(1924 - 2010)
Three Key Films: Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976)
Underrated: Running on Empty (1988) No one mentioned this film when Lumet passed away a few months ago, and I wasn’t surprised. It has slipped into obscurity, partly due to the shiny brilliance of his bigger pictures from the ‘70s and partly due to its profoundly uncomfortable politics in a post-9/11 America. But, this gorgeous, sensitive, and profound study of former domestic terrorists on the run from the FBI while trying to hold their family together is among the most daring works of art in his filmography. The film humanizes a pair of 60s-era radicals (masterfully played by a never better Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch) and asks us to confront and sympathize with the horror of their situation. If they turn themselves in, face up to their crimes, they will never see their children again. But, if they stay on the run, what kind of life are they giving their children anyway? Never shying away from the wrong that they committed, and never engaging with the politics that had driven them to this desperate end, the film studies the harmonics of a loving family facing the catastrophe of fracture. It’s a tough, tough film on a terrifically complicated subject, and among the most heartbreaking I have ever seen.
Unforgettable: “They’re real big drinkers all of them, by nature!”—12 Angry Men (1957). This early tour de force from a young, angry Lumet, is a claustrophobic work of genius through and through, even if it might over-rely on frequent speechifying to drive the dialogue. This classic scene, in which the kingpin racist in the room stands up and finally speaks his mind, fully and completely, about what his reasoning is behind his conviction that the accused, a minority, is guilty. It’s in his nature. As his hot-blooded speech grows in intensity, relying on stereotypes, guesswork, and soaked in racist absurdities, one by one several of the men at the table stand up, walk to the extreme edge of the shot, and turn their back on him. “What’s happening in here? Listen to me!” Henry Fonda: “I have. Now, sit down and don’t open your mouth again.” Thrilling.
The Legend: When Sidney Lumet passed away on April 9th of this year, Hollywood lost one of the great political filmmakers in its history. Born in 1924 in Philadelphia to Yiddish entertainers, he began acting as a child and continued onstage until joining the Army in 1939. Following the war, Lumet began to direct plays in New York, before finding his way behind the camera for early television programs. By the mid-1950s he was looking for a way to break into Hollywood, and he found it with 1957’s 12 Angry Men, then as now among the most auspicious directing debuts in film history.
A classic of the social justice, “social problem” film tradition, 12 Angry Men was a great success with both critics and audiences alike. From that moment on, Lumet barely stopped for a breath—over the next 50 years, Lumet managed almost one film every twelve months, a breakneck pace that is all the more astonishing when one considers the amount of utter masterpieces he managed to produce along the way. Though unfailingly entertaining, his films have always hewed toward the social consciousness of Stanley Kramer than the street poetry of Scorsese, though he is best understood as a kind of bridge between these two approaches. From his harrowing (if perhaps over-didactic) early work 12 Angry Men (racism and justice), The Fugitive Kind (existential alienation) to his much-vaunted mid-‘70s masterpieces Serpico (police corruption), Dog Day Afternoon (post-Vietnam ennui), Network (news as entertainment), through to his more recent examinations of post-9/11 American disappointment and paranoia in Strip Search (2004) and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), Lumet has rarely strayed far from his social message purview. When he has, however, yikes. Perhaps best exemplified by the bloated mess that was The Wiz (1978 in every way), Lumet was startlingly out of his depth when he stepped out of his wheelhouse. Still, the bright spots in his more than 50-film career are positively blinding. Stuart Henderson