The Japanese name some of their artists Living Treasures. Sidney Lumet is one of ours. He has made more great pictures than most directors have made pictures, and found time to make some clunkers on the side. Roger Ebert
Last night one of the greatest filmmakers in the medium’s history, Sidney Lumet died at age 86. Through sheer coincidence I have viewed four of his films this week: made in four different decades: 12 Angry Men (1957), Network (1976), The Verdict (1982) and Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007). All of these are stellar films, which represent the many types of filmmaker that Lumet was.
There have been a number of tributes to Lumet since his death but this obituary published in Vanity Fair encapsulates his considerable legacy best:
If Woody Allen sketches Manhattan’s vibrant jostle with the neurotic twitch of comedy, Sidney Lumet threw the city, warts and all, into the sharp relief of full dramatic glory. Despite a naturalist’s eye, Lumet succeeded in the impressive feat of transforming the quotidian dramas of modest lives into complete artistic statements. Conscientious jurors and hapless bank robbers; an idealist cop and an alcoholic ambulance chaser; broken-down broadcasters and the jaded network execs who watch over them: in his hands, they embodied a vision of human life as an explosive force. Lumet was an artist with a distinctly American voice and an unforgettable moral vision that helped define the canon of the craft he loved.
But this tribute in itself does little to help define his filmic achievements. As pointed out above, Lumet had a volatile career critically, commercially and financially but he always took chances. Most of all he respected the intelligence of audience, never afraid to infuse stylistic and textual commentary in all of his films:
Lumet was also a political filmmaker -- a committed liberal, obsessed with social justice (and injustice) and the ways in which the powerful conspired to oppress, exploit and distract the powerless, and the tendency of institutions to flout rules and laws they were supposed to uphold. But these subjects were always embedded in the stories themselves and carried by the characters and the narrative. The movies rarely became straightforward polemics because Lumet was always positioning the morality of his characters in relation to the world and showing where they diverged, and he was more likely to observe than to judge or sneer.
Consider the depth and range of Lumet’s filmography as described by Roger Ebert:
For Sidney Lumet, born in 1924, 12 Angry Men was the beginning of a film career that has often sought controversial issues. Consider these titles from among his 44 films: The Pawnbroker (the Holocaust), Fail-Safe (accidental nuclear war), Serpico (police corruption), Dog Day Afternoon (homosexuality), Network (the decay of TV news), The Verdict (alcoholism and malpractice), Danie" (a son punished for the sins of his parents), Running on Empty (radical fugitives), and Critical Care (health care).
Because he works in many different genres and depends on story more than style, he is better known inside the business than out, but few directors are better at finding the right way to tell difficult stories; consider the development of Al Pacino's famous telephone call in Dog Day Afternoon." In Network, which is rarely thought of as a "director's picture," it is his unobtrusive skill that allows all those different notes and energy levels to exist within the same film. In other hands, the film might have whirled to pieces. In his, it became a touchstone.
Although he was not as widely known to the general public as directors like Scorsese, Spielberg, Eastwood and Spike Lee, his films were at the center of our collective memories12 Angry Men was Lumet’s first feature film as a director. A courtroom drama that involves no scenes with lawyers or a defendant, the film takes place in the jury room as 12 different men deliberate to decide the fate of one man. Each juror comes from a slighty different background and displays his own prejudces. The skill of Lumet as the director is the way he uses a kinetic style of direction as the plot’s tension rises, with the camera angles slowly intruding inwards as the story moves towards its conclusion.
Network is my favourite film of Lumet’s. Balancing comedy, drama and a kind of perverted romance its perhaps best known for Peter Finch’s mesmorising portrayal of Howard Beale, the stark raving news anchor. At its heart though, Network brilliantly dissects the relationship between the television industry and its audience. Correctly predicting the rise of reality television a good 25 years before it infested popular culture. Helped by Paddy Chayefsky's wonderful script, this film represented the apex of the political filmmaking along with All The President’s Men released the same year.
[Network is] a well-acted, intelligent film… that attacks not only television but also most of the other ills of the 1970s. We are asked to laugh at, be moved by, or get angry about such a long list of subjects: Sexism and ageism and revolutionary ripoffs and upper-middle-class anomie and capitalist exploitation and Neilsen ratings and psychics and that perennial standby, the failure to communicate.
The Verdict one could say is an amalgam of 12 Angry Men and Network, exploring themes of justice and redemption on one hand, and the need to rebel against powerful institutions on the other. Dominated by Paul Newman’s fantastic performance The Verdict is a meditation on the transformative power of justice, but also its sinister and corrupt underbelly. Lumet uses David Mamet’s script to perfection by allowing the audience to simultaneously love and hate Newman’s character of Frank Galvin
Galvin's redemption takes place within the framework of a courtroom thriller. The screenplay by David Mamet is a wonder of good dialogue, strongly seen characters and a structure that pays off in the big courtroom scene - as the genre requires. As a courtroom drama, "The Verdict" is superior work. But the director and the star of this film, Sidney Lumet and Paul Newman, seem to be going for something more; "The Verdict" is more a character study than a thriller, and the buried suspense in this movie is more about Galvin's own life than about his latest case.
Lumet’s final film Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead is unquestionably the darkest of the four films, and perhaps his greatest triumph as a director. Melodramatic in scale the film taps into the themes of the three previous works, but connects them with the capitalistic attitudes of modern society, Lumet examines the importance of family, the nature of greed and assesses the morals of all the films characters without adding commentary or judgment. Lumet directs mesmerising performances from all in the process.
With these four films Lumet’s legacy as a premiere filmmaker is assured. With the loss of Lumet, the public loses yet another craftsman who both challenged and entertained audiences, such a rarity in modern cinema. Lumet was the bridge between the old style Hollywood pictures and 21st century cinematic art. For that alone he will be a great loss. Perhaps more importantly though, the world has lost an intelligent artisan. The final word as with the first, goes to Ebert:
He was a thoughtful director, who gathered the best collaborators he could find and channeled their resources into a focused vision….To say he lacked a noticeable visual style is a compliment. He reduced every scene to its necessary elements, and filmed them, he liked to say, "invisibly." You should not be thinking about the camera. He wanted you to think about the characters and the story.