Film director Sidney Lumet died on Saturday of lymphoma. He got his start as a child actor working on stage, co-starring in the 1939 movie One Third of a Nation, and later he studied acting at the famed Actors Studio in New York. In the 1950s, Lumet made a name for himself working in television, directing such shows as The Best of Broadway and You Are There. He also directed Boris Karloff and Grace Kelly in a 1952 production of Don Quixote. Sadly, it was not taped for posterity.
But feature film work was where Lumet would shine. He was no auteur in the manner that the next generation of filmmakers would become—Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, De Palma, et al—but his handling of actors was equal if not better than any of them. Lumet’s gifts as a director were not imprinted on every frame of film like many of the aggressive stylists that typified the later so-called New Hollywood directors, though his work always stressed consistent thematic concerns that were easily identifiable in his best movies—the belief in liberal democracy, the strength of the individual over the group, and the need for the individual to combat corruption embedded within a justice system set up to curb criminality but that paradoxically, frequently exacerbated it. Crime and the way an individual takes a moral stand against it, or not, is a thematic corner stone for arguably his most important productions, the movies that have made the biggest impression on me, at least.
Lumet’s first movie 12 Angry Men (1957) and much of his work through the next decade—The Fugitive Kind (1959), Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962), The Pawnbroker (1964), Fail-Safe (1964), The Hill (1965), The Deadly Affair (1967), and The Appointment (1969)—all have their strong points. But his movies throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s are the ones I connect with the most. The Anderson Tapes (1971), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), Prince of the City (1981), The Verdict (1982), Running on Empty (1988), and Q & A (1990), all made huge impressions on me as a young moviegoer, helping me understand that special chemistry between an actor and a director. Throughout his career, Lumet regularly extracted career-best performances from many of his leading performers, such as Al Pacino, Sean Connery, Treat Williams, Nick Nolte, and River Phoenix. As a viewer, the result on screen was frequently brilliant to watch. Pacino–who for me seemed to rely more and more on showboating technique as his career ground on—never appeared as real and vulnerable and human as he did in his work in the 1970s, particularly in his collaborations with Lumet.
It’s been gratifying to see so much appreciation for Lumet’s work over the last couple of days. These are strange times for anyone who loves drama and naturalism in American movies. What used to be a routine stylistic approach for Hollywood, especially since the late 1960s, has been relegated of late to independent movies or television shows like David Simon’s The Wire or Treme. Todd Haynes’s recent HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, based on the novel by James M. Cain, has been an extraordinary reminder of how rich naturalism can be when utilized by a director with an affinity for it and how working in that mode does not mean one is working sans artistry.
Lumet knew how to capture New York City on film, making it snap, feel lived-in and pulsing with life. The city is not just a backdrop for the characters to move through or for the cinematographer to manipulate and exaggerate as needed. Like other directors who have made New York City their location of choice–Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Abel Ferrara, and Spike Lee, to name a few of the more notable and recent ones—Lumet had no compunction about showing the city in all its unromantic, gritty reality. But it’s not simply a negative portrait of the city either.
Edited by the great Dede Allen and utilizing the Elton John song “Amoreena” to great effect, Lumet’s montage takes a characteristically realistic approach, showing the city in all its multiplicity. In just a few minutes, the city of New York is brilliantly and succinctly established as a character itself, a location crammed with people of all ethnicities, gender, age, and economic classes which exist beyond the narrowness of the plot that will quickly commandeer the movie. But it won’t remain in the background for long. As the plot progresses, with Al Pacino and John Cazale desperately trying to maintain control of a hostage situation that has turned into a media event, the city will once again re-establish itself within the narrative, and linger long in the memory once the credits role. The movie was the first Lumet I’d seen, I think, and it nestled deep within me. It’s still my favorite of his movies, as well as my favorite Al Pacino performance.
The acidic satire Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky, is another great one and is resonant now as it was when first released. Lumet maintains his humanistic approach to the material, grounding Chayefsky’s broad satire in the realistic rhythms he’s most comfortable in, but it’s an exaggerated naturalism that showcases Chayefsky’s aggressive stamp over that of Lumet’s. Excellent stuff nevertheless.
Many of Lumet’s movies, particularly Prince of the City, Running on Empty, and Q & A, seem ripe for re-evaluation. By the 1990s, in light of the attitude-heavy posturing of a post-modernist filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino, Lumet’s straight dramatic take on crime and punishment seemed old fashioned and he fell off the radar for me. I knew Family Business (1989), A Stranger Among Us (1992), Guilty as Sin (1993), and Night Falls on Manhattan (1997) had been released, but they were also sadly easy to ignore. Most critics thought the productions were far from Lumet’s prime, and audiences stayed away. Lumet kept working sporadically though the next decade, though no one would have called you a fool if you’d declared him done artistically. Kaput.
In 2007, though, Lumet came roaring back with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a movie that in every shot showed a director at the height of his craft and artistry, and who deftly turned what could have been a rudimentary heist picture into the most layered of tragedies. Melodrama is a term that’s frequently used as a pejorative because so many filmmakers have contempt for the form and wield it as if it’s incapable of psychological or moral depth. But the movie is one of the most incisive explorations of moral fragility and desperation that I’ve seen in many years, while still maintaining its generic function as a crime picture. That ability to balance both content and form is not unique when talking about crime fiction—there are countless examples of novels that say something important while giving us the requisite page-turning excitement we crave—but in the post-Tarantino crime world, most filmmakers go for sensation, style, and garish hyper-realism only. The movies feel alienated from everyday life and removed from any real, tangible human experience.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead couldn’t feel more relevant or alive. There’s an urgency to the movie, a kinetic energy that kicks in from the first shocking moments—no, I’m not talking about the scene of a naked, narcissistic Philip Seymour Hoffman watching himself in the mirror while he has sex with Marisa Tomei, but the scene of the jewelry store robbery gone horribly awry–and never lets up until the finale. Constructed in a non-linear manner, the movie feels fresh in a way that Lumet’s movies hadn’t felt in decades. Filmmaking is a young man’s game and many a great director has petered out artistically before his actual physical time. For Lumet to deliver such a knockout experience that late in his career is remarkable and was a foreshadow of more great work to come.
But there won’t be any more movies from him. It’s the lament of every cinephile the world over who has ever mourned a favorite director or a writer. No more…. There is, though, a body of work to re-discover. For anyone who cares about drama, actors, and stories that have resonance to our adult lives, that are rooted in timeless narratives but that speak to us as contemporaries, the death of Sidney Lumet is a passing that should not go by unacknowledged. Hollywood in recent decades has become an industry solely catering to the teen male mind or that of children, with only an adult-focused movie here and there. In recent years, that narrowness of experience has become increasingly the only dream for sale to audiences. That’s tragic for artists like Lumet and for those of us who need something more than CGI and Power of Myth narratives to entertain.