While his name isn’t the first that pop up when you think of the impact on American cinema but Sidney Lumet is almost like the first amongst equals. In a career spanning over five decades and forty films Lumet has helmed some of the greatest works of cinema like Dog Day Afternoon, Network, frontiernews The Verdict and many more. Known to extract skillful performances from his actors Lumet has directed 18 Oscar nominated performances and one look at his repertoire and you know Lumet is the greatest filmmaker that perhaps no one talks of as much as they should.
Starting during the golden era of cinema Lumet is the first generation of filmmakers who graduated to directing film from years of experience in live television rather than making the usual stops under the studio system. By the time Lumet made his feature film debut, localletter with 12 Angry Men (1957) he had directed more 150 episodes of television drama. Lumet’s debut got the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and established beyond doubt the arrival of a very important filmmaker. Gritty, thought-provoking and completely real 12 Angry Men was shot in one room where twelve jurors argue their verdict. Like in the case of 12 Angry Men location will go on to play the most important role in every Lumet film.
Sydney Lumet Films
The next decade saw Lumet deliver one artistic gem after another in quick succession. The Fugitive Kind (1960) with Marlon Brando, View from the Bridge (1962), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962) with towering performances by Katherine Hepburn and Jason Robards were all very, newspoke different from each other. In 1964 Lumet made a masterpiece in the form of Fail-Safe. Featuring Henry Fonda as the American president at the height of Cold War, this tense drama where the USSR and the USA could very well end up triggering a nuclear war was doomed thanks to the success of Stanley Kubrick’s satire on the same subject Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb which came out the same year. In the next three years Lumet’s made a film on Holocaust survivor haunted by the past (The Pawnbroker, 1964); a prison camp drama with Sean Connery (The Hill, 1965); a tale of eight young upper class society women in a private school (The Group, 1966) and a spy thriller based on a John Le Carre novel (The Deadly Affair, 1966). Lumet bought his television, topicals training traits of rehearsing well and shooting fast and most importantly keeping it under budget.
The 1970’s were Sidney Lumet’s best years and the films that he would direct would not only be career defining but would also end up becoming the definitive films of genres. He reunited with Sean Connery for The Anderson Tape (1971), a successful caper film but it was his first outing with Al Pacino in Serpico (1973) that would really kick off the decade for him. Based on true incidents described in Peter Maas’ novel of the same name, Serpico was the tale of an honest cop who decides to clean the rotting system but ends up being a victim of his fellow officers’ wrath. Serpico is where the birth of the character driven films, tbadaily of the 1970’s took place and with Pacino, one of the finest method actors, guided by Lumet and his penchant for realism (Lumet shot the film across 140 locations in New York City), the end result is nothing less than a master-class in filmmaking. Lumet then directed The Murder on the Orient Express featuring a great ensemble cast (Lauren Bacall, Albert Finney, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark and John Gielgud) and an excellent production design which made it one of the better Agatha Christie adaptations.
The two films that Lumet would be remembered forever happened in quick succession. If there was ever an actor whose career’s significant best was robbed of an Academy Award it would’ve be Al Pacino and his work in Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Inspired by a real incident Dog Day Afternoon had Pacino playing a gay bank robber who gets stuck in the middle of media frenzy when he robs a Manhattan bank for his lover’s sex change operation. All through his life Lumet was known to take his actors to a place where others directors could only imagine and this isn’t something that actors took lightly. Pacino had originally passed on the film due to exhaustion after finishing The Godfather 2 but when he heard that Lumet was considering Dustin Hoffman, Pacino jumped right back in! Besides Pacino the late John Cazale as Sal too makes for a very realistic portrayal.
Many people wonder how could Robert De Niro not get an Oscar for his Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) and the answer lies in Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976). An old time news anchor has had it with just about everything and loses it on air when he’s fired thanks to low ratings. Howard Beale, (Peter Finch in his Academy Award winning role) vents his anger while on air and suddenly the masses start tuning in to the channel. His rant- I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE–becomes the line of the nation and his network decides to keep him only to let everything fall to pieces. Lumet’s Network is as relevant today as it was 35 years ago and no matter how many times you watch this masterpiece you can never tire of it.
The 1980’s saw Lumet do what he best–bless us with great characters. In 1981 he went back to Serpico territory with The Prince of the City where a narcotics cop is charmed by an investigating agency to come clean on his partners and in The Verdict (1982) he directed Paul Newman in what would, kulfiy become one his supreme roles ever. Lumet never rested and all through the 1980’s and the 1990’s directed films. He never had a problem in going back to directing TV movies or even episodes because for him it was all about telling a story.
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