There are generally three kinds of directors. There are those that define their films, those that let their films define them, and those that can bridge the first two worlds, knowing when to step to the front and when to let the story lead. Sidney Lumet was most decidedly the third kind of director.
Lumet preferred letting the story unfold in front of the viewer. He kept takes to a minimum, and constructed the movie as he went along, trying to minimize the time spent in post production.
While he was born in Philadelphia, Lumet came to be known as one of the quintessential New York filmmakers, capturing the city—especially in the 1960s and 1970s—as few others could. In a career that spanned more than eight decades, Lumet started out as an actor, moved to the fledgling medium of television in the early 1950s, and with 1957’s “12 Angry Men,” established a movie career that would eventually give the world “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” and “The Verdict.”
Lumet’s stage acting career began at the age of four, and by the 1930s, he was starring in Broadway plays. In the late 1940s, he established an acting troupe that included Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, and other actors who had made their way through Lee Strasberg’s method acting school. Lumet turned to directing, becoming a mainstay during television’s infancy, and even continued to direct TV shows until 1960, years after he had become an Academy Award nominated film director.
If his reputation was secured for a decade of solid work on episodic television, it was with “12 Angry Men” that he became a sought after Hollywood talent. Taking a tense screenplay with racial overtones (a young Hispanic man wrongfully accused of murder), Lumet guided the dozen egos that made up the cast of the film to tackle issues that audiences of the 1950s may or may have not been ready for. Starring Henry Fonda, Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall and several other heavy hitters and character actors, “12 Angry Men” received Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay (Reginald Rose).
Throughout the rest of the 1950s, Lumet interspersed TV movies, episodic television and feature films in his filmmaking repertoire. In 1964, Lumet directed “Fail-Safe,” a taut look at a world on the brink of nuclear war, and “The Pawnbroker,” which starred Rod Steiger as a Holocaust survivor who suffers flashbacks and struggles with his existence and actions in a New York ghetto. It was one of the first movies to deal with the subject of the Holocaust and its effect on those who lived through it.
Lumet was quite prolific as a filmmaker through the 1960s (1965’s “The Hill” rivaled both “Fail-Safe” and “The Pawnbroker” as his best of that decade) and 1970s, even making a powerful documentary about the life of Martin Luther King in 1970 called “King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis.”
But it was in 1973 that Lumet put his stamp on movie history with “Serpico.” Starring Al Pacino, who had recently shot to stardom by playing Michael Corleone in “The Godfather,” the two diminutive New Yorkers (Pacino is 5’7” and Lumet was 5’5”) painted a picture of the city and big city police corruption that has stood the test of time. It was even paid homage in Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore,” as “Serpico” found new life as a high school stage adaptation.
With the bearded, oftentimes manic Pacino in the title role and Lumet at the helm, “Serpico,” based on real life NYPD police officer Frank Serpico and his battle against corruption, exposed the ugly nature of big city politics and those who want to fight against the status quo. Nobody grappled with the big questions quite like Lumet, putting them on a scale—and using an actor like Pacino—to get his points across to an audience. The film was nominated for two Oscars: Best Actor for Pacino and Best Adapted Screenplay for Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler.
Lumet and Pacino would team up again in 1975’s “Dog Day Afternoon,” the sublime tale of two losers who attempt to rob a bank. Lumet expertly turns the bank to a world within a world, as the two would be bank robbers, played by Pacino and John Cazale, spend almost the entire film locked inside with their hostages, while several other dramas unfold in the outside world. Had “Dog Day Afternoon” been made thirty years later, it would have most certainly devolved into a clichéd mano a mano battle between a crazed criminal and an over the top hostage negotiator, complete with an explosives laden climax. In Lumet’s hands, however, “Dog Day Afternoon” never falsely manipulates emotions; the story, while emotionally complex, is handled simply but is never simple. “Dog Day Afternoon” was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Actor (Pacino), Best Supporting Actor (Chris Sarandon), and Best Original Screenplay (the film’s only win going to Frank Pierson).
Lumet’s incredible run of films in the 1970s continued with “Network” the following year. While the film is often boiled down to the infamous line, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” which is screamed out by news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch), it’s also an incredibly salient movie, presaging what television news would become by twenty years.
The fictional USB network and those who populate it have become staples as the film world has always tried to make sense (both honestly and satirically) of what it’s like behind the scenes in television. In addition to Finch the cast includes Faye Dunaway, William Holden and Robert Duvall, and they watch as Beale, once a highly rated and respected news anchor, is fired amidst faltering ratings and tragedy in his personal life. One man’s descent and the transformation of TV news into the video voyeurism that it became is one of Lumet’s great successes. “Network” was nominated for 10 Oscars and won four, including a posthumously awarded Best Actor for Finch. Other wins went to Dunaway for Best Actress, Beatrice Straight for Best Supporting Actress; and Best Original Screenplay for Paddy Chayefsky. Lumet was once again nominated for Best Director, but failed to win. “Network” was nominated for Best Picture, but lost out to “Rocky” that year.
Lumet finished out the 1970s with two movies that were pretty far apart on the film spectrum—1977s “Equus” and 1978’s “The Wiz.” “Equus” was the adaptation of the stage play about a psychiatrist (Martin Dysart) investigating the blinding of six horses by a stable hand. “The Wiz,” of course, was the telling of the African American experience by way of “The Wizard of Oz,” starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and the incomparable Nipsey Russell.
In 1982’s “The Verdict,” Lumet used star power once again to his advantage, casting Paul Newman as a flailing, alcoholic lawyer who sees a chance to resurrect his legal career (and get some actual justice) by taking a medical malpractice case to trial rather than settling out of court. While it’s a well-worn setting and story, Lumet trusts in his actors to deliver. Alongside Newman, “The Verdict” stars Jack Warden, Charlotte Rampling, James Mason and the wonderful Milo O’Shea, all of whom work in concert as their conductor, Lumet, and the lead performer, Newman, make cinematic music. “The Verdict” was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, another Best Director nod for Lumet, and Best Actor for Newman, ultimately losing in the big categories to “Ghandi.”
Lumet remained a strong presence in the 1980s, although it became apparent that he would never match the stretch of films that he made from the early 1970s through 1982. Solid thrillers like “The Morning After” (1986) and 1988’s “Running on Empty,” which garnered an Oscar nomination for River Phoenix and a Best Original Screenplay nomination for Naomi Foner became Lumet’s stock in trade.
Lumet, whose own personal liberal politics usually meant he tackled the serious subjects from the average person’s point of view, once again used big city corruption as a backdrop in 1993’s “Night Falls on Manhattan.” Andy Garcia stars as a newly elected district attorney fighting corruption in New York—only his father may be one of the cops he discovers to be crooked.
As Lumet hit his seventies, he slowed down, and his last film was 2007’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” Lumet may have never won the Best Director Academy Award he probably deserved, but the academy thought enough of his talents and impact on cinema to award him an honorary Oscar in 2005. It was presented to him by Pacino, who said in a statement after the announcement of Lumet’s death, “Sidney Lumet will be remembered for his films. He leaves a great legacy, but more than that, to the people close to him, he will remain the most civilized of humans and the kindest man I have ever known. This is a great loss.”
He was a man who regarded his craft highly, but almost always simply called it his “work.” Upon accepting his Oscar in 2005, Lumet humbly said, “I guess I’d like to thank the movies.”
As a filmmaker, Lumet worked hard at capturing his beloved city, but in turn made films that found a much larger world to appreciate them.