Highbrow movie types always hesitated to include Sidney Lumet in the pantheon of great directors. They say he lacked a distinctive style, a personal vision.
Who cares? This is, after all, the man who made everything from “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” to “Dog Day Afternoon” and captured the energy of his hometown New York better than any other director.
Lumet, who died today at the age of 86, was the son of a famed Yiddish theater actor. He began performing on stage at the age of 5 and was one of the original “Dead End” kids on Broadway.
After World War II, he began directing in theater and television. He did more than 250 TV shows, including live episodes of “Omnibus” and “Playhouse 90.” His 1960 version of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” starring Jason Robards, remains one of TV’s finest artistic moments.
Lumet’s first feature film was “12 Angry Men” (1957), an Oscar-nominated courtroom drama starring Henry Fonda and a powerful ensemble cast. It epitomized Lumet’s TV-honed ability to deliver intense performances with limited budgets in cramped settings.
Although “The Fugitive Kind” (1959) was a crashing disappointment -- the confluence of Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani and Tennessee Williams should have produced something better than this inchoate mumblefest -- Lumet’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (1962) is the best filmed play ever made.
As O’Neill’s doomed Tyrones, Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Dean Stockwell and Jason Robards were peerless. (Sadly, the 172-minute original cut was later trimmed by a half-hour, eliminating a marvelous exchange between Richardson and Robards about the instability of Hepburn’s character.)
Six years later, Lumet directed an uneven but intermittently first-rate adaptation of another literary classic, Chekhov’s “The Sea Gull,” featuring standout performances from Vanessa Redgrave and James Mason.
Even when the material was overwrought, Lumet often delivered movies of lasting impact.
In “The Pawnbroker” (1964), Rod Steiger was at his finest as a Holocaust survivor in Harlem. “The Hill,” released the following year and set in a brutal British military camp, was the first film to demonstrate that Sean Connery could really act. Connery was equally powerful as a sadistic London cop in Lumet’s little-seen “The Offence” (1972).
‘Dog Day Afternoon’
Lumet was in his prime in the 1970s.
“Serpico” (1973), starring Al Pacino, is probably the best of the New York cop films. (I much prefer it to Lumet’s subsequent, overrated “Prince of the City.”) The New York native was at his best working off the energy of his hometown streets. This was proved conclusively with “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), with Pacino (in his greatest performance) as a woebegone bank robber.
No other movie from that era captures so intensely the New York street scene. With the exception of “The Godfather” films, it also has the best ensemble acting of any American movie from the ‘70s. In addition to Pacino, there are terrific contributions from Chris Sarandon, John Cazale and Charles Durning.
“Network” (1976), with a screenplay by Paddy Chayefesky, depicts the television business as a sorry carnival of hucksters. At the time, the film was condemned as a paranoid screed by many in the broadcasting world. Viewed today, it looks like hard-edged realism.
Along with those celebrated films of the period, Lumet directed an unjustly neglected drama called “Lovin’ Molly” (1974).
Based on a novel by Larry McMurtry, it stars Blythe Danner as a free spirit who carries on 40-year affairs with two different men. Another overlooked Lumet film is “Just Tell Me What You Want” (1980), featuring a classic comic turn by Alan King as a snarly tycoon and a rare high-quality performance by Ali McGraw.
Two Lumet movies from the ‘80s showed how good he could be with actors, even when working with indifferent material.
As the alcoholic lawyer in “The Verdict” (1982), Paul Newman dug deep into his emotions. So did Jane Fonda as the drunken actress in “The Morning After” (1986), her only 1980s work that I’d look at twice.
Lumet’s last unequivocally fine movie was the harrowing, heartfelt “Running on Empty” (1988), about one-time student radicals and their children on the run from the FBI. His last film, the family melodrama “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” was released in 2007.
If Lumet’s films aren’t enough for you, pick up his “Making Movies,” the best book ever written about the filmmaking process by a working director.
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).