Sidney Lumet 1924-2011

On the set of Dog Day Afternoon - 1975

One of the most unappreciated U.S. film directors has died. 45 films in 50 years. Four masterpieces: Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Verdict, and Before the Devil Knows You are Dead. Five must-see’s: Twelve Angry Men, The Fugitive Kind, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Serpico, and Prince of the City. Over a dozen other worthy efforts.

He didn’t have Kubrick’s cinematic grandeur or Altman’s free-form formlessness, but Lumet, who began as a theater director, knew melodrama. He knew the vicissitudes of plays and actors and he knew when to let the camera lurk and observe what, through extensive rehearsals, actors can magically produce. There aren’t many laughs in Lumet but when they come, they come enshrouded in darkness. There are no cheap stakes–don’t expect any happy endings.

Overshadowed by No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood on release, I have little doubt Before the Devil Knows You are Dead will one day eclipse them, reputation-wise. The film is a Shakespearean tragedy (two bothers plan a robbery of their parent’s jewelry store, which results in the mother’s death–soon the father (Albert Finney) finds out who engineered it–imagine) and it has Philip Seymour Hoffman’s greatest performance. Lumet’s camera bears in on his actors and every minute of this film gets ratcheted into a more combustible state. The opening scene between Hoffman and Marisa Tomei should shake you sufficiently if you were expecting the same old white over black titles.

This scene (begin at 0:45) is from the beginning of the film. I love it because it doesn’t explain anything. It is very matter of fact. Hoffman’s character has just taken some money out of his safe and he goes into one of Manhattan’s towers. Lumet lets it play out in one shot. Stunning.

9 thoughts on “Sidney Lumet 1924-2011

  1. That movie was fantastic. Loved it.

    I would like someone to explain to me how There Will Be Blood was good. I thought it was bad. In particular, the ending, with his whole freaking out “I’ll drink you like a milkshake” going on about a milkshake forever…I was so embarrassed for Daniel Day Lewis. It was cringeworthy. I found myself looking away.

  2. Thanks, Greg…
    I would, however, argue with the label “underappreciated.” Though Lumet is one of the least conspicuous directors, the reaction to his passing has been vocal, visible. We just don’t think of him in the grandiose, auteurist sense of a Kubrick. Pauline Kael wrote that there are movies that show their technique and movies where technique disappears, and too often, love of directorial technique embraces everything but the actor. Lumet loves actors, and that’s why he’s the genuinely rare director, like Hitchcock, with a substantial body of work from which a viewer can pluck nearly any film and–very important–start watching at any point and become spellbound.

    • Thanks Jerome. Yes, there has been a visible reaction. More people need to see DEVIL though.

      Interesting you bring up Kael – she roundly criticized The Verdict and some other of his films while propping up DePalma, who though fun to watch, seems posturing with all his split-screens and whiz pans compared to Lumet’s humanist backbone and Ozu-like non-moving camera.

      A favorite moment from the Verdict is when James Mason is talking about the things people will do, but it is only revealed halfway through the scene that he is talking to Rampling and you know the collusion and how everything in the world is against Newman. Frightening.

  3. Well, you got me to program DVR and as soon as I finish re-viewing Dog Day Afternoon, I’ll watch BTDKYD. It’s on Sundance channel a lot late night if anyone’s interested.

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