Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Late, Great Sidney Lumet's 10 Best Films

According to the IMDB, Sidney Lumet had 72 directing credits to his name when he died last week – of those, 43 were feature films, 1 was a documentary and the others were all television work – either series or TV movies. I haven’t seen all of Lumet’s films – only about half – but he is one of my favorite directors, one of the first filmmakers I came to truly love when I started really liking movies as a teenager. Now that the legendary filmmaker is gone – just a few months shy of his 87th birthday – I thought a fitting tribute would be to look back at my 10 favorite Lumet films. Lumet was a New York filmmaker – just as much as Martin Scoresese, Woody Allen or Spike Lee are. He often shot on the streets of New York, and his best films have an authenticity that only comes from shooting on location. Not often listed among the greatest American directors in history, Lumet deserves to be considered alongside the the best cinema history has to offer. Here are my 10 favorite Sidney Lumet films.

10. Serpico (1973)
Al Pacino was given one of his most famous roles in this dark tale of police corruption in New York. Pacino plays Frank Serpico, a NYPD officer who is tired of the corruption he sees all around him, and goes undercover to try and expose it. He is met with threats and intimidation on all sides, but never gives up, continually pushing for reforms. Lumet shot the film on the streets of New York, giving the film a gritty realism that few films can match. In Pacino, he found the perfect Serpico and the film remains a landmark of police movies – which pretty much every film in the genre afterwards owes a debt to.

9. Running on Empty (1988)
In some ways, Running on Empty is a different sort of film for Lumet, as it does not take place in New York. And yet, what it shares with his best work is a perception of the people at its core. It is the story of a couple of 1960s radicals (Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti) who blew up a building in protest back then, and ended up killing a janitor. They have been on the run ever since. They do not really regret having to give up normal lives, but they are now seeing the cost it has taken out of their son (River Phoenix) who has a chance at a normal life – but one that will cost him his family, and they him. This is an emotional movie – a scene between Lahti and her father Steven Hill is a highlight – and also one of the best showcases ever for Phoenix, who we lost far too young. This is one of Lumet’s lesser known masterworks, but it deserves to be seen.

8. Prince of the City (1981)
Prince of the City is much less well known than Serpico, but it deals with the same issue – police corruption – and in my mind is deeper, better film. It stars Treat Williams, who unlike Serpico is not a squeaky clean cop, but one who has broken the rules, gets caught, and has to face a series of unthinkable decisions. He will tell prosecutors all he knows about how narcs do their job – how they take kickbacks, how they string junkies along to use as enforcers, how they trade drugs for favors, etc. But he does not want to rat on his partners – the great Jerry Orbach especially. I have a feeling that if Treat Williams had become a bigger star, than this movie would be better known than it is. Williams delivers his undeniable best performance here, as a man who does not know what it is right any longer, but continues to try and do the right thing. In the world he inhabits, there is no right thing left – no matter what he does, it will destroy someone.

7. The Pawnbroker (1965)
The Pawnbroker was a groundbreaking film in 1965 – it was the first mainstream American film to show a female breast, although the context was far from sexual. This is a dark tale of a Holocaust survivor (Rod Steiger in perhaps his greatest performance), who saw his children killed and his wife raped in the camps. Now, he runs a pawnshop in East Harlem, and is bitter and lonely – rebuffing the offer of friendship from those around him, including his shop assistant, a young Hispanic man who idolizes him. For me, the plot of The Pawnbroker is secondary to the character study of Steiger’s character, as a bitter, lonely, angry man, still dealing with the Holocaust two decades latter. This was the first film to deal with the Holocaust from the point of view of a survivor – and it remains one of the very best. Lumet, as he would often do, shot the film on location on the streets of New York City, giving the film authenticity that is enhanced, not detracted, because of its low budget. A landmark film for both Steiger and Lumet.

6. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Dog Day Afternoon is a about a man (Al Pacino) who robs a bank in order to finance his lover’s sex change operation. If you think this is the setup for some sort of screwball comedy, you’d be forgiven, but you’d also be wrong. Here is a movie about a hostage situation that every movie afterwards about hostages has been compared to, and found wanting. Pacino makes his character believable, touching and sympathetic. He is a good guy, even if he has taken a bank full of hostages. The cops outside are also good guys – just trying to get through this the best way they can. The movie hums with the everyday reality of New York, which is what makes this movie as great as it is. One of the most famous of Lumet’s films, it deserves all the praise it has received and then some.

5. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)
Sidney Lumet adapted several plays into movies over the years – The Iceman Cometh, The Fugitive Kind (based on Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Rising), but  his version of Eugene O’Neil’s legendary final play Long Day’s Journey Into Night is one of the best stage to screen adaptations ever. It takes place over that long day in that sprawling house in Connecticut inhabited by the Tyrone family. Father James Sr.(Ralph Richardson), the alcoholic stage actor who places demands on his family they cannot live up to, mother Mary (Katherine Hepburn), a morphine addict recently out of the hospital, who medicates herself not only with morphine but with self delusion, older son Jamie (Jason Robards), also an alcoholic and an actor, who in many ways is life his father and hates himself for it, and finally younger brother Edmund (Dean Stockwell), more like his mother who adores him, but is sick and fragile with TB. All throughout the long movie (over three hours), these characters will talk and attack each other. Unlike many filmed plays, Long Day’s Journey Into Night does not feel like a filmed play at all – but a real film. Lumet’s camera moves throughout the house, capturing its darkness, and the characters in all their painful, brutal reality. One of the best play adaptations in history.

4. The Verdict (1982)
Lumet was as comfortable in a courtroom as any director in history. He made many legal films and they remain among the best the genre has ever produced. What makes The Verdict so special – even as it follows the legal genre’s basic framework of a lawyer determined to fight large odds and win justice for his client, culminating in a final courtroom showdown – is that it is more about the main character than about the case. In Paul Newman, Lumet found the perfect man to play his “hero”, an alcoholic lawyer who barely works anymore, and his handed a simple case in which a settlement is a foregone conclusion, and he’ll walk away with some easy money. But he is determined to try this case – not only to win it for his client, who is in a coma after all, but to redeem the life he has wasted. Lumet fills out the supporting cast with great actors – Jack Warden, Charlotte Rampling and especially James Mason, but this remains Newman’s showcase, and rarely has one of the greatest actors in history been better than he is here. A truly great movie.

3. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
Lumet’s final film is one of his best, and his most underrated. It stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as two brothers who could not possibly be more different. Hoffman is a real estate accountant, who has had some shady deals go wrong, and is in desperate need of money. Hawke has always been irresponsible, but lovable, and could always use money. Hoffman hatches a plan to rob a jewelry store to get them both what they need. Of course, the jewelry store is their parents, and things go horribly wrong, leading to a downward spiral of violence. Hoffman has one of his best roles here, as the man desperately trying to hold onto everything he has – the nice apartment, the beautiful wife (Marisa Tomei, also brilliant). Hawke hasn’t been this good in years. And Albert Finney, as the patriarch, cold bloodedly walking into his son’s hospital room at the end is wonderful. Right up until the end, Sidney Lumet knew how to make crime movies – and knew how to make them better than almost anyone else.

2. 12 Angry Men (1957)
Lumet’s first film probably remains his most famous and most beloved for many people. It has been remade several times, most brilliantly in Russia just a few years ago. Aside for very brief scenes at the beginning and end of the movie, the entire film takes place inside a jury room, where 12 men debate the guilt or innocence of a young, Hispanic man accused of killing his father. For 11 men, it seems like a slam dunk – the boy is guilty. But one man, played by Henry Fonda in one of his greatest roles, is not convinced and argues the case for reasonable doubt. One by one, the other jurors start to turn and see things from his point of view. Lumet’s film, which runs the danger of seeming too staged, never falls into that trap. His camera moves effortlessly around the small room. As usual, Lumet gets great performances from his cast – not just Fonda but great character actors like E.G. Marshall, Martin Balsam, Jack Klugman, Ed Begley, Jack Warden and especially Lee J. Cobb as the angriest of the men. Lumet’s film is about the justice system, and how everyone deserves their chance at a fair trial. The casual racism that the film exposes is handled with subtlety and tact. We never really find out whether the boy is guilty or innocent – it doesn’t really matter. Lumet who made a number of great courtroom dramas in his career never topped this one in that regard. In fact, I’m not sure anyone has.

1. Network (1976)
The further away we get from 1976, the more Network looks like prophecy and not satire. Truly, is Glenn Beck all that far away from Peter Finch’s Howard Beale – the Mad Prophet of the airwaves, whose insane rants draw huge ratings for the failing network, until he goes too far and has to be eliminated. Finch’s performance is the film’s most famous – it had to be a blast for the actor in his last role (he died before he won his Oscar for it) to go wildly over the top – especially in one of the most famous scenes in cinema history when he gets people all across America to go to their windows and scream “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”. But while Finch works brilliantly well as a sideshow in the movie, there is lots of other great things in the movie. William Holden’s sad, old news man, trying in vain to hold onto a little bit of dignity in his business. Faye Dunaway as the heartless, young exec who sleeps with Holden, but still has no qualms about turning the news into a freak show. Beatrice Straight, in the shortest Oscar winning performance of all time, as Holden’s jilted wife who in one brief scene tells you all you need to know about her character and her life. Ned Beatty as a shadowy exec in one of those big, long, dark conference rooms that exist only in the movies. Robert Duvall as the appropriately named Frank Hackett, trying to juggle all the balls the best he can. Network is satire at its finest – harsh, unrelenting, cynical and hilarious. True, a lot of the credit has to go to Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote one of the most brilliant screenplays of all time for the film, but Lumet captures it all perfectly – becoming the best partner in crime Chayefsky ever had behind the camera for his biting wit. This is a masterwork – one of the great American films of all time. And Lumet’s best film.

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