The man behind such memorable movies as Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men, Serpico and Network has died at the age of 86. We look back at ten films that proved Sidney Lumet was a true original - a man who shied away from Hollywood but still earned its respect, and was beloved by the actors and writers he worked with...
“It explodes like 12 sticks of dynamite!” screamed the ads when the film arrived, ushering Lumet’s transition from live TV to filmmaking. Writer Reginald Rose based the original television play on his own jury experiences and Lumet took his already impressive character studies and made one of the most compelling first films in cinema history. Featuring solid, sweaty, nervy performances from the likes of Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb, it ratchets up the tension without needing special effects, unnatural sounds or artificial trappings. Racial issues come frothing to the forefront, and the cinematography keeps you gripped.
Lu-memories: “Henry Fonda didn't like to watch himself in dailies. But he sort of had to, since he was the producer,” Lumet told EW in 2008. “So, on the first day of dailies, after about 20 minutes, he leaned forward, squeezed my shoulder, and said, 'It's brilliant,' and never came back again...”
Playwright Eugene O’Neill poured frustration, despair, anger addiction and parts of his own life into this story, which unravels in one, long summer day in 1912. We’re introduced to the Tyrones, a family of actors and other creative types whose long-simmering tension boil over into tragedy. Amazing work by Ralph Richardson, Katharine Hepburn and a young Dean Stockwell are powered by Lumet’s keen direction and his faithful adaptation of the play.
Lu-memories: “There was no screenplay,” Lumet told interviewer Dale Luciano in 1971. “I used the text of the play. Of the 177 pages, we cut 17. The cuts were made during rehearsal when we found out what we no longer needed.”
Cold War tensions heat up thanks to a technical error that sends American bombers soaring towards Moscow. Can tragedy be averted? Crafted without using a note of score, the film uses the talents of Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau and Dan O’Herlihy, among others to offer up real power with the minimum of fuss, something of a Lumet trademark. Fail-Safe ultimately suffered from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove arriving before it (as demanded by the director), but it remains a compelling experience. And such was the impact of Lumet’s work,
Lu-Memories: “Fail-Safe was chosen to help launch a new film company on tight budgets,” Lumet told Robin Bean in 1965. “We felt that kind of anti-war piece had a tremendous value. And we felt it could make money because the book was an enormous bestseller in America.”
Scoring Oscar nominations for Al Pacino and writers Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler (working from Peter Maas’ book), Serpico is Lumet in classic, cracking New York form. Pacino stars as the honest cop rooting out corruption who finds out that maintaining his initial idealism takes a terrible toll on him and those around him. Power and pain collide - and it’s a true story, to boot.
Lu-Memories: “I replaced John Avildsen four or five weeks before it was supposed to start shooting,” Lumet recalled to Entertainment Weekly. “We had to get going right away because Al was lined up to do The Godfather: Part II afterwards. When he heard I wanted to do two weeks of rehearsals, he got excited, because he's a theatre guy. With Pacino, the talent is so extraordinary. But it breaks my heart. He's one of those actors who, if the scene is about anger, he has to stay angry all day. I mean, off camera, over lunch, everything. You pay a price for that.”
Lumet teamed up with Pacino once more for another stone cold classic (and another story that was mostly based on truth) that this time found the actor on the other side of the law. He’s Sonny Wortzik, a bank robber with a desperate need to find the cash to pay for his lover’s sex-change operation. But the heist turns into a circus when the police surround the bank and Sonny starts threatening the hostages as his only leverage. Like most of the director’s films, the focus is on character, and this one works brilliantly.
Lu-Memories: Al was terribly nervous about doing Dog Day Afternoon,” Lumet told EW. “I don't think any major American star had played not only a gay guy but a gay guy who's in love with a man getting an operation to be a woman! The night before we started rehearsals his hands were shaking. He was ready to quit. I was nervous that this thing would be showing in Brooklyn on a Saturday night and some guy would shout ‘Fag!’ at the screen. The only way to prevent that was to be so true to these characters that everybody couldn't help but get swept up in the movie.”
It says something about Lumet that you can choose from many films when selecting his best work. Network at least has the most resonance, as Paddy Chayefsky’s withering takedown of American TV news and public attitudes would today be looked upon as a documentary. TV anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) implodes on air, and his colleagues decide to capitalise on him, turning him into something of an angry messiah. Despite its blistering intelligence and superb performances, it lost the Oscar that year to Rocky.
Lu-Memories: “Chayefsky was so prescient. Everyone was saying we were going to take it all. And on the flight out to LA, he said, ‘Rocky's going to take Best Picture.' And I said, 'No, no, it's a dopey little movie.' And he said, 'It's just the sort of sentimental crap they love out there.' And he was right.''
Despite his affinity for writers and their craft, Lumet rarely wrote his own script. But this Oscar-nominated collaboration with Jay Presson Allen found the director channelling some of his favourite obsessions – New York, police officers and corruption. Prince is a much deeper film than it first appears, exploring the compromised personalities and moralities of the officers involved and digging out gut-wrenching work from the likes of Treat Williams and Jerry Orbach.
Lu-Memories: ''I don't consider myself a writer, but there are certain worlds I know. Cops, corruption, courtrooms. When you're in a courtroom, you've already got your antagonist and your protagonist. You don't even need any exposition. Also, especially in criminal trials, the stakes are so high!”
This raw legal drama hinges on one of Paul Newman’s greatest performances. He stars as Frank Galvin, a washed-up lawyer who sees a chance for redemption by ensuring that a medical malpractice lawsuit doesn’t drift to an easy settlement. But it’s not just Newman’s film - there’s fine support from Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden and James Mason, among others. With his sure touch and natural aptitude for directing actors, Lumet got the best from everyone.
Lu-Memories: ''I took three weeks of rehearsal because I thought the characters were complex and Newman had told me that he was beginning to have some trouble remembering his lines. At the end of the second week, we were driving home together and he said, 'I feel like there's something you're not telling me.' And I told him that I thought he was butting against a wall with the part, that there was something about this guy he didn't want us to see. I subsequently found out that he had had a drinking problem as a young man and it was the booze that gave him trouble with the character. But Newman, to his credit, eventually said, 'F**k it, I'll let it all show.'”
A personal favourite of Lumet, Daniel was adapted from E.L. Doctorow’s novel, which was inspired by the real-life case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed in 1953 after being found guilty of passing classified nuclear secrets to the Soviets. Doctorow’s book and Lumet’s film instead focuses on the fictionalised Isaacson family, flitting back and forth in time to show the parents (Mandy Patinkin and Lindsay Crouse) and their grown children (Timothy Hutton and Amanda Plummer). A meditation less on the guilt of the original case and more on the effect such events can have on the offspring.
Lu-Memories: “It’s a political film, but I feel the best way to get at it is through the human level,” Lumet said while he was making the movie. “I’m not interested in agitprop or poster art. I know that politics is not about victories. It’s about a constant lifetime struggle because you feel a certain way about what the function of government is.”
Lumet’s last film is a cracking crime drama that has two brothers – Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke – pulling off a robbery at their parents’ jewellery store that goes catastrophically wrong. With echoes of the director’s past glories, it also boasts some excellent work from Hoffman, Hawke, Marisa Tomei and Albert Finney, which conspire to make the story a heart-wrenching finale to an amazing career.
Lu-Memories: “I sent the script first to Philip, one of the finest actors in the country, and I gave him the choice to play either brother: Hank or Andy,” Lumet said in an EW interview. “Then I sent it to Ethan. And Ethan said he wanted to play Hank. I was surprised, because Hank is a weak character, and most actors are afraid of that. But Ethan had this image of how to activate a weak man. He's always in motion. I preferred Andy to be older, to be the influence on Hank, pushing him. So I called Philip back, and he said, ‘Great.’ That simple.”