw Lumet return to TV for the first time in decades. He co-created the legal drama “100 Centre Street,” a series on A&E that toplined Alan Arkin and Bobby Cannavale, and was generally well received, although it only lasted two seasons. He later teamed with “Oz” writer Tom Fontana for the HBO movie “Strip Search,” a post 9/11 drama starring Glenn Close, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ken Leung, showing that even as he entered his 80s, Lumet’s conscience would never abandon him.
Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang, RP, Kevin Jagernauth, Gabe Toro, Mark Zhuravasky, Christopher Bell.