Saturday, April 9, 2011
A Farewell to Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)
The first time I ever saw a Sidney Lumet movie was in the fall of 1975. I was 9 years old. The film was Dog Day Afternoon and it marked one of the rare instances that my parents and I went to a four-walled theater (we were drive-in mavens at the time). We saw it at the Atlanta's now-extinct Broadview Plaza Twin Theater, and watching the film was, for me, a revelation. I had never seen a movie studded with such bald-faced energy, comedy, and angst; it really transformed what I thought great movies should contain. It had the balmy flavor of being from a foreign land--Brooklyn, New York--and sported some of the most harrowing movie moments I'd ever experienced. My young heart was pounding throughout as I watched Al Pacino's sweaty, set-upon bank robber Sonny Wortzik trying to make it through one very difficult summer's day. By the film's tragic end, with that single gunshot, I was exhausted and exhilarated. I stared at the poster on the way out of the theater and, shaken, committed the director's name to memory.
A year later, my ten-year-old self begged my parents to take me to the drive-in one winter night to see Network, and they were up for it. I can still remember the stunned silence in the car as Paddy Chayefsky's revelatory dialogue rung through the chilled, tinny speaker hanging on our window. I can't explain how I was able to understand the film's sharp edginess at such a young age (I surely remembered, though, that this was a Lumet film), but I got the message nevertheless, and its reception changed my very DNA. This chronicle of unfortunate news anchor Howard Beale (which has nowadays gotten an unbelievable real-life counterpart in Glenn Beck--minus the assassination, I assume) helped shape my view of the world into something, yes, more cynical but still utterly real. Of course, it was this scene, starring Peter Finch, that captured everyone's attention but, rest assured, the movie's sum was greater than its many parts:
After I caught the Kubrick bug and watched Dr. Strangelove when I was 11 or 12, I dutifully had to make an effort one Saturday afternoon to catch 1964's Fail-Safe on WOR TV out of New York. I'd heard that this was the serious version of Kubrick's end-of-the-world scenario. From the very first unexpected moment, when Dan O'Herlihy wakes up from his fever dream about the matador, I was hooked. I loved Strangelove, yes, but I thought this was the more disturbing film in many ways, and I still am sure it ranks right up there with the Kubrick film (its only detriment are some dull moments with Walter Matthau in its first 20 minutes). This following scene has Janet Ward as the wife of a bomber pilot (Edward Binns) struggling to convince her husband, via radio, not to drop a nuclear bomb on Moscow. Again, a Sidney Lumet movie rattled me with its sharp editing, amped-up emotion, and stark photography:
From here on in, I was a confirmed Lumet fan. Now it was time to see his first big-screen effort: an adaptation of Reginald Rose's jury-room drama Twelve Angry Men (originally produced for live television, where the heretofore stage-bound Lumet garnered his directorial chops). At about 13, I watched this movie late one night on Chicago's WGN, and again I was completely floored by the effort, which I talk about here. Looking back on it now, I'm especially moved by this simply-directed scene with the bigoted Ed Begley being abandoned, one at a time, by his jury co-horts:
My dad was a cop in 1970s Atlanta, and was thus a big fan of police procedurals, so he then naturally introduced me to Serpico, with Al Pacino as a NYC cop working undercover to expose police corruption. Though I'd often seen my father's dog-eared paperback copy of Peter Maas' original novel laying around, as we both watched Lumet's adaptation on ABC's Movie of the Week, I noticed less of the editorial forcefulness I'd come to expect from Lumet's filmmaking here, but the blow-away acting contained within--thanks chiefly to Pacino--was right in line with Lumet's previous work:
More to my liking was a similar story, released in early 1981 as Prince of the City, a film I was first exposed to as an early HBO staple. Treat Williams delivered a ridiculously powerful turn as Danny Ciello (he should have garnered as Oscar nomination) who was another real-life NYC cop trying to expose corruption, but this time our lead struggling to remain corrupt himself. For me, this is still one of Lumet's greatest achievements (and the only movie for which he was nominated for an Oscar as screenwriter, along with Jay Presson Allen). It's an endlessly tense film, with over 135 speaking roles in it (and MANY great character actors, including Bob Balaban and later Law and Order staple Jerry Orbach)--and it's a really rewarding challenge to watch:
The following year--1982, when I was 14 or so, I was surprised to see a radically different movie by Lumet. Deathtrap was still a story fascinated with the world of crime, but from a way more witty angle (probably inspired by Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth). As a sly tribute to that work, Michael Caine responsibly took the role of failing playwright Sidney Bruhl, who's attempting to lure one of his writing students (Christopher Reeve) into coughing up his newest play, which Bruhl plans to steal after he murders the kid. This was the first time I'd had palpable fun at a Lumet film (it also boasts of delicious supporting performances from Dyan Cannon and Irene Worth). All in all, I really appreciated Lumet's wild change of gears here:
And later on that year, I was left speechless once again by The Verdict. Not only did the film feature the best screen performance ever by one of my favorite actors, Paul Newman, but its autumnal feel struck me as quite unique for Lumet--darker, yet somehow sweeter and ultimately nostalgic. This spectacle, featuring (SPOILER ALERT!) surprise witness Kaitlin Costello-Price (an affecting Lindsey Crouse), had me biting my fingernails. With James Mason as the opposing lawyer--the dreaded Ed Concannon--and Milo O'Shea as the case's corrupt judge, this scene is still one of Lumet's best bits of work, even if David Mamet's script is not entirely accurate on the legal side of things:
Now forgotten, Lumet's follow-up was Daniel, with Timothy Hutton and the unfailingly astounding Amanda Plummer as the children of parents who'd been executed in the 50s as Russian spies (it was based on the exploits of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg). It's a little underwhelming at times, and then certain scenes (usually the ones with Plummer at the center) just floor you. At any rate, it's a piece that deserves to be re-examined, especially now that Lumet is gone:
Lumet's output then became spotty with failed efforts like Night Falls on Manhattan, Power, Garbo Talks, and Family Business. But he came back in 1988 with the relatively gentle Running on Empty, about the son of radical parents living underground, trying to escape capture for their violent past. River Phoenix garnered his only Oscar nomination as the film's lead (even though he was nominated for the supporting actor award), and this scene, where he reveals his true self to the girl he loves (Martha Plimpton), is the work's choicest moment:
Later on, into my adulthood, I discovered another of my favorite Lumet films: 1965's The Hill, featuring arguably the single best performance by Sean Connery as a British officer thrown in the brig for insubordination and forced into survival mode by the brutal conditions there. As always, Lumet is obviously enlivened by questions regarding morality and justice and, again as always, he illustrates such concerns with an unfailing regard to the technical requirements of great moviemaking. But, I understand, this is one of the most difficult shoots Lumet ever had to endure:
I'm a fan, too, of lesser Lumet works like Murder on the Orient Express (his frothiest film, that I've seen at least), The Anderson Tapes, The Offense, The Pawnbroker and his two final works, the underrated Find Me Guilty (with a terrific lead performance by Vin Diesel) and Before The Devil Knows You're Dead. The one film of Lumet's that I absolutely hate (which I've seen just recently) is The Fugitive Kind, his clunky, drawly adaptation of Tennessee Williams, obviously composed done by a non-southerner, and badly miscast with Marlon Brando in the lead. And I'm still dumbfounded that Lumet was the one tapped to direct the well-designed but plodding film version of The Wiz (the strangest entry in this director's ouvre, and his biggest, most expensive failure). And I have to say, I feel lucky that there are so many other Lumet movies I (and we all) need to see (chief among them, Bye Bye Braverman, The Group, The Appointment, and his adaptations of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night (his most highly-acclaimed movie that I haven't seen, with the Oscar-nominated Katherine Hepburn, and with Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards, and Dean Stockwell), John Le Carre's The Deadly Affair (starring James Mason, Simone Signoret, and Maxmillian Schell) and Anton Chekov's The Sea Gull (not highly though-of, with James Mason, Simone Signoret, and Vanessa Redgrave).
In the coming years, when I find myself missing Mr. Lumet, which I am sure to do, I can always turn to his one book, aptly titled Making Movies. The world owes a debt of thanks to the director for penning this detailed, perceptive, premier tome about composing for the cinema. After being denied his Oscar for doing his job so well so many times for so long (he was nominated for Twelve Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and The Verdict, and for co-writing Prince of the City), he finally was given an Honorary Academy Award in 2005 (way too late, in almost everyone's opinion, including his own).
But, really, such accolades were beyond him (even though he brightly admitted he desired having an Academy Award). He loved show business, obviously--it was in his blood. But he was obviously outshone any ol' award available. On this sad day for cinema, I thank Mr. Lumet for being a key figure in shaping my taste in movies, and my taste for the truth in all things, but especially in the political and social realms. He was a master in the most original sense, blending his lifelong respect for the stage (on which he had appeared as a child) with the more modern approaches of the cinema, while never abandoning the values he surely treasured in his heart. I will desperately miss having my breath stolen by his solid, bedrock-reliable work.
“Sidney Lumet will be remembered for his films. He leaves a great legacy, but more than that, to the people close to him, he will remain the most civilized of humans and the kindest man I have ever known. This is a great loss.” -- Al Pacino