(on actors): “I understand what they’re going through. The self-exposure, which is at the heart of all their work, is done using their own body. It’s their sexuality, their strength or weakness, their fear. And that’s extremely painful. And when they’re not doing it in their performance, they pull back.”
He made movies about people and the dilemmas they face on a daily basis. I’d argue whether there was anyone else who could, through his/her camera, get to the core of human behavior as could Sidney Lumet. An actor’s director with a unique sensitivity for finding the soul of a character.
“He manages to get inside the consciousness of each actor and to become a personal confidant.” - Ozzie Davis
Sidney Lumet began his directorial career on live television and the stage and that fact affected how he directed his feature films. His was a unique visual style that proved effective for getting to the heart of the matter. He was noted by Turner Classic Movies for his “strong direction of actors”, “vigorous storytelling” and the “social realism” in his best work. In other words, films that are right up my alley.
With over 50 films to his credit, The Encyclopedia of Hollywood states that Sidney Lumet was one of the most prolific directors of the modern era, making more than one movie per year on average since his directorial debut in 1957 with what turned out to be one of the best films ever made, 12 Angry Men. Lumet was nominated for the Academy Award as Best Director for that first film, then again for Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976) and The Verdict (1982). He never won an individual Academy Award, but he did receive an honorary Oscar for his life’s work in 1985. Lumet was a workaholic whose work is both intellectual and visceral. He remains one of my favorite filmmakers and must be listed among the greatest ever. His birthday was on June 25th and I post this in honor.
As I watch my favorite Sidney Lumet films, the ones I mention in this post, it occurs to me they always deal with justice in one way or another. I can’t say whether he chose to make films that have messages, but all of his films have messages. Serious messages that make one think. His films are films of integrity – in front and behind the camera. How he filmed his movies always enhance the drama, deepened the characters and sometimes created both. It never fails to amaze me how I often feel a part of Lumet films, a conspirator in his stories. I am never just an observer. His style just resonates with me, draws me in as if we have the same sensibilities. But it’s not me. His sensibilities are all of ours.
“While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film is which I believe goes one step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing.”
My favorite Lumet films
12 Angry Men should not be as compelling as it is, given the entire story takes place in one room. Having been advised against making such a film, Lumet always attributed the fact that he made the film to the stupidity of youth, but always maintained he never thought of it as a problem. As long as he could make the camera work as part of the drama the story would unfold effectively. And does it ever. In truth. For in confinement, for all intents and purposes, in the course of ninety-six minutes we see into the soul of twelve men deciding the life of a man.
For his 1964 film, Fail Safe, Lumet recreates the cinematic style we saw in 12 Angry Men in many instances and again, creates high drama on a personal scale. Another great accomplishment given the story is both personal and grand – up close and broad. Fail Safe is a great thriller that’s still affecting today and features one of the most memorable endings in filmdom. It ends with the possibility of the scariest of truths. Then it lingers.
Featuring a dream cast, Murder on the Orient Express (1974) received six Academy Award nominations yet gets little attention or praise. This may be the film I include in this post that some may not feel is great. I do. I love it. It’s an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, given the complexity of the story, the number of characters in it and – again – the oppressive, closed-in sets Lumet excelled at. No one else could have made this film work. And Lumet said he immediately fell in love with the plot of the film, the best he’d ever read, “talk about a who done it…” I remember watching Murder on the Orient Express for the first time and being floored by that ending and Lumet said he was too when he first read the script.
Is it a coincidence Sidney Lumet was drawn to Murder on the Orient Express? You have twelve people. In essence (and fact) another jury. Another journey to truth by way of the truth. An executioner’s tale and a man who decides on another’s fate. We are, yet again, complicit in the end. Agree or disagree with Hercule Poirot, but you are left to ponder.
Sidney Lumet chose to direct the film that followed Orient Express because the story shocked him. Here we have a man who robs a bank in order to get a sex-change operation for his wife who happens to be a man. This was 1975 and the film, Dog day Afternoon. The director stated that he was surprised that Al Pacino stepped forward to play the main character because no other actor wanted anything to do with it. Lumet took on the controversial script, which became a highly acclaimed film, receiving six Academy Award nominations. With varying degrees of absurdity at times, Dog Day Afternoon is done with heart and truth. Love comes in all combinations and the fact that this message comes through loud and clear despite criminal mayhem and even farce, one could say, is a testament to the strength of Sidney Lumet as a storyteller.
Lumet followed Dog Day Afternoon by tackling Paddy Chayefsky‘s scathing indictment of the television industry. Another unforgettable film with wonderful performances by an extraordinary cast. It’s Network (1976) and I can’t say enough about it and again, its ending. Stunning. I’ve seen Network countless times and am affected by it in the same way time and time again. What is the order of the day? Truth. By farce. Again here we are forced to look within – a scary proposition. Am I complicit here too? Are my own morals and ethics questionable? Why am I enjoying staring at a human train wreck?
Network received ten Academy Award nominations.
Prince of the City, Lumet’s 1981 release was inspired by the true story of a New York cop who turns evidence against his partners in a New York Police corruption investigation. This one poses yet another judgment call on our part. Sitting on the fence is never an option in a Lumet film. The director was drawn to this story because of its complexity, stating in an interview he’d never read a story where no one told the truth. No one could be trusted. In this case, not the government, not the individual characters whether they be friend or foe. It’s a tangled web and Lumet made it compelling from beginning to end. The truth hurts.
Lumet’s next film is about justice. How strange. This one, a personal journey, one of redemption, which stars Paul Newman who delivers a tour de force as Frank Galvin, the attorney on the slide who takes on a big malpractice case. I dedicated another post to The Verdict and you can take a look at it here, if interested. That’s all I’ll say here – another truthful, Lumet gem.
Sidney Lumet made a few “lesser” films that are worthy of watching and I want to give two of them a mention. The first, a rare comedy by the director who usually made gritty stories, from 1984, Garbo Talks starring Anne Bancroft and Ron Silver. Here, Bancroft plays Estelle Rolfe, a dying woman whose son tries to fulfill her last wish, which is to meet Greta Garbo. The other is the 1988 drama, Running on Empty, which is about a family on the run whose eldest son comes of age and wants to live a normal life on his own. Running on Empty stars Christine Lahti, River Phoenix and Judd Hirsch. Not surprisingly, both of these films are moving and feature great acting.
For his last film, Sidney Lumet returned to top-notch form. Hailed as one of his best films since “Prince of the City,” Lumet was again the recipient of high praise from critics who had previous written off his career as a result of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007). This is a complicated film in story and in its telling, its issues and its characters. Lumet never did easy. The story depicted here is a crime noir about two brothers who plan to rob their parent’s jewelry store, only to have the seemingly perfect crime go awry and forever damage their family. The film features a stellar cast who give superb performances.
Told in time-bending fashion, Before the Devil is a film made by a man in his eighties that has the eye and nuance of a much younger man and Lumet pulls no punches with this supremely disturbing movie. Sometimes in truth we lose our souls. For more of my views and specifics on this film, check out this post.
I love watching interviews of Sidney Lumet where his commentary on film and characterization is matter-of-fact, a common sense approach to life, which simply stated, is complicated. Life rarely offers a clear right or wrong and neither do Sidney Lumet films. No one else did that like him. He was a purveyor of truth.
“I haven’t the foggiest idea how I want to be remembered. People who even think about that get into trouble. If you live your life based on that it’s as though you’re already dead.”