When I was a young film buff in the Seventies, my two favorite then-contemporary film directors were Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet. I’ve already done a Marty Dozen, it’s Sidney’s turn.
Sidney Lumet was the ultimate actor’s director. Many of our finest players gave their best performances in a Lumet film. His players won 4 Oscars and were nominated for 18 more. Lumet himself was nominated 4 times and should have won for Network. As a consolation prize, he was given a special Oscar in 2005. None of this bothered Sidney Lumet. He was known for his equanimity and modesty, rare traits in a director.
It recently struck me that Sidney Lumet was the Elia Kazan of his generation. Like Kazan, Lumet focused on drama, but his movies had a lighter and more humorous touch than those of my countryman. Both worked in many media. Lumet started off in teevee and the theatre before hitting it big in 1958 with 12 Angry Men. He continued to take on challenging projects and direct movies until he was 83 years old. His final film was good enough to make this list.
I am not a Sidney Lumet expert. There are many holes in my knowledge of his life and work. BUT I have a fan boy’s enthusiasm for his movies. It’s all on the screen.
I considered 20 films for this list and changed the #12 slot several times. As usual, the list is in order of preference, but it was hard to parse because Sidney made so many great films, especially those set in his native New York.
Enough with the preliminaries. On with the show this is it
Network was a national sensation when it came out in 1976. Many scoffed at the OTT nature of Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway’s Oscar winning performances. The same people complained that the movie was unrealistic in its depiction of a teevee network. They were wrong: it was eerily premonitive.
Sidney Lumet was robbed of a best director award, but writer Paddy Chayefsky won for his ORIGINAL screenplay. I put that in all-caps because there was never anything like Network before Paddy wrote his script. In a word: Brilliant.
12 Angry Men has been remade but never as well as by Sidney Lumet. The acting in this movie is naturalistic, not hyperbolic like the lead performances in Network. The jurors consist of one star and 11 character actors.
The first time I saw 12 Angry Men: I did a double take when I saw John Fiedler in the cast. He was best known to me as the nebbishy Mr. Peterson, one of the patients on the Bob Newhart show.
It’s also one of the movies that I always keep watching if I stumble across it while channel surfing.
Al Pacino’s definitive performance came as Michael Corleone. His performance as the doomed gay bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon is my second favorite Pacino role. The movie is full of so many great moments including this one, that I often quote when seeing examples of police brutality:
This moment is nearly as good:
Thanks for the shouty memories, Al.
Running On Empty tells the tale of two Sixties radicals on the run with their son. It was the first time I saw Judd Hirsch in a dramatic role. He nailed it as did Christine Lahti and River Phoenix. This is the film that made the latter a legend. I told you that Sidney Lumet was an actor’s director.
Serpico was ripped from the headlines. It was about an honest cop dealing with corruption in NYPD. It’s another one of Al Pacino’s best performances. Sidney Lumet always brought out the best in his actors.
The Pawnbroker is such a disturbing film that I’ve only seen it once. If you thought Rod Steiger was great in On The Waterfront and In The Heat Of The Night, you ain’t seen nothing until you see him as a Holocaust survivor turned pawnbroker. In a word: shattering.
I wrote about The Verdict in my Lawyer Movies Dozen. I stand by that post. I guess that makes Paul Newman my man. Or is it Sidney Lumet?
Lumet co-wrote the script of Prince Of The City. It’s another story of dodgy cops in NYC. Treat Williams’ performance is a treat to behold.
1964 was a big year for movies about nuclear exchanges. Fail Safe is the second best nuke movie; only with a more convincing president, Henry Fonda instead of Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove. Both actors received glowing reviews. Pun intended. It always is.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is the definitive film version of the classic Eugene O’Neill play. As always, Sidney brought out the best in his cast. The movie was stolen by the young’uns: Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell. Stockwell was living refutation that child stars always fail as adults.
I like Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 version of Murder On The Orient Express. I love Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version. The cast was a film buff’s dream with Richard Widmark as the villain and Ingrid Bergman winning her third Oscar as a mousy Swedish missionary.
Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead was another Lumet crime movie with an excellent cast. What’s not to love about Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, and Albert Finney? I dig the graphics as well.
Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead was Lumet’s final film as well as the last movie on this list.
Here’s the quick and dirty Sidney Lumet Dozen:
- 12 Angry Men
- Dog Day Afternoon
- Running On Empty
- The Pawnbroker
- The Verdict
- Prince Of The City
- Fail Safe
- Long Day’s Journey Into Night
- Murder On The Orient Express
- Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead
That’s it for today. The last word goes to Sidney Lumet and Peter Finch on the set of Network. It looks like Lumet is coaching Finch on his yelling technique. Sidney was a New Yorker, after all. They know from yelling.