Welcome to a new series called How Many Films of _____ Have You Seen, in which I pick a director each week, discuss him and my experiences with the director and list the films that I have seen of that director. Then you tell me how many and which films you’ve seen and from there we make recommendations, discuss and maybe dive into the auteur theory. This is a space where we can open up about the holes in our film viewing and not get beaten up by a million responses of “you haven’t seen ______? How dare you!”
This week I am posting about Sidney Lumet to promote a talk I’m co-leading about Sidney Lumet at DC Cinema Lounge this Monday at 7 PM in Washington DC. Teaism is located by Archives/Navy Memorial metro. Please come so we have people to discuss with. https://www.facebook.com/events/2095973147393902/
This week’s director Sidney Lumet.
Sidney Lumet consistently made films that have stood the test of time from 1957 with a sensational debut in 12 Angry Men to his sleeper critical darling 50 years later in 2007. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Unlike Francis Ford Coppola or William Friedkin (the 70s), Blake Edwards (60s), or Brian de Palma (70s/80s), or Clint Eastwood (00s) who were among the most critically praised over the course of a single decade, Lumet was never associated with the greats of any one decade even though they made films in other eras. A child of stalwarts in the Yiddish theater scene, Lumet worked as a child acting in Yiddish theater but also taking a keen interest in every department. When he returned from the war, he set his sights on putting those experiences into directing.
He cut his teeth in live TV which perhaps gave him the workmanlike quality of serving the project rather than trying to infuse his personal style into (in most cases) already-adapted material. Lumet was most comfortable in gritty urban settings (although many films such as The Hill or Murder on the Orient Express were exceptions) and had a great gift for suspense but if there was a singular trait, it was possibly his gravitation toward and handling of socially significant material. This quote is a good guide to Lumet’s work:
While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film in which I believe goes on step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of their own conscience.
What Most People Believe Are the Essentials:
12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Verdict
2nd tier: Pawnbroker, Murder on the Orient Express, Fail Safe, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Prince of the City.
My number: 7
12 Angry Men, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Verdict, Prince of the City.
Additionally: I saw the Richard Dreyfus TV reproduction of Fail Safe so I know what that’s about.
My Favorite: Network is a masterpiece based on just how eerily prescient in its foreshadowing of the media’s influence in the present day, but it’s also a great stand-alone morality play. Like much of Lumet’s work there’s a theatrical quality with characters (particularly Ned Beatty in what might be the best one-scene appearance ever) going for mythological performances rather than naturalism. While Peter Finch’s Howard Beale has the quote “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore”, nearly every character except William Holden’s Murrowesque executive is pretty much an epic lunatic. There’s also the cryptic romance between William Holden and Faye Dunaway’s characters that is so deliciously twisted.
Underrated: Murder on the Orient Express. The 2017 remake upped the thriller angle to it (perhaps wisely so), but the original has an aura of continental sophistication with an admirable adherence to the source material. Has a novel mystery ever been bought to life better? (I honestly don’t know, so correct me in the comments) It’s a fun mystery with one of the best ensembles ever assembled on screen. And no offense to Kenneth Branagh, but Albert Finney is the better Poirot: A big presence and idiosyncratic without being hammy.
Overrated: Prince in the City seemed bloated with characters who all made little mark on the story and felt static in terms of plot movement. I’ve never been able to get particularly invested in mole/informant-type plots because it lends itself to such easy plot twists that there’s little reason to be surprised.
What I might approach next: Serpico is the most high-profile film I haven’t seen, but after Prince in the City I am burned out on crooked cop stuff. Find me Guilty seemed like a flop. Because it has the great Rod Steiger and deals with the Holocaust in a curious way, I’m very curious about The Pawnbroker. The Fugitive Kid might be interesting because of the amusing anecdotes I read between Marlon Brando and Sidney Lumet in Lumet’s book Making Movies. I also would be interested in watching The Hill to compare and contrast it against other prison escape movies of that era.
So don’t be shy. How many have you seen?
If you need help remembering what he’s directed, here’s this handy-dandy list (credit to TCM):
- Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead(2007)
- Find Me Guilty(2006)
- Strip Search(2004) as Director.
- Gloria(1999) as Director.
- Night Falls on Manhattan(1997) as Director.
- Critical Care(1997) as Director.
- Guilty As Sin(1993) as Director.
- Stranger Among Us, A(1992) as Director.
- Q&A(1990) as Director.
- Family Business(1989) as Director.
- Running on Empty(1988) as Director.
- Morning After, The(1986) as Director.
- Power(1986) as Director.
- Garbo Talks(1984) as Director.
- Daniel(1983) as Director.
- Deathtrap(1982) as Director.
- The Verdict (1982) as Director.
- Prince of the City(1981) as Director.
- Just Tell Me What You Want(1980) as Director.
- The Wiz(1978) as Director.
- Equus(1977) as Director.
- Network(1976) as Director.
- Dog Day Afternoon(1975) as Director.
- Serpico(1974) as Director.
- Lovin’ Molly(1974) as Director.
- Murder on the Orient Express(1974) as Director.
- The Offense(1973) as Director.
- Child’s Play(1972) as Director.
- The Anderson Tapes(1971) as Director.
- The Last of the Mobile Hotshots(1970) as Director.
- King: A Filmed Record … Montgomery to Memphis(1970) as Connecting seq dir.
- The Appointment(1970) as Director.
- The Sea Gull(1968) as Director.
- Bye Bye Braverman(1968) as Director.
- The Deadly Affair(1967)
- The Group(1966) as Director.
- The Hill(1965) as Director.
- The Pawnbroker(1965) as Director.
- Fail Safe(1964) as Director.
- A View From the Bridge(1962) as Director.
- Long Day’s Journey Into Night(1962) as Director.
- The Fugitive Kind(1960) as Director.
- That Kind of Woman(1959) as Director.
- Stage Struck(1958) as Director.
- 12 Angry Men(1957) as Director.
You can follow Orrin at @okonh0wp, sophomorecritic.blogspot.com