Sydney Lumet died last week. Another hero of the American screen is gone....
"While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film in which I believe goes one step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing."--Sidney LumetUntil he died I never saw this quote. I cannot offer anything better by way of characterizing the kind of filmmaker Lumet was, or why a few of his movies stand out as essential viewing for me.
Through only a handful of titles, he helped influence my way of regarding films, and my attitudes of the world as well. The quote by Lumet, describing the potential of film and the responsibility of serious filmmakers, summarizes my own view, word for word.
Maybe that's why I have always been unusually drawn to the satisfactions offered by the movies he made. Lumet was not known for a particular style of film or for a recognizable cinematic technique. I will remember him for the kinds of subjects he would tackle, subjects that forced me to examine myself and the larger world.
Lumet never won a competitive Oscar. Every time he was nominated, another film captured the popular imagination more. He wanted to win, badly, and believed he deserved to on a few occasions. Maybe it was his devotion to New York that made him an outsider in Hollywood, where he never worked. Maybe his films bore the sting of truth, and voters were uneasy singling out his movies for the top award because they were unflattering to themselves.
When I reviewed Lumet's Filmography after he died, I discovered that out of the 45-or-so pictures he directed, I have seen maybe only a dozen, at most. Of those, there are a few that are part of the grammar of my life, and are essential viewing. I will briefly list these below, with an extended look at what I believe is Lumet's most important contribution to modern filmmaking: "The Pawnbroker."
It could be my memory of seeing this film at the Chicago Theater, an old movie palace that is now a live theater venue, that keeps this fondly in my list of top Lumet movies. The awesome surroundings of the theater added to the mystique of this Al Pacino Oscar-nominee, the true story of Frank Serpico, an honest, hippie-like New York cop who endured a gunshot wound to the face and lived to stand up to corruption in the police force. Pacino was animated and likable, one year after his brooding first round as Michael Corleone. I still remember the music by Greek composer Mikis Theodorikis. Lumet's camera was alternately down-and-dirty in the New York streets and admiring of its protagonist. I loved Pacino's portrayal, and his Serpico poster portrait graced college dorm rooms for years.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974):
A departure for Lumet in subject matter only, as he deftly kept things lively aboard a stranded European train in this delightful Agatha Christie murder mystery with Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot. What was not new to Lumet was his incredible facility with top actors, and this was an all-star cast: John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Michael York, Sean Connery, Jacqueline Bisset, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, Martin Balsam, Laren Bacall, Richard Widmark, and surprise Oscar-winner Ingrid Bergman (her third!). On the surface this was a breezy and suspenseful exercise in film craft and ensemble acting. Geoffrey Unsworth's masterful photography and the music of Richard Rodney Bennett carried this along until the mystery is solved...and a moral dilemma is left to ponder.
DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975):
It's sad that almost a year ago to the day, I highlighted this film in connection to the death of its outstanding Hollywood film editor, Dede Allen. This is classic Lumet: a true story of the New York streets; characters in extraordinary circumstances; a protagonist who is an obsessed loner; a moral quandary; an entertaining and important subject done well by a crack screenplay; and actors given the support and direction they needed to perform at their peak. At the heart of the film is a relationship between two men, one of whom will do anything to secure the money needed to effect their eventual marriage. This was gripping, exhilarating, and way ahead of its time. Pacino, again turning up the heat, and Chris Sarandon (Susan's ex) as Leon, Pacino's "wife". John Cazale makes an iconic appearance too.