“His book has more common sense in it about how movies are actually made than any other I have ever read.”
Roger Ebert on Sidney Lumet’s book Making Movies (Chicago Sun-Times)
He is considered one of the best directors of the latter half of the 20th Century. His films reveal his finger on the pulse of police, political and social corruption in the Eastern United States. His resume includes films we are familiar with and have likely seen more then once with some famous lines in pop culture (“Attica! Attica!” “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”). Though he is a 5 time Academy Award nominee he has never won (though he is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award) putting him with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles. And at the age of 83, Sidney Lumet is poised for a comeback.
This fall comes the release of Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as brothers who decide to orchestrate a robbery on their own parents jewelry store, which leads to tragic events for everyone involved. The film has been playing on the film festival circuit and will hit the Chicago Film Festival in the coming week. Word out of these festivals is that Lumet has crafted another masterpiece, not really a surprise though it has been 25 years since he made what many consider to be his last. Rumors are already swirling that Lumet’s film will be remembered at Academy Award time and perhaps Lumet will finally win the director prize, an achievement long overdue.
Lumet has been a solid and steady director since the late 50’s who happened to go on a roll from the early 70’s to the early 80’s that is nearly unmatched by any other modern director. Into the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s Lumet has been less successful both critically and commercially but with every new film there is the hope he will return to form. It sounds like he has.
Here is a look at this brilliant filmmaker’s career in films.
In the 1950’s Lumet worked on television directing mostly live episodes of television dramas. While he continued in that medium he also became a prolific theater director. His first film came in 1957 and was based on a Broadway play and then a live television film that Lumet directed himself. 12 Angry Men was a powerful drama set in one room telling the story of a jury of twelve men trying to decide the fate of a young man accused of murder. Henry Fonda stars as the lone juror who refuses to immediately convict the young man and goes on a campaign to try and convince the eleven others that the man may or may not be innocent, but that his guilt is in question. The film was a huge hit critically and with the public and Lumet would earn his first nomination for Best Director coming right out of the gate.
Lumet followed this success up with three less successful films (Stage Struck; That Kind of Woman; The Fugitive Kind) before deciding to return to live television for the next three years. When he returned to the big screen in 1962 it was with an adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s powerful Long Day’s Journey Into Night about a dysfunctional family coping with drugs, alcohol and failure. With live broadcasts on network television being phased out, Lumet decided to concentrate fully on movies and would soon become one of America’s most important directors.
In 1964 Lumet re-teamed with Henry Fonda for the taut thriller Fail-Safe, about a technical error which leads American fighter pilots to Russia with the intent of starting a nuclear war while the Americans and Russians scramble to prevent tragedy. In 1965 Lumet followed with The Pawnbroker, a terrific drama starring Rod Steiger as the title character, a Nazi concentration camp survivor, running a business in the ghettos of New York. Steiger gave the performance of his career (and earned an Academy Award nomination) in what was one of the earliest art films and one of the first to show female nudity above the waist. Later that year Lumet had yet another critical smash with The Hill, with Sean Connery in his first attempt to escape his James Bond persona as a WWII prisoner of war trying to stand up to the brutality of the prison guards.
In 1966 Lumet had an unexpected hit with The Group which tells the story of several women in the early 1930’s who all belong to the same private school clique. The film follows the lives of these girls from school up to WWII as we see how the school and one another shaped their lives. Candice Bergen, Joan Hackett, Jessica Walter and Elizabeth Hartman were among the stars. Later that year he made another strong movie, this time a spy thriller starring James Mason called The Deadly Affair. 1968’s Bye Bye Braverman is a deliciously witty and very funny black comedy about a group of friends who reunite for the funeral of another friend and soon realize their friendships have long ago passed. Despite strong reviews the film failed and is little seen today but is worth seeking out. That same year he scored yet another critical hit but financial failure with The Sea Gull based on the famous story by Chekhov about the lives of those loved and betrayed at a summer home in the 19th century, starring Simone Signoret, James Mason, Vanessa Redgrave and David Warner.
Lumet’s next two efforts were among his weakest, both failing with critics and at the box office. The Appointment was a silly romantic drama with Omar Sharif as a man who slowly becomes convinced his new bride is a top prostitute in Rome. Last of the Mobile Hot Shots was based on one of Tennessee Williams’ least successful plays and proved the transition to screen was just as painful.
In 1971 Lumet’s career began to take off the caper adventure The Anderson Tapes starring Sean Connery. The two teamed again in 1972 for The Offense about a veteran police officer who slowly begins unraveling after years of investigating serious crimes and begins to take it out on a man he suspects has committed a series of brutal crimes. Later that year Lumet teamed with James Mason a third time for the critically acclaimed but little seen Child’s Play, about student and faculty life at a private boy’s school.
Then in 1973 Lumet hit the big time by casting the hottest young actor in Hollywood for his next project. Serpico starred Al Pacino, fresh off The Godfather, in the true story of a New York City police officer who refuses to accept bribes despite it going on all around him and how he would become persecuted by his fellow officers and eventually wound up shot, possibly in a set up. The film was a smash hit with Pacino receiving his second consecutive Academy Award nomination while Lumet received his best reviews in a decade.
In 1974 Lumet received great notices and strong box office for his adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel, Murder On The Orient Express. Lumet assembled a star studded cast headed by Albert Finney (nomination) as detective Hercule Poirot. He was ably supported by Martin Balsam, Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark, Anthony Perkins, Ingrid Bergman (Academy Award winner), John Gielgud, Jacqueline Bisset and Michael York. In 1975 Lumet re-teamed with Al Pacino and had an even bigger hit with Dog Day Afternoon about a bank robbery that turned into media circus. The film was also honored by critics and became the first Lumet film to be nominated for Best Picture. Lumet received his second nomination for Best Director.
Just when it seemed Lumet couldn’t get any better, along came Network, Paddy Chayefsky’s biting satire about television. Peter Finch starred (and was posthumously awarded Best Actor) as a network news anchor who finds out he is being fired in a cost cutting move and cracks up on the air, soon to become a national celebrity encouraged by his network. William Holden (nomination), Faye Dunaway (Award winner), Robert Duvall, Beatrice Straight (Award winner) and Ned Beatty (nomination) co-starred in the black comedy that, when viewed today, is a perceptively accurate premonition of what television has turned into. Chayefsky was also awarded with an Oscar but Lumet would have to settle for his third nomination as Best Director.
1977’s Equus began a minor slide for Lumet. Based on Peter Schaffer’s popular play, Equus tells the story of the relationship between a psychiatrist (nominee Richard Burton) and a stable boy (nominee Peter Firth) who has blinded six horses for reasons that will become clear. Critics were decidedly mixed in their reaction to the film, many believing Lumet went over the top with the violence (something only inferred on stage) though everyone was in agreement that Burton gave a stellar performance. The film had more of an art house release, opening on limited screens in big cities, but it failed to catch on and never got a wider release nationwide that was expected.
In 1978 Lumet made one of the strangest decisions of his career when he took on the directing job of The Wiz, the adaptation of the hugely popular Broadway musical re-telling of The Wizard Of Oz with an all African-American cast. Lumet further perplexed people when he cast singer Diana Ross in the lead role of Dorothy. Ross certainly had the pipes for the role but was far too old. The film did have some terrific musical set pieces and amusing performances by Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man and Richard Pryor as the Wiz. The film normally would have been viewed as quite successful had it not been for its overblown budget. In 1979 Lumet directed Just Tell Me What You Want, a slight but forgettable romantic comedy starring Ali MacGraw and Alan King.
In 1981 Lumet created, in my opinion, one of his masterpieces with Prince of the City, starring Treat Williams in a harrowing drama about a corrupt New York city detective who is approached by internal affairs to expose other corruption within the department in exchange for a slap on the wrist. The detective agrees on the grounds that he doesn’t have to turn in his partners and friends but soon finds himself in far deeper then he ever imagined. This powerful drama received mixed reviews (many stating its two hour, forty-three minute running time was excessive) with some critics placing it on their ten-best lists. But the film failed to catch on was a shocking disappointment. Despite this Lumet received his fourth nomination – this time for the Screenplay.
In 1982 Lumet directed the film adaptation of Ira Levin’s hit Broadway play Deathtrap, starring Michael Caine as a washed up playwright who invites one of his student’s (Christopher Reeve) to his cottage with a deadly scheme. He has read the student’s new play and plans to kill him and take the credit for the new play. Aided by his nervous wife (Dyan Cannon), the playwright puts his plan into action immediately after the student arrives but soon realizes (as the audience does) that nothing is at it seems. This is a delightfully demented comedy/thriller with unexpected twists and turns that critics were divided on but audiences seemed to love.
Later that year Lumet made what many feel is his last true masterpiece, The Verdict. Paul Newman (in what many, myself included, feel is his best performance) stars as a down on his luck, alcoholic attorney given one last shot at redemption when a case is thrown his way that seems simple enough. He is expected to take the case and settle it and, hopefully, get his feet back on the ground and get his act together. But after viewing the victim in the medical malpractice case, the lawyer decides to fight the famous doctors accused. Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden and James Mason (nominee) co-star in the drama written by acclaimed playwright David Mamet that notched Lumet his fifth and, to date, last nomination for Best Director. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, another feat not repeated since.
After The Verdict Lumet’s films have been hit and miss with critics and audiences. In 1983 he made Daniel with Timothy Hutton about the son of a couple who were executed after being accused of being spies for the Russians. The film was met with mixed reviews but flopped at the box office. An even bigger flop, both critically and commercially, was Garbo Talks, (1984), a comedy with Anne Bancroft and Ron Silver about a dying woman whose last wish is to meet legendary actress Greta Garbo. Power, a 1986 political drama starring Richard Gere and Gene Hackman about a political consultant who gets in over his head with a new senatorial candidate was deemed too talky by critics and even fans of Gere did not turn out. Later that year Lumet directed The Morning After with Jane Fonda as an alcoholic actress who awakens one morning after binge drinking only to discover a dead man in her bed and no recollection of how he died. The film’s script was simplistic and its solution was obvious early on but it gets a boost from Fonda’s strong performance, which was nominated for an Academy Award.
In 1988 Lumet received some strong reviews for Running On Empty about a family who has been on the run for years because of anti-war violence they committed which keeps them moving from place to place, changing their names and knowing the authorities are never too far behind. As they settle into a new town, the older of two son’s (nominee River Phoenix) falls in love and makes plans to pursue his dream of being a pianist. He is hindered by this as he knows they will be running again soon and if he stays his parents may get caught or he may never see them again. Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti play the parents, trying to do their best for their children and survive for sins committed doing what they believed in. Despite the response from critics this film was unfairly overlooked by the public and deserves to be seen.
Family Business teams Dustin Hoffman, Sean Connery and Matthew Broderick as three generations of men who are thieves. Despite the star power the script was weak and the results were bland. 1990’s Q & A brought Lumet back to familiar territory with Timothy Hutton as a young, idealistic district attorney trying to make a case against a vile and corrupt police detective (Nick Nolte). The writing and performances were particularly strong here but some critics felt the film had a “been there, done that” feel to it and it flopped at the box office.
Lumet now entered into the worst period of his career not only making films no one went to see but making films that were below par for any director, much less someone like him. 1992’s A Stranger Among Us is easily one of Lumet’s worst films. Sort of a female Witness, Melanie Griffith stars as a detective who goes undercover in Manhattan’s Hassidic Jewish community to solve a diamond heist and murder. Griffith was wildly miscast as all serious intentions in the script went out the window. 1993’s Guilty As Sin is a poor man’s Jagged Edge with Rebecca DeMornay as an attorney representing a womanizing creep accused of murdering his wife for the money. Night Falls On Manhattan is Lumet’s best film in this period as he returns to the subject matter he knows best: Corruption. Here Andy Garcia playa a D.A. working on a police scandal and soon discovers that his own father might be involved. Critical Care is a dark comedy that tries to do for the healthcare system what 1971’s The Hospital did. James Spader stars as a new resident in a hospital fighting for the values of patients without insurance and fighting to keep his sanity.
1999’s Gloria may be the worst decision Lumet ever made. The film is a remake of the 1980 film by the great John Cassavetes about a woman who stands up to mobsters after a family is killed leaving only a small child behind who witnessed it. Gloria takes the child on the run to protect him. Lumet insists he made the film because he felt it was Cassavetes’ least seen work. It was certainly one of his lesser films and Lumet manages to take it and make an even worse version. One problem was casting Sharon Stone, who looks great but is in way over head in a role Gena Rowlands originated and was nominated for Best Actress for.
After doing some television work and slowing down some, Lumet made his next film six years later. Find Me Guilty was a strong effort that failed at the box office. Vin Diesel stepped away from his action hero persona to give a good performance in this true story of a mobster who goes on trial instead of ratting out his family and friends and decides to defend himself in what would end up to be the longest criminal case against the mafia in U.S. history. The film sat on the shelf for over a year but the end result proved it was far more worthy of better treatment by the studio.
So as autumn arrives with a new Sidney Lumet film on the horizon. A true movie buff is likely quite excited at the prospect and one can only hope that Lumet stays healthy and active and continues to make movies we know he is capable of making.