Sidney Lumet has made some of the best American films of the past half century (including Network, a personal favorite of mine), but most people would be hard pressed to recognize his name. This is because each of his films contain vastly different techniques. But his films are linked in their characterizations of people. Lumet took a Steinbeck approach to his characters, focusing on the working men who were not able to make an honest living due to the constraints placed on them.
Lumet left behind some true classics that are still ranked as some of the greatest films of all time.
His first film, 12 Angry Men (yes, that was his directorial debut – it’s the equivalent of a rookie player hitting a grand slam at every game) is still cited as the greatest courtroom film of all time. It has never been equaled as a film, nor has it been equaled in terms of rebelliousness. After all, the open minded attitude of the film has certainly gone beyond the screen and has probably influenced many defense attorneys working today. Sotomayor even went as far to cite the film as an inspiration in her confirmation hearings.
Lumet spent his career showcasing misunderstood anti heroes who were not the most decent role models. Most of them were not even good people. Network’s Howard Beale is literally insane and Dog Day Afternoon’s Sonny Wortzik cheats on his wife (with a man). But they also seemed to possess a hidden knowledge that made them irresistible to audiences. Plus, they were the only ones willing to stand up to a system that had driven them (and many others) to insanity. Both are among the best films of all time, because of Lumet’s ability to expose these fascinating character’s motivations. They feel like people everyone knows, and thus their plights become that much more important to us.
Sure, not all of his films were great. The Wiz was a bomb that damaged Lumet’s career, and his work throughout the eighties needs not to be mentioned at all. He even went back to work on television (with the fairly well received 100 Centre Street) but that hardly matched up to his previous work. Lumet seemed at a loss. His reputation was already written in cement, but it did not seem as though he would find anything that took advantage of his talent.
Lumet’s career also ranks as one of the Oscar’s greatest embarrassments. He was nominated four times, but never won – to the point where he was beaten by John G. Alvidsen (director of The Karate Kid III). He did receive an honorary award in 2005, but after decades of neglect, it almost felt as though it had come to late. By that time, Lumet had been struggling for a decade to match his previous success, and had been all but forgotten by the Hollywood community.
But in the end, Lumet had the last laugh. 2007’s Before the Devil Knows Your Dead ranks among his best films, and once again shows him experimenting with his craft. It feels like a fitting farewell from Lumet, who managed to show the world that he still had something to say rather than just relying on his old tricks. That is the mark of a true artist – someone who is constantly evolving, looking for new stories to tell, but manages to keep their own style intact. He wanted to make sure that everyone knew how good he really way.
Rest in Peace, Sidney Lumet. There will not be too many people who can equal your talent or your influence.