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Friday, April 22, 2011

Sidney Lumet: The Best Director You've Never Heard Of

        Eleven days ago, the film world was dealt a devastating blow in the passing of Sidney Lumet. To be sure, the, "Best Director You've Never Heard Of," tag that I'm posting this under is untrue for many people, but when the scope of the man's accomplishment is considered, one would have to think Lumet (pronounced Loo-Met) has every reason to be a house-hold name. One of the first Directors whose work I really gravitated towards when I started getting more seriously interested in movies, the news of Lumet's death has filled me with great sadness, but is also now providing me with an excuse to speak at length about one of my favorite film-makers. I'm no where near as qualified as some, having only seen six of his films, but I wanted to take the opportunity to discuss the pieces that I have witnessed, and also speak a bit about his various accomplishments and importance in the world of cinema. Here we go:

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).

Serpico (1973)
        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?

Network (1976)
        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 woman Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) over-halls the whole network in his image, opting for shocking, minimally scripted programming while the other stations stick with standard fare. The reflections of both The Daily Show and Reality TV as a whole are clear to see, as the movie is mind-blowingly perceptive of the impending change in how people would soon prefer their media. The movie would grab an massive ten Oscar nominations, including an astounding five acting nods, including three victories (Finch, Dunaway, and Beatrice Straight for Supporting Actress... and yes, that means it only lost in one acting category). Much like Pacino's Serpico performance, scribe Paddy Chayefsky's script is right at the summit of every Best Screenplays Ever list that the internet can dream up, its pseudo-dystopia clearly inspiring any number of time-and-place critics that came afterwards.

The Verdict (1982)
        This influential courtroom drama stars Paul Newman as Frank Galvin, a hard-drinking, down-on-his-luck lawyer who takes on a negligence case against a hospital who's beyond equip to fight him in court. A character study more so than a morality tale, Lumet transposes his grainy 70's style to a new decade in order to show the motivations and demons behind Galvin's every move. While not the ground-breaker than many of his early works still stand as, The Verdict is supremely well acted, expertly constructed, and gripping and unpredictable to the very end. Newman is so good at playing past his prime that I set to wondering if this had been his last nominated performance. Turns out the guy had three more in him, winning his first acting Oscar only a year after receiving one for lifetime achievement.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead... (2007)
        Yes, you read that right: At the ripe old age of 84, Lumet directed his last movie, exactly fifty years after he helmed his first. But while most directors at that age tend to look for more quiet and/or uplifting stories to tell, BtDKYD is nothing of the sort. Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman star as a couple of struggling brothers who decide to rob their parents' jewelry store for some extra cash. Things go awry, and their father (Albert Finney) and mutual squeeze (Marisa Tomei) get caught in the crossfire. Chuck-full of violence, swearing, and a slew of age-defying, eye-popping, and just plain super-smokin' nude scenes featuring Tomei, it's about the last think that you'd expect a human in their ninth decade of life to be interested in, but his vitality is all over the thing. As searingly intense as it is morally ambiguous, The Devil is ample proof that Lumet would never let a silly thing like age effect his directorial choices, or the kinetic, electric feeling of his work.

        As I said earlier, I am no where near as qualified to speak on Mr. Lumet as I wish that I was, but the head-spinning prolificness of the man makes it nearly impossible to be a genuine expert. Not counting his television or documentary work, Lumet directed a grand total of forty-three movies during his fifty year career. This absurd level of productivity is said to bring down the overall quality of his filmography, keeping him off the short list of best 70's directors where he so clearly belongs. Stacking Lumet's best movies right next to those of Scorsese, Coppola, and Kubrick reveals a shockingly slight discrepancy, if any at all. Though the only Oscar that Lumet himself ever took home was for Lifetime Achievement, the man guided four performers to statuettes, and more importantly, directed a staggering total of eighteen nominated performances. If you're looking to study up (and obviously, I'd say you should), twelve of his films are available on Netflix instant watch as of this posting, including each film listed above beside 12 Angry Men and Serpico. So next time you're thinking about the film-making greats (or looking for a classic to catch up on), don't forget Lumet. The film world never will.

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