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.