Few, at this point, would dispute that the 1970s is the single greatest decade in American filmmaking after World War II. If you were to list the landmark movies that were central to the decade’s pop-cultural identity, that list would surely include the following three films: Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Network (1976). Those three classics — made, bang bang bang, more or less right in a row — were all directed by the same man, Sidney Lumet, who died today at 86. Yet Lumet, one of the most exciting American filmmakers who ever lived, occupies, to this moment, a unique and slightly idiosyncratic place in the history of the New Hollywood.
The filmmakers who iconically define the ’70s — Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Spielberg, De Palma, Lucas — were self-conscious pop artists from more or less the moment they became famous. Lumet, by contrast, made his first film, 12 Angry Men, in 1957, and he had his roots deep in the studio system. He was older than the film school brats who had taken over Hollywood, and a lot squarer, too. Robert Altman was just as old as Lumet, but he never really enjoyed success until M*A*S*H (1970), and Altman, as a personality, lived a lot younger than his years: He was a middle-aged hipster who smoked dope and cultivated a counterculture outlaw image. So did Sam Peckinpah, another quintessential ’70s director who also predated the ’70s.
Lumet, by contrast, was a hardboiled straight shooter who came up in the 1950s (he was born in 1924), and he had that utilitarian studio heat in his blood. Trained during the Golden Age of Television, he was famous for working fast, and he was only too happy to take on commercial Hollywood projects as assignments, in a way that the new young visual whippersnappers would never have deigned to. He made Murder on the Orient Express, an entertainingly dry Agatha Christie thriller, in 1974, right in between Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. Can you imagine the Altman, Scorsese, or Coppola of the time doing that?
Because of his defiantly unpretentious attitude, Lumet made it easy to regard him as a craftsman rather than as an artist. And something about his movies did, too. He was obsessed with police corruption, and with the tribal urban warfare between law enforcers and criminals, and he dug into those subjects more deeply than any other American filmmaker — but that still lent his movies a down-and-dirty genre tinge, a cops-and-crooks streetwise grittiness.
But here’s the thing: Lumet went into the New York streets… and he made them electric. The first time I saw Dog Day Afternoon, with its botched bank robbery that feels like it’s happening, in its hair-trigger madness, in real time, I felt as if I finally understood what a criminal really was. In movies, crooks were usually “bad guys,” or maybe, in a heist movie or even Bonnie and Clyde, they were “good guys” — but Al Pacino’s Sonny was so far beyond those categories, such a desperate, sweaty force of broken humanity, that I realized: This is what a criminal, a real criminal, so often is — not a guiltless operator but a flawed man who has sunk low, and then sinks himself lower.
In Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, Lumet became famous for how he caught the teeming, squalid energy of New York. It was a working class outer-borough energy. Lumet’s streets were just as mean as Scorsese’s, but Lumet’s seemed plain rather than poetic. He channeled that New York skeezy vitality with such natural force that it was easy to overlook what was truly involved in the achievement. He captured that New York vibe like no one else because he saw it, lived it, breathed it — but then he had to go out and stage it, or re-create it, almost as if he were staging a documentary, letting his actors square off like random predators, insisting on the most natural light possible, making offices look as ugly and bureaucratic as they were because he knew, beneath that, that they weren’t just offices but lairs, and that there was a deeper intensity, almost a kind of beauty, to catching the coarseness of reality as it truly looked.
The words “Sidney Lumet” and “energy” have often been treated as synonymous. His other defining stamp is that he was known, from the outset, as a quintessential director of actors. What possesses me now, in thinking about Lumet, is that those two bravura aspects of his filmmaking are really two sides of the same creative coin. For the energy he was famous for wasn’t just a matter of actors pelting each other with spiky dialogue or slamming each other against walls. The energy was there in the quietest moments. It was an inner energy, a hum of existence that Lumet observed in people and brought out in them.
Just take a look at this shot, to the left, of Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. The actor was at the height of his ’70s handsomeness, and he’s not wearing a beard or any sort of costume, but he never looked quite like this at any other time. It’s the sweat shine on his nose (which most directors, even good ones, would have gotten rid of), the slight unkemptness of the hair (most directors, even good ones, would have made it less messy… or more so), and that pout of recognition, the look of a man who’s been sucking a lemon his whole life, and won’t voice his despair, even though it’s right there in his heart. The energy of Dog Day Afternoon is all there in that shot. And it’s a quality that Lumet brought to so many of his movies, going back to his first, 12 Angry Men, which is more or less the greatest courtroom drama ever made, even though it all takes place in the jury room. It’s based on a play, and it should by all rights be as stage-bound a piece as you could imagine, but Lumet, working with his amazing cast (Lee. J. Cobb, Jack Klugman, the incomparable Henry Fonda), makes these weary and embattled workaday jurors, searching for justice, as explosively American as the founding fathers.
Lumet had his themes and obsessions, but he was an extraordinarily eclectic director, bouncing from the Broadway soul glitz of The Wiz (1978) to the 12-step thriller realism of The Morning After (1986), from the nuclear terror of the tensely dazzling Fail-Safe (1964) — for my money, a greater movie than Dr. Strangelove — to the years-ahead-of-the-curve feminist psychodrama of The Group (1966). Lumet made so many different kinds of movies that when I think about choosing his greatest film, my head spins. A lot of people would say it’s Network, and though I wouldn’t agree, I think it’s a marvel of a movie. I had a deeply illuminating experience with Network in that, like a lot of people, I loved it when it came out in 1976, but I thought I was watching an outrageously over-the-top media burlesque. I never saw it again until I happened, one night in the mid-’90s, to catch it on television, and my jaw just about dropped: It seemed like a different movie! Because it had all come true! It foresaw the whole current era of our media madness, and our corporate corruption too. The visionary script, by Paddy Chayefsky, gets a lot of the credit, of course, but so does Lumet for making this satire of televised artifice and ego so uncannily real. If I had to choose Lumet’s greatest film, I guess I would say Dog Day Afternoon, but a part of me is tempted to choose his very last movie, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), an astonishingly tricky and powerful tale of family ties and petty crime (talk about criminals who aren’t, you know… criminals) that Lumet made when he was in his early 80s. It is feverishly alive with the perils, and wages, of sin. (I also think it’s the most virtuosic film ever directed by a senior citizen.)
My choice for the best Sidney Lumet film you’ve probably never seen is The Offence, a drama he made in Britain with Sean Connery in 1972. Connery gives his most fearless performance as a cop on the trail of a serial killer. I confess I’ve never had much patience for Prince of the City (1982), the Treat Williams cop epic that was supposed to be the director’s magnum opus of men in blue. To me, it’s convoluted and sterile. The movie that lived up to Prince of the City‘s billing is the far less well-known Q&A (1990), a journey into the heart of police corruption in which Nick Nolte brings off an acting feat he has never touched since. Then, of course, there’s The Verdict (1982), in which Paul Newman, as an alcoholic Boston lawyer forced to clean up his act, gives a career-capping performance. And then there are the Lumet films I enjoy beyond all reason, like the 1993 legal thriller Guilty as Sin (starring Don Johnson — and he’s terrific!), or Deathtrap (1982), that warped jigsaw puzzle that he executed with such high exuberance.
It strikes me, thinking back over Lumet’s career, that he loved, more than anything, finding the drama of men who were flawed. For him, it was a matter of empathy, but it was also a matter of the cathartic theater of movies. The more he could show you a character who had fallen from grace, and the more he could make you see you had something in common with that character, the more he could produce an almost physical feeling, a shudder of recognition. For Sidney Lumet, that was grace.
Sidney Lumet, director of film classics, dies at 86
Sidney Lumet Talks About His Oscar-Nominated Films (from EW archive, January 2008)
Sidney Lumet’s Q&A: Owen Gleiberman revisits review of 1990 film
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman