Sidney Lumet was responsible for some of the best films ever made. This is not my humble opinion or some gross exaggeration. While his name may not ring out as loud to layman as Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese, Lumet helped shape the cinematic landscape in his own way. And if you don't believe, just look at his first theatrical film: 12 Angry Men. I have long considered 12 Angry Men a perfect film. I mean that as in, every little aspect in the film could not be improved on whatsoever. The acting, lighting, writing, framing and directing all synergized in a way that elevated it from a television anthology episode into an AFI acknowledged film.
Less to do about knives and more to do with sitting around.Lumet would team up again with Juror #8, Henry Fonda, in Fail-Safe. Fail-Safe was a thought provoking, rich meditation on nuclear war. The movie had a problem though. It was released in 1964, the same year as Dr. Strangelove. Now, I'm sure you, dear reader, can guess which movie stood the test of time and which fell into obscurity. Not saying that Fail-Safe was bad, it was in fact a very good movie. It just never stood a chance. The novel of the same name was even sued by the author of Red Alert (the novel Strangelove was based off of) for plagiarism.
In the AFI's top 10 courtroom dramas, 12 Angry Men took second place, only being beat out by To Kill a Mockingbird (Also on that list was Lumet's 1982 film, The Verdict). I have no problem with the fact that it got beat out by To Kill a Mockingbird. To Kill a Mockingbird is, arguably, one of the best, most quintessential American films. But, back to Lumet, 12 Angry Men gets everything right. And, in turn, making a bunch of men talking at a table into a harrowing spectacle. It could of been as boring as real jury duty, but instead it turns into a passion play. In my opinion, a big part of this came from the camera work. There was not a single wasted frame of film in the whole movie. With only one room and 12 men to film, Lumet milked that set for all it was worth. The audience was at the whim of the director, who could make the room as claustrophobic as he wanted or control the pace frantically with reaction cut after reaction cut.
Peter Sellers in three different roles in Strangelove ensured Fail-Safe's demise.
The 70s were a true Renaissance for Lumet. Between the years 1973 to 1978 Lumet made a film each year that was nominated for multiple Academy Awards. To be fair, 1978's was The Wiz, but we won't judge him too harshly for that. In 1973 he released Serpico. Sadly, I've never seen Serpico so I can't in all good conscious comment on it. After Serpico was Murder on the Orient Express, a movie made solely to cram as many actors into it at once. There are ensemble casts and then there is Orient Express. Based on the Agatha Cristie mystery, the movie stars Anthony Perkins, Sean Connery, Michael York, Ingrid Bergman (my silver screen movie star crush), Lauren Bacall, Vanessa Redgrave, Martin Balsam (who was also in 12 Angry Men and co-starred with Perkins in Psycho), and Albert Finney, visibly enjoying himself as the detective Hercule Poirot.
Half of the budget was reserved for Finney's mustache wax.
Next came Dog Day Afternoon, which is the best heist movie ever made. Inspired by true events, the film is stars Pacino as a desperate man trying to acquire money for his boyfriend's sexual reassignment surgery. What follows is the worst bank robbing attempt ever and a film that every heist movie since has been based off of. Pacino co-stars with fellow Godfather actor John Cazale, the most underrated actor in cinema history. I may get more into this in another post, but, while Cazale was only in five movies, these five movies were considered some of the best of all time. His acting credits are The Godfather, The Conversation, Godfather: Part II, Dog Day Afternoon and Deer Hunter. Name anyone else with a track record like that.
He died in 1978 of bone cancer.
In 1976 Lumet came out with a film so mind-blowing that it resides in my own personal all time top five. Network is not just a film, it's a religious experience. It's commentary on the media, America, and everything wrong with the world, not just in the 70s but even past then. The film is a mad prophet, raging at the world. Starring Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty and Peter Finch, Network is a tour de force about a news anchor whose nervous breakdown/existential crisis becomes ratings fodder for a fledgling television network. Written by Paddy Chayefsky, Network has a wit so sharp that it still cuts today. It is one of the best written screenplays of all time, one of the best directed films of all time and one of the best acted. Finch himself was so memorizing as Howard Beale, the mentally unstable news anchor, that he was the first actor to win a major Academy Award posthumously. That feat would not be replicated until Heath Ledger in 2009. You may not of seen the film, but you've heard the line "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore."
One of the most iconic scenes in movie history.
Lumet continued to make films throughout the years. His last film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, premiered in 2007 to critical acclaim. Lumet was a master of his craft who knew how to get the best performance out of everyone he worked with. His filmography is not just a gift to his fans but a gift to movie fans everywhere. We have truly lost one of the greats. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to watch Network for the 20th time. Lumet died of lymphoma in his Manhattan apartment on April 9. He was 86.