Saturday, April 9, 2011
Sidney Lumet 1924-2011
12 ANGRY MEN
THE FUGITIVE KIND
DOG DAY AFTERNOON
PRINCE OF THE CITY
NIGHT FALLS ON MANHATTAN
BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD
That's an impressive body of work by any measure, and Sidney Lumet--who died today at age 86--leaves it behind as a legacy that any film lover should cherish. He's most associated with the gritty golden days of the 1970s, but he actually preceded most his peers (Scorsese et al) by a number of years, having made his directorial debut in films with the masterpiece 12 ANGRY MEN in 1957. He'd begun even earlier than that, in the wild days of live dramatic television in the fifties (an understudied but rich period). That Lumet could be a player in those days, have his greatest success in the 70s, and then show up as late as 2007 with a neo-noir as intense and terrific as BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD is a testament to a rich talent and the kind of career that we will probably never see again.
Lumet was prolific, which is a virtue in and of itself but one that always exposes weaknesses. While his talent lay in teasing out great performances from actors working from a solid script, he was usually defeated by a poor script. His visual style was brilliantly utilitarian, but--again--it didn't do much when the material was weak.
And yet, even saying that much merely points to his two greatest strengths: Lumet was a perceptive reader for his writers and a sensitive viewer for his actors. He favored character-based drama that pitted strong personalities and weak personalities against each other--always with the understanding of how this power dynamic changed hands depending on the vicissitudes of the plot (this might also help explain why he seemed so drawn to crime). Better than almost anyone out there, he knew how to interpret good material. I think my favorite of his films is 1982's THE VERDICT, a brooding drama about an alcoholic lawyer trying to redeem a life wasted on the bottle. With its brilliant script by David Mamet and the beautiful central performance of Paul Newman, it is Lumet at his best: smart, empathetic, and emotionally visceral.
This was a director.