The world of cinema lost one of its most prolific and renowned directors on April 9th, 2011 when Sidney Lumet passed away from lymphoma at the age of 86. After being one of the top television directors of the 1950s, Lumet finally made his feature film directorial debut in 1957 when he helmed 12 Angry Men and his final feature film would be made exactly fifty years later. Lumet was an incredibly productive director who did not like to rest on his laurels and completed over forty movies over the span of his career. The end result was one of the greatest filmographies ever compiled by any director and many of his works are bona fide classics. It’s hard to really pinpoint what made Sidney Lumet such as effective filmmaker. He was never overly stylish and rarely used any fancy cinematic tricks to call attention to himself. However, he was a big believer in realism and naturalism, and preferred to let his films hinge on the quality of the acting and the writing. Lumet was considered the consummate “actor’s director” because he encouraged their collaboration and creativity and trusted their instincts. This approach may have prevented Lumet from receiving the full credit and acclaim that he deserved as a director (despite numerous nominations, he never did win an Academy Award) but his filmography does speak for itself.
Anyway, this list represents my personal top ten favourite Sidney Lumet films. No matter how good a director may be, it’s hard to compile a “Top Ten” list for most of them, either because their filmography isn’t large enough or they just haven’t made enough quality films to fill out a “Top Ten” list. However, Sidney Lumet’s filmography is so deep that there are quite a few good films that are going to be left off this list. Even though I consider myself a huge Lumet fan, there’s still a surprising amount of his films which I have not yet seen, simply because he’s made so many of them. Because he has directed so many iconic classics, there are quite a few Lumet films which have never gotten the full acclaim they deserve. I’ve already covered one of them in my “Robin’s Underrated Gems” columns and some of the other selections on this list are likely to be the subject of future columns. Of course, any director who works for fifty straight years is not going to be perfect and will churn out some duds, but I think it’s safe to say that in this case, the good greatly outweighed the bad.
We’ll forgive him for this one…
10. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007):
When I said that Sidney Lumet never won an Academy Award, I should clarify that he did actually receive a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2005, which is often the Academy’s way of apologizing for not recognizing someone’s past accomplishments. It’s not often that a director in his eighties would choose to follow up a Lifetime Achievement award by going back to work and taking on another challenging project, but that’s exactly what Lumet did with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. On the surface, this seems like a standard “heist gone wrong” crime drama, but Lumet has never been interested in making traditional formula pictures. This is the story of the great emotional consequences and massive guilt one must face if they are responsible for an act of crime that’s gone horribly wrong. While no one would ever consider this to be one the biggest feel-good movies of all time, it is a pretty powerful and well-acted film. It finds an interesting balance between being a crime thriller and a melodrama about a dysfunctional family, effectively building up tension with a mounting sense of dread rather than with traditional suspense. This story may not contain the most sympathetic characters in the world, but it’s still fascinating to watch their downward spiral. While Lumet’s filmography during the last twenty years of his career was fairly hit-and-miss, he did have the honour of going out with a very worthy swan song.
Highlight: Philip Seymour Hoffman breaks down.
9. Night Falls on Manhattan (1997):
This is one of Lumet’s more underrated films and probably didn’t receive the attention it deserved because people thought he was treading familiar ground and covering the same material he’d already dealt with numerous times before. This was the fourth film Lumet did about police corruption in New York City, and the second which was based on a novel by Robert Daley (the other being Prince of the City), so it’s easy to see where the scepticism may have come from. However, Lumet still manages to deliver some fresh new takes on the material and, once again, he shows little interest in delivering a routine formula picture. In fact, Night Falls on Manhattan sometimes turns the structure of the traditional police thriller/legal drama on its head by combining both genres and going into unexpected places. When the storyline is built around a major trial and that trial concludes by the halfway point of the film, you’re never sure where the narrative is going to go. There are no simple good guys or bad guys here as every character is three-dimensional and has their own distinct personality. This is one those films where Lumet demonstrates his “actor’s director” reputation by simply pointing the camera and letting the actors do their thing, allowing for terrific performances from such actors as Andy Garcia, Richard Dreyfuss, James Gandolfini and Ian Holm. Special mention should also go to Ron Leibman’s energetic work as a hot-headed and melodramatic District Attorney, one of the most entertaining legal figures ever seen in a film.
Highlight: James Gandolfini confesses his corruption.
8. Running on Empty (1988):
I may sound like a broken record here, but this is yet another underrated Sidney Lumet film that could have easily fallen into a traditional formula, but chooses not to do so. Running on Empty tells the story of a family that has to live their entire life on the run because the parents are wanted by the FBI because of an act of political activism from their youth. Unfortunately, this lifestyle could prevent their teenage son from achieving his dreams and after he is accepted into Juilliard, they must decide if they are willing to cut him loose and live a normal life without them. Of course, this story could have easily formed the basis of a Thelma & Louise-like chase story, but the screenplay by Naomi Foner (mother of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal) is more interested in examining the day-to-day reality of how a family who actually lived under these circumstances would have to cope. The film is a terrific showcase for River Phoenix, who delivers an Oscar-nominated performance and shows what a great acting career he could have had if he lived longer. However, all the performances here are equally outstanding and there’s not a false note to be found. Like many of Lumet’s works, the drama is fairly low-key at times, but it can pack a real emotional wallop when it wants to. Its low-key approach and refusal to adhere to a formula may have prevented Running on Empty from finding a larger audience, but it still makes for very compelling drama and certain scenes may cause you to start blubbering like a baby.
Highlight: The “Fire and Rain” scene.
7. The Hill (1965):
Yes, I know I’ve thrown the word “underrated” around a lot, but this may be the most overlooked gem in Sidney Lumet’s filmography, as it was buried in obscurity for many years until it finally got a DVD release in 2007. Like Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, no one will ever accuse The Hill of being a happy-go-lucky feel-good piece. Based on a stage play, The Hill features one of the most miserable, unpleasant environments ever portrayed in a motion picture. The story takes place entirely in a World War II British military detention camp in the North African desert, where British soldiers are punished by their own for their various offences. The camp authorities are brutal disciplinarians and a common punishment is to repeatedly climb up and down a man-made dirt hill in the blistering heat. There are very few movies where you will feel more grateful that you are not the characters onscreen. Obviously, The Hill is not a film for every taste, but it does make for very powerful and compelling drama. At the time, Sean Connery was in the midst of playing James Bond and was one of the biggest movie stars in the world, but he took a break from playing 007 to star in this most unglamorous film and delivers one of his greatest performances. He is ably supported by such fine character actors as Harry Andrews, Ian Hendry and Ossie Davis and you could tell that having to make a film in such a miserable environment did wonders for bringing out the actors’ intensity onscreen. Lumet has always loved the challenge of trying to make a gripping film which is set entirely in one location, but few directors pull it off better than he does.
Highlight: Medical inspection.
6. Fail-Safe (1964):
The Hill was the first movie on this list which took place in a claustrophobic setting, but it’s most definitely not the last. Because he honed his craft by directing stagy television dramas at the beginning of his career, Sidney Lumet was always an ideal candidate for directing dialogue-driven stories that took place in a limited number of locations because he knew how to make them compelling. As everyone knows, the Soviet Union was a feared enemy of the United States throughout the 1950s and 60s and the Cuban Missile Crisis always kept people in fear that, some day, both countries would engage in nuclear war and put an end to civilization. A lot of serious dramas about nuclear war were made during this time period, but it eventually got to the point where a dark comedy like Dr. Strangelove could actually satirize and poke fun of the situation. Unfortunately for Fail-Safe, Dr. Strangelove happened to be released a couple of months before it came out, and even though the reviews for Fail-Safe were excellent, it fared poorly at the box office, mostly because audiences now had a hard time taking a film about nuclear war seriously. That said, the biggest compliment one could pay Fail-Safe is that even though it presents a situation that’s very similar to what happens in Dr. Strangelove, it’s still a remarkably tense and frightening drama that showcases what a truly terrifying situation it would be if a nuclear war was triggered accidentally and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. The story is entirely within the confines of conference rooms and underground bunkers, but Lumet knows how to milk the maximum amount of tension out of the situation and builds up to a shocking conclusion that still packs quite a punch today.
Highlights: The first strike argument.
5. Serpico (1973):
After The Godfather made Al Pacino one of the top actors in the country, Serpico successfully transformed into a full-fledged star and became one of the most iconic cop films of all time. Based on a true story, this is the first of many Sidney Lumet films that examined the world of police corruption in New York City and even though he never really had a distinct directorial “style” per se, Serpico is probably the one movie you could look at and instantly peg as a Sidney Lumet film. Instead of falling prey to typical cop movie melodramatics, the scenes in Serpico have a gritty, documentary- like realism to them and are presented without sentimentality and sensationalism. Even though some of the elements and themes in Serpico may seem dated today, one has to appreciate that this was fairly groundbreaking stuff back in 1973. Most police films made before this about a hero fighting against corruption would have likely painted their protagonist as a perfect saint-like figure, but Serpico avoids that trap. Even though Frank Serpico is highly principled and his intentions are noble, the film does not shy away from showcasing the self-destructive side of his personality and how his immense frustration with the system makes him an unpleasant person to be around at times. Buoyed by Al Pacino’s outstanding lead performance, Serpico is one of the most seminal and influential cop thrillers ever made and, like most of Sidney Lumet’s work, it does not adhere to a simple, one-dimensional formula.
Highlight: Classic angry Al Pacino!
4. Dog Day Afternoon (1975):
Even though his review of the film is positive, Leonard Maltin pretty much sums up Dog Day Afternoon in one line: “Pacino’s performance and Lumet’s flavourful NYC atmosphere obscure the fact that this is much ado about nothing”. If you step back and look at Dog Day Afternoon as a whole, it actually really does look like its much ado about nothing, but that is sort of the point. The film is pretty ahead of its time in the way it examines the concept of “fifteen minutes of fame” and shows how brief and fleeting it can really be. Hell, that whole idea is pretty much proven by the fact that Dog Day Afternoon is based on a true incident which was long forgotten about by the time the film was released. Anyway, Dog Day Afternoon is still masterful filmmaking of the highest calibre as Lumet is once again able to create compelling drama out of a story that mainly takes place in one location, and (like Leonard Maltin said) Al Pacino’s performance and a flavourful New York atmosphere help keep the viewer glued to the screen. The actual bank robbery itself is the least important element of the story when compared to how the characters deal with it and how the entire city reacts, and Pacino’s Sonny is still one of the more unique and complex characters to ever be the lead protagonist of a film. It’s also worth mentioning that Sidney Lumet is considered by many to be the quintessential New York director of all time, and none of his films have done a better job at examining the day-to-day life and bizarre idiosyncrasies of the city than Dog Day Afternoon.
Highlight: “ATTICA! ATTICA!”
3. Prince of the City (1981):
This film has already been covered in “Robin’s Underrated Gems” before and is easily the most underappreciated effort in Sidney Lumet’s filmography. It’s highly renowned by those who’ve actually seen it, but it’s not particularly well-known and really deserves to be hailed as a classic. Even though Serpico is usually hailed as the iconic classic, I’ve always felt that Prince of the City is a superior film as it manages to tell a far more epic and morally complex story about police corruption. The main difference between the two films is that the protagonist who blows the whistle on corruption in Prince of the City is also corrupt himself, which makes for a much more multi-layered story. Based on a true story, Prince of the City runs nearly three hours long, containing 126 speaking parts and 130 locations (quite atypical for Lumet!). It’s possible that the film’s immense length prevented it from becoming a huge success, and I’m sure the decision to cast a relative unknown like Treat Williams in the lead role didn’t help either. However, the film is an incredibly riveting journey and features one of the best portrayals you’ll ever see of a character on the edge, who is constantly looking over his shoulder and is often a few steps away from a complete nervous breakdown. Treat Williams delivers an outstanding, award-worthy performance in the extremely demanding lead role, which requires him to appear in over 90 % of the film’s scenes and convincingly convey someone who so desperately wants to do the right thing, but winds up hurting many others and finds the ordeal more difficult than he could possibly imagine. A fine supporting cast of terrific character actors and a gritty, brutally realistic New York atmosphere make Prince of the City one of the best police dramas ever made.
Highlight: An undercover operation nearly goes horribly wrong.
2. 12 Angry Men (1957):
Once again, we’ve hit on the concept of Sidney Lumet directing a compelling film which takes place in one location, but no film exemplifies that more than 12 Angry Men. Here is a movie where all but three of its 96 minutes take place in one single room, yet it’s one of the most riveting dramas ever made. Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men was originally written and performed as a live television production before it eventually became a huge success on stage. Because of his background in television directing, Sidney Lumet seemed like an appropriate choice to direct a feature-film adaptation of 12 Angry Men and while it must have seemed like a daunting task, Lumet somehow made it work beautifully and effectively jumpstarted his career. The entire story takes place in a hot, claustrophobic jury room where one juror tries to convince eleven others to find their defendant “not guilty” and, like the jury, the viewer is not allowed to leave this room until the verdict is reached. You could tell that Lumet was going to earn his reputation as an “actor’s director” here as he lets the quality of the acting and the material speak for themselves. Even though none of these jurors are given names, their individual personalities are so distinct that we learn everything we need to know about them. Somehow, Lumet stages it so that the conflicts between these characters generate more tension than any traditional suspense thriller could even dream of. He does use a few visual tricks to ratchet up the tension, such as changing the eye level of the camera as the story progresses, but they’re done so subtly that you barely even notice them, reinforcing Lumet’s reputation as a director who doesn’t like to call attention to himself. Believe it or not, 12 Angry Men was actually a box office disappointment upon its initial release, but while its stage and television origins may have scared people away at first, the passage of time has turned it into an all-time classic.
Highlight: The entire jury turns its back on the rantings of a bigot.
1. Network (1976):
If there’s one film that ever deserved to be classified as way ahead of its time, it’s Network. This is a story that was looked upon as an over-the-top absurdist fantasy when it was originally released in 1976, but so many of the radical ideas presented in this film have actually wound up coming true. Network contains one of the greatest screenplays of all time, as Paddy Chayefsky was such a phenomenally intelligent man who understood the world so well that his scripts often look like they were written by a psychic (for another example of this, see The Hospital). Anyway, Network is most well-known for its iconic line “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore”, but the entire screenplay is peppered with terrific dialogue and memorable characters. It’s scary how many parallels you can make between this film’s fictitious television network, the Union Broadcasting System, and FOX, and comparisons have often been made between the character of Howard Beale and Glenn Beck. The film also presents ideas about corporations controlling television broadcasting which seem completely prophetic when viewed today, and as whole, Network finds a very unique and surreal balance between being over-the-top satire and frighteningly believable. Once again, Sidney Lumet does not use any directorial tricks to call attention to himself and trusts the material and the actors to create the magic onscreen. This is probably about as close as Lumet ever came to winning a “Best Director” at the Oscars, because even though Rocky won “Best Picture” that year, many of the major awards went to Network, with Faye Dunaway, Beatrice Straight and (posthumously) Peter Finch taking home the acting awards and Paddy Chayefsky winning an Oscar for “Best Original Screenplay”. I think the fact that virtually everyone else besides Sidney Lumet was recognized for Network pretty much sums up his selfless career as a whole. He was a man who cared more about story than style and wanted to work in numerous genres without ever settling on a formula. He may not have gotten all the accolades he deserves, but he has left behind one hell of a legacy and a strong body of work that most filmmakers could never dream of achieving.
Highlight: What else?