Hollywood just lost one of its greatest directors. Sidney Lumet died April 9th at age 86 of lymphoma. Not only was he one of film’s greatest artists, he was one of those with a strong social conscience as well. When you think of his movies you realize how many important films from the sixties, seventies and eighties were his. And they were about something. Movies like NETWORK, THE VERDICT, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, 12 ANGRY MEN, SERPICO, FAIL SAFE and PRINCE OF THE CITY. Lumet once wrote, “While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film in which I believe goes one step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing.” He certainly got our juices flowing. His films were testaments to the times we lived in.
And angry times they were. Lumet was a New Yorker and perhaps that’s why his films were always about people on the edge: a concentration camp victim losing his mind and morality in an increasingly nasty city (THE PAWNBROKER); a young cop endangering his life by ratting out his on-the-take brethren (SERPICO); a troubled lawyer shunning the easy money settlement and instead standing up, albeit shakily, to the corrupt Archdiocese (THE VERDICT). Lumet was always itching for a fight. He knew the world was dirty and liked shining the light on it, exposing the filth. More often than not he preferred to shoot in New York City. It was gritty, it was real, and it was his home.
He made his last picture just two years ago with BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD. It was a cynical story about two brothers plotting to rip off their own parent’s jewelry store. Of course in the Lumet world, the heist goes awry, people end up dead, and the actors play out the most dramatic of emotions: grief, rage, terror and frustration. Lumet loved the big emotions. He loved the big speeches. Man raging at the machine. Man raging at “The Man.”
And actors loved working for Lumet. Of course they did, as he was an actor’s director. He directed Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, Beatrice Straight, and Ingrid Bergman to Oscars; and Rod Steiger, Al Pacino, Chris Sarandon, William Holden, Albert Finney, Richard Burton, Peter Firth, Paul Newman, James Mason, Jane Fonda and River Phoenix to nominations.
|Peter Finch in NETWORK (1976)|
He made two movies that now seem prophetic. The first was NETWORK (1976), a dark satire that warned that TV news was starting to veer dangerously close to becoming entertainment. Its story was about Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a news anchor who gets fired and decides to exit by blowing his brains out on TV. That promise raises his ratings and the greedy network execs keep the unstable Beale on air. It isn’t long before Beale is railing at corruption five nights a week, and quickly turns into an uncontrollable religious zealot. His famous line you'll recall was, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” NETWORK forecast the tsunami of cable news punditry drowning out legitimate news and the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck becoming the verbose and loud voices of a new generation of 'anchors.' NETWORK also predicted that it wouldn’t be long before reality TV started dominating programming. Lumet was both ahead of his time. And of his time.
|Paul Newman in THE VERDICT (1982)|
The second prophetic movie Lumet made was THE VERDICT (1982). In this courtroom saga Paul Newman played a burnt-out drunk of a lawyer seeking redemption by taking on the Catholic Church over a wrongful death suit. It was a long way from the typical Newman role or how Hollywood usually portrayed the legal profession. Here, practically everyone was on the take in some way, even the good guys. Lumet was willing to point an accusatory finger at the less than idyllic side of America. Now, that seems par for the course on TV in such fare as LAW & ORDER, but then it was quite revolutionary. But that's how Lumet operated. He slew the Goliaths. And wasn't afraid to wield a rock or two.
Lumet sometimes attempted lighter fare in his career, with varying degrees of success. He directed a misbegotten version of the Broadway musical THE WIZ (1978) and flailed at big screen comedy a couple of times with the likes of JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT (1980) and GARBO TALKS (1984). His most successful film that was a big stretch for him was MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974). This effervescent and star-studded cocktail of a murder mystery was a huge commercial hit and a critical favorite as well. Agatha Christie called it the best of any of the movie adaptations of her books. Lumet considered that to be his Oscar that year.
Lumet never won an Oscar in competition, though he was nominated five times. He was given a richly deserved honorary Oscar for his career in 2005 and he accepted it with the same candor and energy that he brought to all his work. He lived a long life and made over 40 films. Sidney Lumet will be greatly missed. There's one less guy to fight the good fight now. I’m very sad that he’s gone. And more than a little “mad as hell” too.