Friday, April 22, 2011
Sidney Lumet: The Best Director You've Never Heard Of
12 Angry Men (1957)
Though Lumet had been working in television for some time before, 12 Angry Men marks his feature debut as a helms-man, and is widely considered one of the greatest first-movies ever made. Henry Fonda stars as Juror #8, one of the movie's titular 12 who are tasked with deciding whether a young man is guilty of murder, and the lone member who's not wholly convinced of the boy's guilt. Set almost entirely in a deliberation room, 12 Angry Men is an early look at Lumet's mastery of filming in tight spaces, neither his plot nor his visuals ever becoming dull despite never changing locations. The movie could genuinely be described as inspirational, a term that has been re-appropriated in our modern world to mean cheesy, predictable, and often founded on White Guilt. 12 Angry Men is none of these things: It's the simple, stripped down story of one man who believes that everyone deserves a chance, and does everything in his power to ensure that the accused gets one. Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay, 12 Angry Men would go home empty handed on Oscar night (Losing each award to the similarly sensational The Bridge on the River Kwai), but people took notice then, and still have yet to forget. The film currently sits at #6 on Internet Movie Data Base's Top 250 movies of all-time as voted by users, a whopping twenty two slots ahead of the next highest-rated, English-language movie from the 1950's (Rear Window).
If you're tired of the one-cop-against-the-world cropping up in every movie, Sidney Lumet's right around the first person you should blame. Serpico is the earliest example of this that I've seen, wherein Al Pacino stars as the movie's namesake, an honest NYC cop who goes under-cover and catches the baddies only to realize that his fellow officers are no less corrupt than the crooks he sets to capturing. Released one year after The Godfather and the same year as Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (the first of his movies to delve into the world of crime and corruption that would eventually make him famous), Serpico sits at the forefront of the 70's fascination with the seedy under-bellies of big cities, not to mention inspiring a spin-off TV show back when that wasn't just common. Pacino earned only his second Oscar nomination for the role, and first in a leading roll, though the film would lose that award, along with its other bid, Best Adapted Screenplay.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Returning to the world of tight spaces that made him famous, Dog Day Afternoon again stars Pacino as real-life small-time bank robber Sonny Wortzik. After a hiccup or two disrupts their plans, Sonny and his partner Sal (John Cazale) find themselves surrounded by police officers, and engage in a stand-off that lasts all day, a media frenzy revealing things about the crooks' past all the while. Presently my second favorite Lumet movie, DDA is tense and sweat inducing, but it also boasts of style, humor, and an incredible amount of empathy for its lead characters. The movie would gather six Academy Award nominations, winning just one (Best Original Screenplay), but the way that the movie has stood the test of time says far more than a few 70's voters ever could. Pacino's performance is widely considered to not only be one of his greatest achievements, but also stands as a mainstay on every Best Performances Ever list that you will ever come across (Just try Googling one that doesn't name it, I dare you). The frequency of its appearances on said countdowns is only matched by the likes of Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice, Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, and (most importantly) Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. What's more, writing about the movie provides me with a perfect platform to rattle off my favorite movie statistic of all time: DDA stands as Cazale's fourth feature film appearance, and though he would only get to be in one more before his untimely death at the age of 42, each of the five movies that have his name in the credits received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. How's that for choosing your roles?
My favorite work in the Lumet canon, and not to mention one of the best movies from the greatest decade that American Cinema has yet to see, I can say without the least bit of hyperbole that Network is far and away the most prophetic movie I've ever seen. Set in the world of 1970's television, Peter Finch stars as Howard Beale, a long-time anchor man who starts to lose it in his old age. When his un-scriped ramblings about a decaying world garner a huge spike in viewership, power-driven career woma