In Honor of Sidney Lumet
I’m not one for tributes. People feel some need to heap praise upon the dead, and I think it’s just the dumbest thing. Why not do it when they’re alive? This is a deep-seeded thing with me. I don’t attend funerals, I think they’re one of the worst ideas the human race has come up with. Sending flowers, acting all solemn — what a waste of time. And don’t get me started on cemeteries.
If you love someone, do it while they’re alive. And then when they’re dead, go, “Wasn’t he awesome?” and think about just how awesome they were. Try not to do it the three days after they die, because that’s when it’s trendy. Don’t fall in line like the rest of them. Besides, they write their obituaries months, even years in advance. That’s why, I’m calling it now — as someone who’s written his own college recommendation letter, I will be the one to write my own obituary and eulogy (because I know, despite me wishes, people will hold a service anyway. Because they yes you to death, but once you’re dead, they do what they want anyway). Don’t be the one to heap tribute like everyone else.
So, all this is leading back to — I hate writing tributes to the dead. I just don’t do it. Like wishing people happy birthday or feeling the need to make small talk when there’s nothing to talk about. It’s not me, and I leave it to those who do that sort of thing. Elizabeth Taylor just died. I didn’t mention a word of it. Because everyone else did. Her death meant a lot to me, the same way Marlon Brando’s did, Gregory Peck’s did, and a number of other people who meant a lot to me by just being who they were and being alive.
That said, I hate tributes. The only other one I wrote was for John Barry, which wasn’t so much of a tribute as much as it was recognition that he wrote so much great music (and a self-serving method of starting my Pic of the Day series). Not once did I mention that he was dead. I just posted videos of his greatest Bond themes and wrote, “he wrote the music. I feel that deserves some recognition.” And that’s my idea of a tribute. Writing “don’t they deserve some credit for doing all this?”
Usually people only pay attention when the big ones die. Movie stars — whoever. John Barry was someone where you’d go, “Oh, he died. Who was he? He wrote the Bond music? Oh, okay.” And you don’t think about it again. But this man had such an impact on world culture and was someone that was largely forgotten aside from a generalization of “Oh, he wrote the Bond music.”
Anyway — Sidney Lumet just died. They announced it this morning. Already the obituaries are coming out of their folders. Normally I wouldn’t write a tribute, but, I’m beating the rush here. It’s Saturday. So, I’m just going to spend the rest of this article, listing all the films Sidney Lumet was involved with, and reminding you just how big a titan of cinema was lost to the ages today.
Mind you, this is not a tribute, but a “Hey, this guy directed all these — I think that deserves some recognition.” More so than, “Oh, he directed (insert film here).” Trust me, he did much more than that.
His first feature film — first! — not first major feature — his first feature, before that he directed only TV (not TV movies, episodes) — was 12 Angry Men.
Let us pause to process this — one of the greatest films of all time, perhaps the greatest courtroom film of all time, was Sidney Lumet’s first foray into feature film directing. Not that many directors can claim such a major film as their first directorial effort.
Pretty good, right? It gets better from there.
His second major film was a 1958 movie called Stage Struck, a film I admit to having not seen. It stars Henry Fonda and was the debut film of Christopher Plummer. Oh, yeah, it also starred Susan Strasberg, whose father was Lee Strasberg, the famed acting coach. You may remember him as Hymen Roth in The Godfather Part II.
Also in this time — if you check his IMDB page — he directed a shitload of television. This is both before, and during these early pictures. Until 1964, he directed enough television to make somebody blush. Even now, when you think, “he directed a lot of television,” you’re expecting one thing. But I bet, when you look on his IMDB page, and see the amount of television he actually directed, you’ll go “holy shit.” No mere mortal could do that today.
His third film was a Sophia Loren picture called That Kind of Woman. It co-starred Tab Hunter, Jack Warden, Keenan Wynn and George Sanders. Not a bad cast list.
His fourth film — and here’s where he starts to ramp it up into classic film territory — was Marlon Brando’s The Fugitive Kind.
Just to show you how much of a star vehicle this was — all three of the stars had Oscars at this point. Brando in ’54, Woodward in ’57, and Magnani in ’55. Leading Role Oscars too. And there’s a future Oscar winner down there at the bottom of the poster in Maureen Stapleton. And, let’s not forget the other fact — it’s a Tennessee Williams movie too.
His next film was Vu du Pont, based on an Arthur Miller play. I don’t know anything about this film, but I do know good source material when I see it. So far this man has, even if the films aren’t well known anymore, worked with all huge names and/or on material written by classy people. Not bad, huh? And we’re not even at his peak yet.
His next film was Long Day’s Journey Into Night — you may have heard of the play. Eugene O’Neill. Kind of famous. Earned Katharine Hepburn an Oscar nomination. The film also starred Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell. Not a bad cast, huh? Oh, don’t worry, we’re not even close to being finished.
After Long Day’s Journey, Lumet went solely into features. He wouldn’t direct another TV picture again for another 40 years. His next film was a film called The Pawnbroker.
Now — The Pawnbroker is a film that not many people might know about today. I’m going to talk about it in detail when I get to Best Actor 1965. It’s a film that many people say Rod Steiger should have won Best Actor for. (They also say his Oscar in 1967 for In the Heat of the Night was a clear makeup Oscar for this film.)
The film is about a Jewish pawnshop owner in Harlem, who has survived the Holocaust, and, due to the horrors he’s seen — his wife and daughter raped and killed as well as concentration camps in general — he’s completely shut himself down to all emotion. He goes about the day completely apathetic to everything. He treats other people coldly, including his own family. The film is shot very 1960s too. In the middle of a scene, flashes of the camps show up for mere frames. It’s a very powerful film. Great performance by Steiger too. Barely recognizable.
Now — Lumet’s next film is one I hold dear. It’s called Fail-Safe.
Fail-Safe is a film that may not be well-known today, and for very good reason. That’s because the film — released in 1964, and trust me that date is very important to know, as you’ll find out in just a second — is essentially a serious version of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
In the same way Airplane! is a spoof of Zero Hour!, Dr. Strangelove plays like an anarchic version of Fail-Safe. It’s quite funny just how much the two overlap. There used to be a video of scenes played back to back, but I can’t find it for the life of me. However, aside from being a companion piece to Strangelove (imagine, two separate films dealing with the exact same issue in completely different ways, being released the exact same year. Humor smiles upon such coincidences), the film also works very well on its own. Of course, it doesn’t go over as well, since Strangelove deals with the situation so much better, but it’s still a great standalone film. Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Dan O’Herlihy, Dom DeLuise, Larry Hagman — it’s a solid cast. Check it out. It’s a film that deserves to be played on a double bill with Strangelove.
Next, Lumet directed The Hill, which I’ve always heard was sort of an underseen gem of his. It stars Sean Connery, and is about prisoners in a North African prison camp dealing with the sadistic guards. I never got around to seeing it, but I know it’s in my Netflix queue, and will be, eventually.
Lumtet’s next film was The Group, which, is an all-women’s picture. Which goes to show his attempts at versatility — if not already apparent from his choices thus far. The film stars Candace Bergen (Oscar nominee, aka Murphy Brown, aka Cuddy’s mother on House), Joan Hackett (Oscar nominee), Elizabeth Hartman (who was fucking incredible in A Patch of Blue, the year before this film was released), Joanna Pettet (who played James Bond’s daughter in the original Casino Royale), Jessica Walter (whom you may know as Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development and as Mallory Archer on Archer), Larry Hagman again (J.R.’s just popping up all over the damn place today), and Hal Holbrook. Not bad.
His next set of films were The Deadly Affair (based on a John Le Carré novel, starring James Mason, Maximilian Schell, Simone Signoret and Lynn Redgrave), Bye Bye Braverman, which sounds like such a great movie. It’s like a cross between The Big Chill, Diner, and Yellow Submarine (just because there are 60s surrealist sequences, which I assume look like acid trips), The Sea Gull (based on the Chekhov play, starring James Mason, Vanessa Redgrave and Simone Signoret) — on a side note, I love how all the stars of his films are either Oscar nominees, Oscar winners, or famous TV personalities like J.R. — The Appointment, starring Omar Sharif and Anouk Aimée, which sounds awesome (it’s about an Italian lawyer who has reason to believe his wife may secretly be Rome’s highest paid prostitute), and Last of the Mobile Hot Shots (another film based on a Tennessee Williams play, starring James Coburn). That’s just up until 1970. Keep in mind, all these films have been between 1957 and 1970. Just sayin’.
Now, 1971 is where we get good. First, he directs The Anderson Tapes.
The film stars Sean Connery as a safecracker who is released from prison after ten years and very quickly makes plans to knock off an entire apartment building. Christopher Walken is in it as “The Kid,” the young guy Connery recruits. It’s a great example of 70s filmmaking. A lot of the score is a series of beeps and boops of electronic equipment. The film is kind of like The Conversation, in that, while this heist is going on — and believe me, most of the film is them planning the heist and executing it, which I find make a film always interesting (See: David Mamet’s Hesit, or simply the Ocean’s films) — while they’re planning this heist, unbeknownst to them, the government is secretly surveilling the building illegally. And they catch all this planning on tape (otherwise, they’d have gotten away with the heist), and end up tipping off the police. So what you end up with is a film where — instead of having the perfect heist get foiled by a slip up — nothing actually goes wrong, aside from the fact that, by chance, the government was illegally taping them, and that’s how things go wrong. And you have an ending where, after everyone gets killed, there’s a nice, “Who’s to blame?” Sure, they planned the heist, but, the government is way overstepping its bounds — which is hysterical because the film was released a year before Watergate — and you actually feel bad for the criminals. It’s an amazing, amazing film. And if you love 70s films as much as I do, this is one not to miss.
Lumet’s next film also starred Sean Connery — that’s three for the pair (so far). This is what Connery did between You Only Live Twice and Diamonds are Forever. Sidney Lumet basically took the biggest star in the world and made a gritty badass out of him — it was The Offence, which, I also have not seen, but sounds interesting from the premise. It’s about Connery as a detective who “finally snaps when investigating a suspected child molester.” That sounds great.
His next film was Child’s Play. No, not the Chuckie movie. It’s about teachers in a school getting into feuds and stuff. Stars James Mason, Robert Preston and Beau Bridges. This man always managed to get a cast, didn’t he? That’s awesome. But, we ain’t there yet. Trust me when I say it gets better.
He also directed, in 1974, a film called Lovin’ Molly. I mention it now because it’s a minor film and because the next set of films is like the middle of the Yankees lineup in the 20s. Or — now, I guess.
Lumet’s next film? We’re at 1973 by the way — Serpico.
You may have heard of it. I don’t think I need to say anything now. I’m just gonne let the next set of films speak for themselves.
Murder on the Orient Express
Look at the fucking cast on that one. I talked about it with Ingrid Bergman’s Oscar, and I’ll talk about it again with Albert Finney’s nomination, but — wow, look at that cast.
Next — Dog Day Afternoon.
Pretty good fucking run, huh?
His next film was, Equus, the film about the kid who blinds all the horses. You may know it most recently as that play that Daniel Radcliffe got naked in on Broadway. It earned both Richard Burton and Peter Firth Oscar nominations (Burton’s last nomination, too).
Next, he directed The Wiz.
That’s fucking eclecticism — isn’t it?
Next he directed Just Tell Me What You Want, starring Ali MacGraw. Considering she only made like eight films in her career, I assume it must have been worth it. (I’ll also come out and say it — her not winning an Oscar for Love Story was the worst decision in Oscar history.) The film also features Myrna Loy, which means I need to see this thing as soon as possible.
His next film was Prince of the City, which is kind of like Serpico, only different. Then he directed Deathtrap, which is about a professor planning to murder a student to steal his script. His next movie though — whoa boy — The Verdict.
Here’s a film that should have won Paul Newman an Oscar. And might even should have won Best Picture (maybe). But, you know, Gandhi, they like that sort of film at the Academy. Still, it’s a fucking great film.
After that he directed Daniel, a film about the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Garbo Talks, a film about a dying woman whose last wish is to meet Greta Garbo, Power, a political thriller starring — check this — Richard Gere, Julie Christie, Gene Hackman, Kate Capshaw, Denzel Washington (in one of his first major roles), J.T. Walsh (great character actor), and Beatrice Straight (Oscar winner for Network), The Morning After, which earned Jane Fonda her final (to date) Oscar nomination, about a woman who wakes up from a one-night stand with no memory of the night before with the man lying dead in bed next to her, Running on Empty, about the son of a family of fugitives who wants to live his own life and settle down somewhere (it earned River Phoenix his only Oscar nomination), Family Business, starring Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman and Matthew Broderick, Q & A (another crime film), A Stranger Among Us (which is like Witness, only with a woman, and instead of the Amish, Hasidic Jews in New York City), Guilty as Sin, a legal thriller, Night Falls on Manhattan (another legal thriller, but this one starring Andy Garcia, JAmes Gandolfini and Richard Dreyfuss), Critical Care a film with a stacked cast of James Spader, Kyra Sedgwick, Helen Mirren, Anne Bancroft, Albert Brooks, Jeffrey Wright, Margo Martindale, Wallace Shawn, Phillip Bosco and Colm Feore, about sisters fighting over custody of their comatose father, and Gloria, a remake of the 1980 film that earned Gena Rowlands an Oscar nomination (this version is George C. Scott’s final feature film performance).
Pretty amazing, right? Well, we’re not done. Two more films to go. And a note. First, the note.
Lumet’s daughter, Jenny, wrote the script for a film that would later become Rachel Getting Married. The film that earned Anne Hathaway an Oscar nomination, and probably should have earned her a win, were it not for that whole Kate Winslet being due ten times over deal that year. Just wanted to mention that great films runs in the family. Also, the father in the movie is based on Lumet. Which, is great, since, it’s a great fucking part.
Now, Lumet’s final two films, shot and released when he was 82 and 83 years old, were, Find Me Guilty and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. First, Find Me Guilty.
Here’s a film I saw when it came out. It went mostly under the radar, but I saw it in theaters. It stars VIn Diesel, in by far his best role to date. He plays a mobster who is shot at the beginning of the film. And pretty soon after, he is arrested under a Rico case (this taking place under the reign of Guiliani in the 90s. We New Yorkers know all about that), and decides he’s going to be his own lawyer. And he defends himself in court. And he’s charming as all hell. It’s a hysterical movie, made better by the fact that 90% of the courtroom testimony was taken word for word from the transcripts. Which means that this wasn’t them spicing up the dialogue — this actually happened. It’s a great, great film.
It’s one of those films where, I loved it when it came out, and for some reason, in the years afterward, I became ashamed of the film, like it was some terrible film I bought because I was young and didn’t know any better. Which was so dumb, because I missed my chance to show this to people (and actually force them to see it. Which is how most of my friends actually got to see good movies. I’d be like, “Let’s watch this,” and they’d be like, “Meh, I don’t know what that is. It sounds weird. Let’s just go with something we all know,” and I’d be like, “We’re watching this,” and then we’d watch it, and they’d all be like, “Holy shit, that was awesome”). But it is a great movie. At the very worst people will find this entertaining enough to have sat through once, and isn’t that all you really ask in a film?
Anyway, onto Lumet’s final film — Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.
It’s a film that got some notices when it came out, and is a good film. I didn’t love it, but I liked it a lot, and respected it even more because 1) it was directed by an 83 year old man, and 2) the film opens with Philip Seymour Hoffman fucking Marisa Tomei in the ass. Not kidding.
The film is about a pair of brothers who decide to rob their parents’ jewelry store in order to make some extra cash. Problem is, their mother happens to be at work the next day and is shot and killed. And their father becomes obsessed with finding out who did it and makes their guilt even more palpable. And on top of it, Ethan Hawke, the younger brother, is sleeping with Marisa Tomei, who is Hoffman’s wife, on the side. So there’s a lot of shit going on in the film, and it’s a nice film at that. Amazing this man directed it at 83 years old.
It’s also worth noting that, despite five nominations — Sidney Lumet never won an Oscar. Which puts him alongside the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman and Sergio Leone. Big names.
I mention all that to say — Sidney Lumet is one of those directors people think well of, but they don’t really know the extent of what he’s done. I just listed every single feature film he’s directed, in a career (in film) that’s spanned exactly 50 years.
Now, I think that deserves some recognition.