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Sidney Lumet: First Among Directors

Posted: 04/09/2011 1:16 pm

We have lost another legend today. Sidney Lumet, one of the finest and most prolific film directors of our time, is dead at 86.

Though diminutive in stature, he was a giant in his field, a director who always sought to make intelligent films that had the ring of truth.

With the possible exception of Martin Scorsese, noone could better portray the gritty, breathless mystique of New York City on-screen.

Born in Philadelphia, he was raised in New York, and was acting onstage (in Yiddish theatre) when he was barely out of diapers. An acting highlight was his Broadway appearance at age 11 as one of the young toughs in Sidney Kingsley's landmark drama Dead End, which would become a film two years later with Humphrey Bogart and the Dead End Kids.

Later young Sidney helped found an acting troupe whose members included Yul Brynner, but by his mid-late twenties, had discovered his true calling as a director. During the hey-day of live television in the fifties, along with contemporaries like Robert Altman and Arthur Penn, he learned his demanding craft -- the hard way, but well.

His breakthrough feature film, 12 Angry Men (1957) sits on my own short-list of all-time favorite pictures. Concerning a group of jurors deciding the fate of one young man, it was adapted from a TV drama by Reginald Rose, and made on a shoestring budget.

It relies on the hard-to-achieve essentials of great film drama to work its miracle: superb writing and characterizations (among its top ensemble cast, Lee J. Cobb and Henry Fonda are particularly memorable as adversaries) as well as further subtle directorial touches, like the nearly imperceptible changes in camera angles and focal lengths to build claustrophobia as the proceedings intensify.

Men stands as a work of pure, understated genius, and Lumet was just 33 when he made it. A long, productive film career stretched out ahead of him, and we all were the beneficiaries.

Beyond the ever-fabulous 12 Angry Men, here are my picks for the best of Sidney Lumet:

Long Day's Journey Into Night
(1962) -- Set during one long summer day in 1912, this film focuses on the Tyrones, a family that has seen better days. James (Ralph Richardson), once a fine Shakespearean actor, has emptily played the same offstage role for years, while eldest son Jamie (Jason Robards), a failure on the boards, drowns his sorrows in alcohol. Budding writer Edmund (Dean Stockwell) is recovering from TB, and mother Mary (Katharine Hepburn), recently released from an institution, is slowly losing her grip on reality to the ravages of drug-addiction. As the day wears on, resentments surface -- and ultimately consume -- this tragic clan. Lumet's slow-burning adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's semi-autobiographical play depicts a theatrical family's slow disintegration with haunting precision. Richardson is ideally cast as the fading family patriarch, while both Robards and Stockwell (O'Neill's proxy) are superb as the two sons, each consumed by their own afflictions. Hepburn executes a tour-de-force as the fragile, brain-addled Mary Tyrone, a spectral symbol of the family's decay from within. Lumet wisely sticks to the letter of the play, and the results are unforgettable.

The Pawnbroker (1964) -- Haunted by his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, which his wife and family did not survive, Jewish pawnbroker Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) is an emotional fortress impervious to the world around him. With no faith in God or humankind, Nazerman becomes increasingly bitter and callous on the anniversary of his wife's death, even to those, like shop clerk Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sanchez) and Harlem social worker Marilyn Birchfield (Fitzgerald) -- a Holocaust survivor herself -- who offer him friendship. Are his wounds too deep to heal? One of the few films to deal head-on with the psychological havoc wreaked on survivors of the Nazi extermination camps, Lumet's Pawnbroker is a bleak, hard-hitting story about imprisonment, both literal and metaphorical. Steiger, in a virtuoso performance, portrays a man so scarred by his witnessing of atrocities that he's become a paragon of emotional cruelty, quietly stewing in his hate and pain. Lumet wrings tension from Sol's jarring, sudden flashbacks as well as the urban setting, drawing sharp parallels between New York City's ghetto milieu and the wartime camps. With a somber jazz score by Quincy Jones, Pawnbroker is a gritty tale of unlucky survival.

Fail Safe(1964) -- Through the unlikeliest of circumstances, an American aircraft loaded with nuclear warheads is headed towards Moscow, and cannot be recalled. Racing against the clock, the President (Henry Fonda) contacts the Russian premier through his interpreter, Buck (Larry Hagman), to inform him that a faulty radio transmission has sent the bombers past the "fail-safe" point. Is it too late to save Moscow and avert World War III? Of all the edgy doomsday thrillers that have unnerved us since the 1960s, my favorite is Sidney Lumet's chilling Fail-Safe. Throughout the film, set in the control room of Strategic Air Command, Lumet expertly uses his camera to build claustrophobia and tension. The scenes with Fonda as the President and young Hagman as a petrified Russian translator are especially riveting. Matthau also makes your blood run cold as a dispassionate nuclear-arms expert. Made when Cold War paranoia was at its height, this is a masterwork of relentless suspense.

The Hill (1965) -- At a military stockade for British soldiers in North Africa, five men, including outspoken prisoner Joe Roberts (Sean Connery), endure the humiliations of a hard-nosed Sergeant Major (Harry Andrews) and his henchmen, who assign their charges various torturous duties. After a fellow prisoner dies as a result, however, Roberts protests, spurring the full-hilt abuse of the warden and his staff. Will they manage to break his spirit? Lumet's agonizing, tightly directed prison film features a convincing and simmering turn by Connery, fresh off his flashy role as Bond in Thunderball, here portraying a stalwart soldier who endures brutalization at the hands of Andrews's no-bull sergeant from hell. Ossie Davis steals at least one scene as a rebellious West Indian, but look for Michael Redgrave, too, as a brig staffer with a more humane disposition. Gritty and powerful, The Hill celebrates the heroism of defiance.

Serpico (1973) -- Based on a shocking true story, Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) is a courageous young cop who risks his life and endures total alienation from his fellow officers in exposing the widespread corruption within the NYPD during the 1960's. Frank hardly expects credit for trying to clean up a rotten system, and willingly accepts his pariah status, but even he becomes frustrated at how difficult it is to break through the walls of fear, resistance and apathy. This incredible film reinforces a simple fact: nothing is so potent as the truth. Under Lumet's expert direction, we see the long-established, shady practices playing out in one of the country's largest police departments. Though Lumet creates a searing authenticity by shooting at over one hundred Manhattan locations, we fully recognize this story could happen anywhere, since its themes are universal: man against machine, David against Goliath, the peculiar bravery of one man going up against a large, insidious opponent. One of Pacino's best early roles, this brought Al his second consecutive Oscar nod for Best Actor (after The Godfather).

Dog Day Afternoon (1975) -- Forced to take hostages after a botched bank heist, bisexual loser Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) and his none-too-bright accomplice, Sal (John Cazale), negotiate a tense standoff with Police Captain Moretti (Charles Durning) over the course of a sweltering New York City afternoon. With a local TV station covering the situation live, Sonny becomes an unlikely celebrity, especially once the poignant true motives behind his heist attempt are revealed. Reuniting Lumet and Pacino, this Oscar-nominated drama (again based on a true story) tracks two scheming misfits who've witlessly imprisoned themselves in a no-win situation. Pacino's ruffled, passionate evocation of working-class Brooklynite Sonny -- who riles the gawking crowd outside the bank with chants of "Attica!" -- stands alongside his finest work of the 1970s, earning him his fourth Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. The late Cazale (who played weak brother Fredo in The Godfather) is heartbreaking as Pacino's simple-minded partner-in-crime. Gritty, suspenseful, and superbly crafted, the Sidney Lumet way.

Network
(1976) -- Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) is a type A network television executive who rides the wave of an unfolding ratings sensation broadcasting deranged televangelist Howard Beale (Peter Finch, in his final performance). Beale hits a chord with disillusioned Americans, urging them to chant his mantra: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore." But the Beale phenomenon may not last, as Howard's ever more bizarre rantings signal an emotional breakdown in the making. Lumet's devastating, disturbing satire of the modern broadcast age (written by Paddy Chayefsky) still has a lot to say thirty-five years after its release. Beyond portraying a business that bypasses quality in single-minded pursuit of the dollar, television serves as metaphor for a society mired in sensationalism and greed. Dunaway is commanding in a caffeinated performance as ruthless Diana, Holden unusually affecting as a washed-up veteran of TV's glory days, and Finch a revelation as the unbalanced Beale, winning a posthumous Oscar for his work. A triumph.

The Verdict (1982) -- Boston lawyer Frank Galvin (Paul Newman), seemingly a washed-up alcoholic, faces the battle of his life when he decides to pursue a medical malpractice suit against a powerful Catholic hospital on behalf of a young comatose woman's family. Of course, the case he lands appears impossible to win given his own tenuous condition and the array of legal forces against him, led by the shrewd and powerful attorney Ed Concannon (James Mason). A searing, moody courtroom drama masterfully directed by Lumet, the film earned five Oscar nominations in 1982, including one for writer David Mamet. In our view, this is the Oscar that Newman should have won: as Frank Galvin, he shows a rare, affecting vulnerability as a man struggling mightily to redeem himself before it's too late. This film represents both courtroom and human drama at its finest, with veteran player Jack Warden superb as Mickey Morrissey, Galvin's only remaining colleague and friend. The verdict here is "guilty" -- of excellence.


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